LARAMIE, Wyo. — Robert Sternberg said his father's dream was for him to someday take over the family's second-floor, walk-up button store in Newark, N.J.
The son didn't fulfill his father's wish.
He earned a scholarship and went to college instead.
"There wasn't much of a future for second-floor walk-ups in Newark," Sternberg said.
He pursued academics, earning a bachelor's degree in 1972 from Yale and a Ph.D in psychology in 1975 from Stanford.
He is a first-generation high school and college graduate.
Sternberg, 63, hired last month as the University of Wyoming's 24th president, said his past has shaped his interest in helping students better prepare for and succeed in college.
"I was not so terribly well prepared for school and certainly not for college," he said. "I find it exciting to serve students for whom the university can make such a meaningful difference.
"College made me what I am, and UW can do, and does, the same for so many students."
Sternberg, the provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University, was chosen as the successor to retiring UW President Tom Buchanan.
His resume also includes positions at Yale and Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
The new president takes office July 1 and is scheduled to visit campus in coming weeks.
UW Board President Dave Bostrom described Sternberg as a "great fit for UW and Wyoming" and an administrator who will "build on the excellent leadership" provided by Buchanan over the years.
Sternberg said he interviewed for several presidential positions, but withdrew from consideration because he didn't feel the right "fit" or "match" for himself and his family, wife Karin and 2-year-old triplets Samuel, Brittany and Melody.
Wyoming, "the most beautiful state in the country," was the family's desired destination, he said.
Years ago, as a professor, Sternberg made a presentation at UW. The school and Laramie left an impression.
"Wyoming has great people, friendly people with a pioneer spirit," Sternberg said.
"I have been in all 50 states. Any number of them have too many people who are mostly into themselves rather than wanting to look out for and help others.
"People in Wyoming don't just care about themselves. They look out for others and for their state."
The university's status as a land-grant university corresponded with Sternberg's belief in land-grant missions.
"UW takes its land-grant mission seriously," he said.
"Some land-grants have forgotten their roots and have become more concerned with magazine ratings than with fulfilling their mission.
"Magazines don't care about the land-grant mission. UW does."
Other university traits that appealed to Sternberg include the school's "distinguished" faculty and staff; "loyal" alumni; "superior" academic programs; and a "competent" governing board.
Terms of the new president's contract are being finalized, but he will have a three-year contract with a $425,000 per year annual base salary, UW reported.
Sternberg said he hopes his stay at UW extends beyond the contract terms.
"We have always wanted to live in Wyoming," he said. ". We are hoping that this move will be forever. I want to retire and continue to live with my wife and kids in Wyoming.
"I would hope, if things go well and people like what our team does, that I would stay 10-12 years as president and then retire. We'll see."
As university president, Sternberg becomes one of the most visible public figures in Wyoming.
He said he'll approach the prominent role with "humility" and attempt to move the university forward by emphasizing teamwork.
Again, a humble upbringing shapes his outlook.
"I came from a less than well-off family and when I was young, I did poorly on IQ tests," he said.
"My teachers thought I was stupid and so did I.
"I think good leaders are humble leaders and realize that, by yourself, you can get exactly nothing done. It's always about the teams with which you work and the people and institutions whom you serve."
The search for a new UW president, which began in fall 2012 after Buchanan announced his retirement, included legal proceedings after media outlets opposed the university board's decision to conduct a confidential process.
UW later made candidate names public.
Given the court's involvement, Sternberg concedes the outset of his presidential tenure is likely to be under closer scrutiny.
"I believe in transparency and openness," he said.
"But, presidential searches should be confidential. . That said, I understand there are different views on this matter and that some of the media do not share my own views on it.
"The world is better for the diversity of viewpoints within it."
Sternberg said he has lofty aspirations for UW and won't be satisfied with the status quo.
"Many universities feel like they have arrived," he said. "They rest on their laurels and are in maintenance mode.
"They say they want to become better, but mostly they are content just to appear to change rather than actually change. Wyoming wants to become the No. 1 land-grant university in the nation, and it will."