Fifteen Minutes: Sterling Silver: Harvard's political darling rules his national administration

S o he didn't manage to become the most powerful--or at least most quoted--student at Harvard by becoming the president

So he didn't manage to become the most powerful--or at least most quoted--student at Harvard by becoming the president of the Undergraduate Council. That's quite alright, because the UC isn't even the favorite extracurricular activity of Sterling Price Adams Darling Jr. '01. With a Southern drawl and strict no-jeans policy, he seems suited for cotillions and cotton plantations, not a throng of 1,700 Latin students who laugh at his name, tell and retell legends about him and hang on his every necktie--but that's where Darling most wants to be.

     This Darling wonderland is the annual convention of the National Junior Classical League (NJCL). It was in this organization of 56,000 high school Latin and Greek students that Sterling first savored the thrill of running it all, or at least appearing to. Now, in the National Senior Classical League (NSCL), college students who also flock to the NJCL convention to "feed the JCL addiction," Sterling and his suits still reign.

     In an association of devotees, where at least 1,500 faithful gather annually at college campuses in places like Kansas, Indiana, North Dakota and Oklahoma, all for the love of Latin, Darling is ostensibly among the most devoted. He started studying Latin his sophomore year at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, and in typical Harvard-bound fashion, he skipped Latin II. At his first Texas JCL convention, Sterling decided on a whim to run for the position of state editor. He beat his opponent, starting a winning streak of six JCL and SCL elections. His record includes being the National JCL editor, National SCL treasurer and National SCL vice president, in addition to the relatively unimportant role of Massachusetts SCL vice president (twice). "I have a great time campaigning and organizing," he shrugs. "It's really what I enjoy doing."

     What the people he governs enjoy doing is having some fun with virtually every aspect of Darling--his name, his attire, his propriety, his frightening similarities to Charles Benjamin "Ben" Watson Jr. '03, a recent National JCL president. An ever-growing corpus of "Sterling lore" circulates throughout the JCL and SCL. "Sterling is deathly afraid of drag queens," writes Brian W. Compton, a fellow SCLer. He knows this because at the 1997 National JCL convention in Fargo, North Dakota, he was one of a group of male SCLers who donned Spice Girls garb and serenaded Darling in front of a huge audience. "Should I be afraid?" Darling asked Compton during the routine. Compton replied that he should be, although Sterling to this day insists, "I'm not afraid of drag queens!" He explains that he posed the question only because the Spice Girls chose to perform behind him on stage, not affording him the opportunity to find out what was happening.

     And then there was the time, also in Fargo, when he sold for around $200 in the "Rent-a-Roman" auction. His owners' first wish, according to legend, was for him to wear jeans for a bit. But the Briefcase Tale is the most oft-told Darling anecdote. Wherever he went in Fargo, Darling was incomplete without his briefcase. Speculation swept the convention about what could possibly be so dear. The secret was revealed at a workshop run by Darling. NJCL publications chair Steven E. Gentle writes, "Sterling for some reason actually had to open his briefcase." Save for a few pens or pencils, "It was empty," he syas. "All this time I thought he was carrying the launch codes for the U.S. nuclear arsenal or something."

While Darling may have to wait to win election to a real-world government office before he can fill his briefcase with anything of importance, his younger brother is ahead of the game. Howard Keith Adams Darling is continuing the family tradition of attending West Point, a tradition which the elder Darling perhaps didn't follow because of a professed lack of interest in athletics. Tradition is crucial in the clan; some ancestors arrived in America via Jamestown in 1607, and before relocating to Texas, the Darlings were a "landed family" in South Carolina and Alabama. The name "Sterling Price Adams Darling Jr." is itself an heirloom, not a pseudo-WASP creation of his parents. It's no wonder that the modern day Darling looks and acts like a relic from the antebellum South. "I don't even own a pair of jeans," he blithely asserts. He tempers that statement with the admission that he did own one pair sometime in high school "as like a club uniform or something." Avoiding casual wear "is not a comfort issue," he maintains; he is just as happy in his usual tailored slacks, ties and button-downs.

     Only his behavioral code rivals Darling's dress code in formality. Arianne L. Baker, who has served on both the NJCL and NSCL executive boards with Sterling, recalls the lengths he would go to legitimate himself when he called her house regarding NJCL business. "He would always tell my parents exactly who he was and why he was calling, and then when I answered, he would tell me again that it was 'Sterling Darling, NJCL editor, calling from Texas.'" The two of them had already known each other for many months. Neha N. Patel served on two executive boards with Sterling and can remember an even more extreme example. "We (six girls and Sterling) decided to go to one of our hotel rooms to work on amendment stuff, and Sterling...well, he didn't want to come in at first, because he was uncomfortable...And then he wouldn't sit anywhere but the floor." Sterling adds that he then asked if they should keep the door open. Was he afraid that his six female co-officers would fall on him and rape him? "I don't know," he replies. "I was nervous that there weren't any advisors around."

     This summer, Darling will be heading back towards the conservative country from which he first emerged for the national convention in Oklahoma. He keeps mum on the issue of whether or not he will seek the NSCL presidency, although he notes that usually the vice president does step up to the office. He would find ample support from all quarters except maybe the Massachusetts contingent. Some of the Mass. SCL officers responded to inquiries about Sterling with "Who's Sterling?" because they frequently feel abandoned by him as he charms his way to national classics domination. But most gush about his leadership abilities, politeness, conscientiousness and his ability to tolerate a joke. For the members of the JCL and SCL, the Southern-twanged, buttoned-up persona of Sterling P.A. Darling Jr. has joined figures like Hercules and Agamemnon in a new and improved version of classical mythology.