My Father’s Story

Grit

The Life of Bobby Jean Bernhardt

Born October 1929

 

I. A Hundred Years

When I was young, I made a promise to myself that I’d live beyond a hundred, and I’m not about to make a liar of Bobby Bernhardt. I’ve always felt that if you believe in something and stick with it, you can do it. Holding something in your mind’s eye like that gives a man the tenacity that less mindful men lack. I think that vow is why, today, I can look forward to many more years of living life to the fullest. And I think that vow is why, today, I can look back on the last 82 years of my life with a pride and gratitude that humbles me—the pride and gratitude of a man that has been blessed time and time again.

When we think about the concept of a hundred-year life, folks tend to focus on the sheer breadth of it. They tend to think about that hundredth year. Me, I think mostly about the days my life changed—the day I met an angel named Irene, and the day I made her my wife. But what about that first year, or even the first day of that first year, when it all began? It was a crisp autumn day in 1929 when Fern Morgart Bernhardt gave birth to me in a hospital in Marion, Kansas. The Great Depression was just starting to take hold of America, but I was born ready. While you might say that my wife Irene was born with grace, I was born with grit.

II. The Lessons Learned Early

I was the oldest of ten children. I had six brothers and three sisters. During my childhood we lived on farms outside Marion, Tampa, Ramona and Lost Springs, in Kansas. We always had a big garden and our own milk and meat, but we had few conveniences; truth be told, I don’t know how my parents got by. My father, John Balzer Bernhardt, was thin, quite short, but with a grit all his own. Raised in a family of all boys, he made us work, and we grew up as stronger, more determined people because of it. He was a good father. I learned respect, discipline, the value of hard work, and the love of family from my parents.

You could say that my father was a handyman of sorts. When the first Model T car had come out when he was young, he learned how to be a mechanic. Then, as the years passed, he diversified his skills more and more. I remember a time when folks would hire him to saw firewood with a portable saw he had made with a motor from a car frame. When the Works Progress Administration was launched in 1935 under the New Deal, he volunteered for one of its projects, though that only lasted a week or two. “I just can’t do it; I don’t want to be away from the family,” he said.

I can still remember a classic father-son moment when Dad and I took apart a Model A car’s differential. He told me to put it back together. When I did, I became frustrated because the rear wheels would spin in different directions when I turned either of the rear wheels. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, but when Dad saw it, he laughed and told me that it was the right way to do it, and that everything was working the way it was supposed to work.

My father was always the strict one, with my mother responsible for carrying out his orders. Discipline was different in those days, and I’ll never forget the eighteen inch strap that hung on the cabinet. It had a foot-long board handle attached to a leather switch, and when one of us boys misbehaved, my mother would use the leather end. When it was Dad who was disciplining us, however, he used the board, and one time was all you needed to know you’d never do it again!

Yes, my father was generally in charge, but when it came to suppertime, my mother took the reins. She would always see to it that we ate what was on our plates. She was born with a slight deformity in her hip, which left one leg six inches shorter than the other and gave her a limp. When she was young, she had started school, but the experience put too much strain on her hip, so she dropped out to be home-schooled. She did graduate with her class, though, demonstrating that she had a fire to her. That fire came out from time to time, like the day she and I were walking to the Post Office and I greeted a passerby by his first name. She scolded me, “You don’t call older people by their first name! He’s Mister to you.” She was a small woman, but the reprimand was correct, and to this day it is easier for me to remember the last names of people I meet, rather than their first names.

Though they put us to work, my parents made childhood good for us kids. I can still remember one of my first Christmases as a little boy—I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time. There were six of us then, four boys and two girls. That Christmas morning, we woke up to find two wagons waiting for us, one painted red and the other painted green. I don’t know where my father found those wagons, but we loved them.

Religion was sown into my skin before I was born, and though our farm was too far away from the church to permit frequent attendance, we went every Christmas and Easter, and our beliefs were an important cornerstone in our daily lives at home. I remember being taller than the other children at church, and having the feeling that I was too big. This early boyhood self-consciousness surfaces even today, at 82, when I still find myself occasionally anxious with the sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s funny, the things we carry with us.

Growing up in Central Kansas, softball was a big thing for community. When I was a boy, all the kids living nearby would come to our place in the summertime to play it. There was an assortment of city teams that competed viciously with one another—all in good fun, of course. I was always one of the better players, known for my curve balls and fastballs. But my key pitch was the riser, catching the batters off guard when I’d throw the ball in such a way that it would rise on the way to the plate. It was an expert move that would serve me well for many years to come.

Even in those early years, it was clear I was meant to be working with my hands. While I excelled in sports, I was mediocre in the classroom, especially struggling in sixth grade when World War II was just breaking out and Pearl Harbor was bombed. While I have forgotten most of my teachers, I’ll never forget that day. It was sunny and bright, and I was in school when we got the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a somber moment but I can remember feeling at peace about it, having a sense that everything would turn out okay. It’s interesting that I remember that historical event so vividly, and the only teacher imprinted on my memory was Mrs. Hammond, an elderly lady who taught me history in high school. I remember sitting in the one-armed student desk chairs, learning from her in her big horn-rimmed glasses.

I loved high school because I had the opportunity to work with my hands in shop class and because I played sports. I stuck to a strict regimen of softball, basketball, and the mile-long race in track. My classmates and I were quite agile and athletic, but with only five of us in the class during my senior year, we didn’t have enough players for a football team.

That year, for our senior trip, the Lost Springs High School principal and his wife splurged and took us to Colorado, and they paid for most of the trip. We were thankful for the experience, and though it was a bit cramped with all of us crowded into their two-seater vehicle for the drive to Denver, we enjoyed visiting the museums before school ended and life would take us down our various paths.

III. The One I Chose

I was eighteen when I left home to venture out on my own in 1947. With five brothers and two sisters at the time, the house was crowded, and it seemed like my place as the oldest to stretch my wings and move on. Our neighbor, Alvin Reimann, offered me a job on his farm in exchange for room and board, so I tried that out for a while before moving to Nebraska the following year to work for Alvin’s brother, Henry. We had heard you could farm quite a bit of land there, so we loaded up a truck with furniture and set out in 1948 for a new state and a new life.

I thought that new life started when I first set foot on the property that was to be my home, but I was wrong. It didn’t start until a little later in 1949, when I attended a church group called Luther League and met a girl—the girl. The Luther League held social gatherings once a month, and that’s when I started to notice that this slender, dark-haired young lady with sky blue eyes had a sweetness about her that I couldn’t forget. She was seven years younger than I, and when she graduated from high school, I fell in love.

The thing that most drew me to Irene Elizabeth Anne Wittig was her demeanor. She was kind-hearted and compassionate, and she was playful without being flighty. She worked in a hospital in Rushville, and it was clear that she cared about people in the most sincere and selfless way. Sure, I had dated other girls, but for silly reasons—that’s what young people do. But as I got a little older, values became more important, and Irene had a grace about her that is rare in this world. I could see that, and I knew I would love her forever for it.

Irene and I shared a sweet courtship until the Korean War intervened. The threat of the draft loomed before us, menacing and certain. “Irene, I said, “if I make it through the service, I’d like to marry you. And if I do, you’ll never have to work outside the home as long as we have young children. I wouldn’t allow it.”

It was hard for us to separate, but I finally made it to Kansas City for my pre-draft examination and volunteered my name in Marion, Kansas to be drafted at the next picking. Sure enough, they chose me. It was 1953, and I had worked for Henry for four years by the time I left.

I completed my medical basic training at Camp Pickett, Virginia—a relatively straightforward experience, save for the fact that our lives were systematized and disciplined 24 hours a day, seven day a week. After basic training ended, our time was freed up a little, but work in the classroom became harder as we broached more advanced topics. I was stationed at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Fort Riley, and once a month, we’d set up an evacuation hospital for about a week for training purposes, feigning the “front line.” As a medic who was 5 feet, 6 inches in height, the front line is where I would have been, had we been called overseas. All of us on the medic team were short, as taller people in front would surely draw more fire. It was a strange reversal of roles, considering my memories of being the tallest kid at church.

Though we were blessed to not be called overseas, we were ready. We worked hard, but we played hard too. The hospital administrator loved sports, especially softball, and in that sense, our passions intersected. I still had decent skills as a pitcher and was confident in my pitching ability, and we played all the time while I was in the Army, winning championships at Fort Riley two years in a row because I was the main pitcher. I was even hired to play for a team in Abilene, Kansas.

During that time, Irene went off to Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, to study administrative nursing. I’d drive up to see her whenever I could get away, whisking her into the town of Omaha on Saturday nights and treating her to our favorite delicacy, shrimp. In a sense, I hated the service, but I made the best of the circumstances, and visiting her lent its own special brightness through those years.

When I was released from the service and returned to Nebraska in 1955, I took up work on Henry’s farm again and remained there for another three years. He treated me like a son, and I looked up to him like a father. He offered to let me live on some of his land with the understanding that, if his landlord passed away, both of us would have to move. As a veteran, that’s how I was able to borrow money to start my own farm and begin living on my own for the first time.

Life has a sad way of changing suddenly, and a time later, Henry was killed in a tractor accident. But I still remember the opportunity he gave me at that crucial time in life, when I was really just a young man trying to start something great, and I’m still thankful to this day.

And though the Lord takes away, the Lord gives. I’ll never forget the day, several months after returning home, when I took Irene out and told her all about the new fishing bait I had just gotten, and how it was sure to catch me something phenomenal. I drove her to Walgren Lake, parked the car, got out, and instead of opening up my tackle box, knelt on my knee and pulled the bait out of my pocket—a ring. Sometimes it still gives me a shiver to remember that her answer was Yes.

True to my word, Irene would not have to work outside the home after our wedding. She dropped out of nursing school to focus entirely on the new journey we were about to embark on. People told her she was making a mistake, but she and I both knew better. “I got a better offer,” she would tell them with a playful smile.

IV. With Our Own Hands

The church was spacious, rural, Lutheran, and filled with guests on June 1, 1956. Words cannot describe the way it feels to watch the love of your life walking toward you, the aisle lined with goodwill, the air sweet with promise, the wood of the walls sacred and threaded with years of prayer, and our prayers weaving into them too—prayers that this new life, to be lived side by side, would be a good one. She made her dress with her own hands, and we would make our future the same way—with our own hands.

After we read our vows and were pronounced husband and wife, the gravity of that moment and all the happiness it meant for my life became real, and as I looked at Irene while we walked back down the aisle, I cried. To this day, I know that our marriage was God-ordained. I don’t know anyone who would have been more proper for me. Marrying her was the day my life truly began.

In that new life, Irene and I started off on a small farm near Hay Springs. It was a simple farm life, and even now, so many years later, that’s all I can really relate to. We continued our standard policy of attending church every Sunday, and I was a very active member of the community. I taught Sunday School classes in a nearby church and was active in the National Farmers Organization, to name a few.

Even in the beginning, I was looking toward the future, and I wanted to grow the farm. I told the landlords nearby that, if they ever wanted to change their renters, I’d like the chance to farm their land. In that way, I transformed the Bernhardt farm from a modest size to a farm of fifteen quarters, which was almost four sections of land, including my pasture. There was a time I had four landlords at once, and farming was a full-time job that relied on the efforts of each member of our family for success.

I think my landlords saw me as someone who worked hard and was honest and responsible. In fact, if I ever borrowed a piece of equipment or a tool, I would return it in better shape than when I had received it. My children would comment on this later and reminded me that I would return a truck with a full tank of gas or would clean and sharpen a shovel that I borrowed.

The Bernhardt farm raised wheat and cattle, and in our heyday, we had 500 acres of wheat and around 120 cows. For a single crop, we worked the ground for one year before planting and harvesting in the second year, and I put up my own hay as well. On top of all that, I raised hogs for many years, and I had almost 1,400 pigs each season. I put that practice to an end, however, when I read a book—The Curse Causeless Shall Not Come by Nord W. Davis, Jr.—about cancer and pork. Growing up, I had noticed that the one thing my father didn’t excel at was eating well, and it caught up to him when he passed away from a heart attack at age 56. My mother, however, didn’t pass away until 2002. It must have been that fire about her. I have that fire too, and I stoke it with a finely-tuned, health-conscious diet.

As our farm grew, our family grew too. Though Irene wanted me with her, I couldn’t handle being present for the births of our five children, and I didn’t take her to the hospital myself. It was a different time back then, and my excuse was that someone had to be home taking care of the farm and the livestock and the chores. After she began to have birthing pains I would take her to an intersection near the farm, where she was picked up and taken to the hospital. I fully admit that I was chicken about the process—I would go meet her at the hospital after it was all said and done. You’d think that, with all my medic training, I would have been tougher in that situation, but no. Perhaps it was because I loved her, and seeing someone you love in pain is something you can’t really train for.

Our first child, Donell, was born two years after we were married. So small, so trusting. When she was just starting to stand up, I could hold her up and balance her on my hands like a little gymnast. What is it you hold in your hands when you hold a baby? Time itself? A future, pre-planned or otherwise?. She would grow up to be active, popular, athletic. She had grit. She made sports records in school that were not broken until recently. She even played football, and when she would get the ball, everyone knew not to even try to stand in her way. Because of her, the town ended up deciding football was a bit too rough for girls, and it hasn’t been played since. I think you could say she had that fire about her—the same one her grandmother had.

Our second child, Gordon, came almost two years after Donell, and where his older sister gravitated toward physical activity, I could tell he always had his sights set on learning. He would become a successful business owner—generous, hardworking, and goal-oriented, with a love of helping people and an unshakable commitment to running his wealth management business with integrity and high ethical standards.

I’ll never forget a day he was in fourth grade when Donell, Gordon and Devonne were loading straw bales one autumn Saturday. I met them later in the day to drive the trailer of bales back home. Gordon was riding on the trailer with the bales, and I completely forgot that the trailer would shake when we crossed the cattle guard. The stack of bales began to collapse, and a few bales fell off onto the cattle guard—along with my son! The wheel of the trailer ran over his leg while he was in the cattle guard and gave him a compound fracture of his right femur.

When I got home, I realized he wasn’t on the trailer. Donell had been following in the pickup truck and saw him in the cattle guard. She pulled him out and rushed to the house to meet me. We called an ambulance to take him to the hospital in Rushville, where the nurses spoiled him.

Devonne was born just fourteen months after Gordon. She grew up to be hardworking, determined, and focused—a phenomenal mother and grandmother who earned her college degree in 2012.

Gloria was the next to enter the family, and though all of the children worked on the farm, she was a harder worker than most. Those currents of dedication would garner great success later in life as a leader and manager. She was shy but lovely, attracting a lot of attention from the young boys around town; kind and thoughtful, she would grow into the type of woman who would give the last dollar she had to someone in need. She has her mother’s grace.

Six years after Gloria, Barbara was born, the last addition to the family. I’ll never forget the afternoon Irene was cutting green beans she had picked from her garden, while I was loading grain in a truck. Suddenly, she came running to me carrying our little girl, not more than two years old and blue as all get-out. As luck would have it, I had learned just a week earlier how to dislodge something from the throat, and when Irene handed Barbara to me, I turned her over my arm and gave her a slap on the back. Thank God the bean popped right out; otherwise, I think she would have died.

Barbara would grow up to be much like her mother as well, warm and friendly to everyone she met. She would later become a great mother herself who inspires her children to give, getting her family involved with organizations like Meals on Wheels and 4-H. All the girls grew up to be wonderful mothers, and I’ve no doubt it is due in part to the wonderful mother they, themselves, had.

The children’s future success was mirrored even in the beginning by their pure spirits, strong morals, and burgeoning work ethic. They were all excellent tractor drivers and worked whole fields, even when I left them alone unsupervised. I could always trust that they were going to get the job done right.

Those long days of hard work in the hay fields were well rewarded when Irene brought dinner out for us, as she always did. We’d sit in the shade and have dinner together as often as we could—we were a strong, close family, and I treasure those times very much.

V. Softball, Strong Will (The Lessons Learned Later)

Softball was a constant theme throughout my life—so constant that the thousands of games run together in my memory, though certain moments stand out particularly strongly in my mind. For instance, I remember proving myself. When I first moved to Hay Springs there were several softball teams in the area. Irene and I went to nearby Gordon, Nebraska to watch some games one evening. One team was a team from Gordon composed of local farmers. They were beaten badly that night primarily due to poor pitching, so I approached them and asked if I could play with them.

“What do you do?” they asked me.

“I pitch a little softball,” I replied nonchalantly.

They wanted to see what I could do, so the catcher came over and I pitched to him. As the rest of the team watched, they all began to smile knowing that they were going to be much better if I pitched for them.

From that day forward, my reputation as a good softball pitcher continued to permeate Hay Springs—especially my commitment to have more than twice as many strikeouts as walks. Having a good pitcher on a team is key—it’s the spark that sets the team apart, and that’s what I defined myself as. The bonus for me was having Irene as my own cheerleader. What more could a man want?

There is nothing like the crack that rips the air when leather meets wood in that perfect intersection of muscle and might and skill. There is nothing like the byproducts of that intersection—the arc of the ball, the throng of the crowd amplified, the chain of events set into motion in accordance with the laws of the game. Softball, strongwill. These are moments I’ll never forget.

I’ll never forget the day I pitched at Fort Riley, and the other team’s batter sent the ball soaring backward over the catcher, over the whole stand. It landed behind the small bleachers and someone eventually threw the ball to the third base umpire, but just barely.

Just barely was all I needed. The home plate umpire threw me a new ball before the original ball was thrown in, but I wasn’t about to use it, so I waited until the original ball was returned. Our team was winning our own company division at Fort Riley, and was now in the midst of a game against the main post team. Softball and life are not only a matter of rules, or of aptitude, but also of self-definition—a matter of will. I saw my chance to define the game, and I was taking it.

I refused to use the new ball. The other team argued, saying I had to do what the umpire said, but my resolve was steel; the original ball was now in the field of play, so I had the right to use it. I waited them out and then the umpire agreed with me, and it broke their spirit. We played out the remaining innings, but the game had been won right there, in that moment. In the end, we beat them by a landslide.

Seared in our memories just as sharply as victories are moments of defeat. I remember, more than any other game, one in which I pitched fourteen innings. We were tied going into the fourteenth, but the other team got a run, and we couldn’t pull up. We lost two to one. I guess that measures the breadth of a man’s character—the moments we soar the highest, and the moments we sink the lowest. Pressing those boundaries can be hard, but it makes for a range of capability we wouldn’t give back for the world.

VI. The Giving and Taking

We worked hard on the farm, and I played hard on the softball field, but we managed to find time for some fun, too. Eventually, we bought a television set, and on Saturday nights, Irene and I would watch Gunsmoke and Grand Ole Opry. What we loved most, though, was playing cards. Many winters, a group of about ten families would meet at someone’s house every Saturday to play pinochle.

What I remember the most about our family was our insurmountable work ethic, and our insurmountable love. The Bible instructs us to never let the sun go down on an argument, but even that phrase was hardly necessary for Irene and me. I don’t recall ever having a single argument with her. She was always supportive, always loving, and I hope our kids remember me loving their mother all the time.

Yes, we were blessed. So much was given to us for so many years. But the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. It still surprises me how, in an instant, so much can be taken away.

Irene had just flown home after a week-long health lecture in Georgia, and Donell and her fiancé, Maurice Turnbull, went to pick her up from the airport in a neighboring town. Donell was driving, Irene was in the passenger seat, and Maurice was sitting in the back, when suddenly, their car collided with another.

“Oh, no,” Donell exclaimed—her last words before turning the steering wheel as the two cars careened into one another. Her neck was broken immediately, and she died upon impact. Maurice suffered severe injuries and had to spend the next several months in the hospital. Irene, as well, was rushed to the hospital, but she only had a cut on her forehead and another across the top of her hand. The true wound—the loss of her daughter—was one the doctors could never mend.

The shock, the sadness, the heaviness of that time—it was among the greatest hurdles of my life. Donell was to be married in only a few weeks’ time—the invitations had all been sent out.

I remember that the funeral was among the largest in the area. What is it you hold in your hands when you bid farewell to the daughter you once held in your hands? A tiny gymnast from long ago, a young woman who will stay a young woman, thin air. You hold a new future—reinvented and evolving, as it does every moment, defined as much by what is lost as it is by what is left. Irene and I were devastated, but we knew we each had a role to play in maintaining the integrity of our family. What love we had lost, we channeled around our other children, and we took pains to set the sadness within a structure that promised we would come out on the other side a family still.

VII. With His Protection

And we did make it to the other side. With such a strong belief in God and His protection, we couldn’t let even something so tragic as Donell’s loss break the strength of our family. We persevered.

When the kids had grown up and Irene and I had some time to ourselves again, we vowed to take a trip somewhere in the U.S. every year, and we did. We’d mainly fly to visit my sisters and brothers, and we made a point to spend time with my mother as well. Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, California, Minnesota. We flew to D.C. to visit Gordon, and we drove to Canada and saw the Great Lakes. I hated flying over large bodies of water, fearful that the motor might deteriorate and we’d be done for, but generally speaking, I loved flying. I loved it so much, in fact, that I even learned how to fly a plane myself when I was middle-aged. I’m adventurous, I suppose.

The sky wasn’t the only foreign domain I ventured into later in life. I had always told Irene that the shop was my kingdom, and the kitchen was hers, but when I started suffering from serious chest discomfort at age 39, I decided to change my diet, venturing into the one territory of the house that remained uncharted as far as I was concerned. I’ve been extremely health-conscious ever since and today I eat mostly fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. I’m in such good health that, when I asked my doctor at my last exam what I could do better, he was at a loss with any further advice. Irene almost never had a sick day in her life, either.

We had a lovely 50th Golden Wedding Anniversary in June of 2006, a perfect celebration of the love, family, and friendship that has always made our lives full. Several days later, however, Irene had a stroke, which required an operation. She wasn’t as health-conscious as I was, and to be honest, I regret not talking to her about a minor stroke earlier as I was told of an incident at a Garden Club meeting. After the surgery, we began taking walks together again, but she could only go about fifty yards before feeling so exhausted that she’d want to turn around. I resolved to carry a chair for her so she’d be able to sit down for a short break when she needed it, and before long, we had worked up to a hundred yards, and then to a quarter-of-a-mile, and finally a half-mile.

On one of those walks, I had gone several paces ahead of Irene before realizing that she had stopped along the road. The weather was sweet and spring-like, with a light breeze, and the leaves of the cottonwood tree nearby were rustling—talking. She was staring up at the tree, and several minutes passed. I asked her what she heard, but it was as if she were in a trance I couldn’t break. Even later, when I asked her if she remembered, or if she saw something, she wouldn’t say one word about it. Shortly after that, she had a major stroke and never regained consciousness.

Did she hear something that day? See something? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that, through it all and even now, she is in God’s protection and presence. Losing Irene was the other tremendous hurdle of my life, but my faith brings peace again. She was loved by many.

Irene’s mother, Margaret, was still alive when Irene passed. She was living in a nursing home nearby, and had been bedridden for several months. She would always pull me down to hug her—she was my mom-away-from-home. She passed away a couple months after her daughter, and I take comfort in the fact that three generations of Bernhardt/Wittig women are together now in Heaven.

VIII. Vital Signs

I am 82 now, but I’m still self-sufficient, learning, and strong. I still live in the country in Northwestern Nebraska, six miles north of Hay Springs, and it seems like if the world fell apart, I’d have everything I need here on my own farm to survive. If the electricity goes, I’ve got candles. I burn wood if I need to keep warm. I’ve got an electric pump and a windmill nearby that pumps water into the supply tank, all naturally. I’ve lived on the land and with the land my whole life. I don’t need anything else, and some people who stop by here say it’s Heaven. My wife was an angel, so that would make sense.

I usually get up around 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and go to sleep anywhere up to 11:30, which means I get between six and eight hours of sleep every night. Oftentimes, though, I wake up within four or five hours, and the only way I can get back to sleep is to pray. I pray for my children, for my friends, for wisdom, for understanding. I’m asleep again before I’m ever finished.

Usually I wear blue jeans, a good shirt, and a string tie that signifies Western culture. I like to wear a baseball cap and have several to choose from. I think I should be respectful and dress accordingly. In church, I dress up with a suit and tie—to me, it’s mandatory.

Now, I weigh about 140 pounds. I know I’d feel incredible if I’d lose a few pounds, but I feel great as I am. Sure, I’m concerned about my eyesight and prostate, as all men my age should be, but everything else functions fairly well. When my brothers and sisters see me, they can’t believe how trim I look and how active I am. I walk several miles each week.

Yes, I espouse the importance of health any chance I get. It’s my passion, and I’ve studied it thoroughly, both in the classroom and beyond it. In fact, I’m too busy reading about health or law to watch sports on TV. I loosely follow how the Colorado Rockies and the Nebraska Cornhuskers are doing, but that’s about it. I don’t have a favorite team, and I don’t watch baseball much. I’d rather watch a good softball game, or learn more about health.

I don’t care at all for newspapers, save for the local paper, where I write an article about health every now and then. I read all the health books I can get my hands on and have one of the best health libraries in the area, complete with books, DVDs, and CDs. I would say it’s worth between $3,000 and $4,000, as some of the books were written in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The books I most cherish are the ones written by some of the oldest doctors, which add unparalleled dimension and breadth to the library I’ve built over the years. I also have a list of about five medical websites that I check regularly, and I do a lot of online research and reading about health. I also have a list of about a hundred people I correspond with regularly via email regarding health and law. Even at 82, one might call me an avid student.

Considering the fact that I’d been a medic in the Army, a doctor once asked me if I had ever wanted to become a doctor myself. The thought had never crossed my mind, but to this day, I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think I could practice medicine and recommend the many drugs that are prescribed today. I do hope that someday there’ll be more natural hygienist doctors.

I also like to read good, clean jokes online, and I’ll send them out to my friends and family on occasion. I try not to send out any junk, although I might send a dirty joke every once in a while to a specific person if I think they’ll really get a laugh about it. Down the road, I may get an iPad, but I’m not sure. I only have a cell phone because the kids insisted on it. I live in too low a region and can’t use my cell at home, but the kids wanted a way to contact me when I go places. The minute I get out of here, I have my cell with me. I text a little as well, but not a great deal. I don’t like to, because the keyboard is too little. I do send out pictures, though.

What I really love is woodworking. I made two beautiful wooden caskets for my closest friends, who were like brothers to me. When people saw those caskets the night before the burial, they couldn’t believe they were homemade here in town.

IX. Whispering Pines

My other hobby is raising bees. Most people think it’s dangerous. When my eyesight was getting a little worse, I quit raising my own queens. At one time, though, I had about 300 hives. Since Irene passed away, I said, to heck with it—I’ll have around twenty to fifty hives and let it go at that. I call it the Whispering Pines Apiary. I order queens in from Texas and split them up, placing a new queen in each hive that needs one. I like to place my hives amongst dandelions and wildflowers, so each spring you’ll find me hoping the weather will be warm enough to coax a lot of blossoms to bloom.

I know two doctors with research experience in honey, and they say they’ve never tasted any honey better than mine. Whenever there are farmers’ markets, I go to the store to get store-bought brands, as well as those little-bitty taster spoons. I let my customers taste the difference between the store-bought honey and my own, and it’s never been a competition. I’d put my honey up against anybody’s. It’s straight from the hive to the jars, and for health, you will never find any better honey.

Besides the farmers’ markets, I sell the honey locally to whoever calls. There are signs on my pickup truck that say Honey for Sale. Call This Number… Whenever folks see that sign on my vehicle, I’ve got honey with me.

People love it. They’ll stop me and say, “Are you a beekeeper?”

“Yep,” I say. “Can I get some honey for you? I have some with me right now.”

They buy a quart or a gallon. There was once a gal who stopped me and said she’d like to buy some. She was on her way to California to see her mother. She took the honey, and on her way back through town later, she said that her mother had never tasted any better honey and wanted more. The gal had me deliver seven gallons to her in a town nearby and has been a customer ever since.

X. Now

Now, a good softball game is hard to find around here. This whole area doesn’t play it like they used to. They’ve moved into the slow-pitch game—the ball has to be a certain height off the ground before it’s legal. Frankly, it kills the whole game. Sure, everybody can play, but the best ones don’t stick around very long.

Now, I’m still a student of health and of law. I volunteer at two nursing homes and play ten-point pitch with the residents. I try to make their days better.

It’s in my nature to try to do good like that. Irene and I always taught our children the paramount importance of the ten percent rule, which means giving ten percent of what you earn to charity. Anytime you give liberally of your talents, knowledge, or money, you’ll benefit fifty times over—that’s just God’s way.

Beyond the ten percent rule, I’ve always been very conservative about money and taught my children the importance of saving it. As a result, none of them spend lavishly, and they’re all very generous to me now in my old age, which I appreciate. An important lesson about money came one day many years ago when Gordon and I were coming home from working in the hayfields, and a Native American Indian in a pickup truck stopped us in the road. He was in need of money to replace a damaged chain saw and asked if I would advance him some in exchange for a good deal on cedar posts for the farm. He didn’t have the posts with him, but I took him at his word and agreed. I never heard from him again, and there was no way to track him down, so I learned the lesson right then and there that if you’re going to buy something, make sure there’s a way to enforce the agreement.

Still, I didn’t let that sully my views of humanity, and of the importance of giving. I still give money every now and then, as we do in church, trusting that one should give even without a return, because the very act of giving renders that money blessed.

When the Lord takes me home, I pray it will be fast. I’m not going to have a disease—of that, I am confident. I’m trying to do what’s right, and I don’t worry about aging because I made that vow—to live past a hundred years. It’s a strange thing, getting older. My mind and my thinking aren’t getting any older at all, or so it feels, but when I look at my body, it’s a different story. Still, it’s a strong body, and I’m very active, walking at least three times a week. Sometimes I walk six miles into town. If it’s snowing, I use a treadmill, though I’ll still trudge the quarter-mile to the mailbox, which makes for excellent exercise in the snow.

Things are different now, but I’m happy. I’m thankful for my mind, for my strength, for the happy life I’ve lived and continue to live. And most of all I’m thankful for my greatest happiness—my family. They are my life’s greatest joy. Every one of my children has become an excellent adult, and I consider my biggest accomplishment to be that I instilled good values in them. They all have an incredible work ethic, so much so that one might say that if you have Bernhardt in your blood, you’re sure to be a workaholic.

It wasn’t all me, though. So much of their cultivation was Irene, and so much of the strong characters they have now comes from their own good sense and spirit. With children, you just have to let them find their own life. You can talk to them and say what you want, but it’s up to them to implement it. It’s up to them how they want to live their lives, and mine have each made the most of what they were given, and continue to give of themselves.

And now, they’ve given me thirteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They’re my pride and joy; in fact, if I had it all to do over again, I’d have my grandchildren first!

The secret to my success is my work ethic, doing what’s right, staying healthy, being honest, and having faith that there’s a God in this universe. I have a few years left till I’m a hundred and I’m free to meet Him, but I know—the blessings in my life have been too marvelous and too many for it to be otherwise.

Addendum: Bobby Bernhardt’s Guide to Living to be 100

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  — Genesis 1:29

One of the fundamental steps to a long, healthy life is converting your diet into one that is centered around natural, raw fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.

I fear, however, that all the pesticides and sprays are going to hurt us over the long haul. I eat organically as much as possible. The majority of the food I eat is raw, and as I strive to be a vegan, I eat meat only a few times a month.

Don’t smoke. After the age of 40, if you smoke, I believe you’ll start to lose a few teeth every ten years.

Along with smoking, I think of alcohol as the other worst “junk food” a person can partake in. It’s one of the greatest detriments to the brain there is. I believe Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can be cured, but it will take the introduction of more natural fatty acids into our systems to do it. The only two I’ve found are coconut oil and virgin olive oil. If, like me, you have at least one tablespoon on your salad each day, I believe you’ll dramatically decrease your chances of getting those terrible illnesses.

Six of my close friends got cancer, and their doctors all instructed them to go the chemotherapy route. Today, they’re all six feet under. I think if you have chemo, you may live a little longer, but your chances of a complete recovery are slim. The natural hygiene route, however, has a soaring success rate if you adopt it early enough. You can extend your life twenty to forty years if you change your eating habits. Your body has the ability to correct anything; it’s wonderfully made.

© 2012 Gordon J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to my father, Bob Bernhardt, and my three sisters–Barbara Wood, Gloria Bernhardt, and Devonne West for contributing their thoughts and memories to Dad’s story. And thank you to Emily Burns for taking those thoughts, organizing them, and crafting this story.

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The New Fiduciary Rule and Your Retirement Accounts

You may recall the dustup that happened last February, when President Trump announced by memorandum a delay in the implementation of the fiduciary rule for retirement plans, scheduled to take effect on April 10, 2017. This rule, created during the Obama presidency, required any advisor handling certain types of retirement plans–Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, and Health Savings Plans (HSAs), etc., for example–to adhere to the standard of fiduciary responsibility. This standard requires advisors to always make recommendations that are impartial and that place the client’s interests first. It also requires them to disclose any fees they are paid for rendering advice or guidance, as well as any conflicts of interest that may exist concerning their recommendations for client accounts. President Trump’s memorandum instructed the Department of Labor (DOL) to delay any implementation of the fiduciary rule until June 9, 2017, in order to permit “further study.”

In a May 23rd Wall Street Journal op-ed column, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta stated that while the rule will go into partial effect on June 9th, the DOL will not enforce any of its provisions until January 1, 2018, when the rule is scheduled to take full effect. This of course, may remind you of the question about whether a tree falling in the forest makes any noise if there’s no one there to hear it. Similarly, if the government makes a rule but doesn’t enforce it, is it still a rule?

In any case, according to the guidance provided by the DOL, when the rule does take effect, you may notice some changes in the type of service you receive with regard to your IRA, HSA, and certain other retirement accounts (401(k) plans are not affected by the new rule). For example, if your IRA is being serviced by a major brokerage firm, the person on the other end of your phone call may not be able to give you advice about how to allocate your assets in the account. He or she will still be able to carry out any instructions you give directly, but because most broker-dealers are not fiduciaries, they cannot, under the terms of the rule, advise clients with regard to their retirement accounts. In the same way, if you have been working with your insurance agent or accountant to manage your IRA account, they may no longer be able to give you advice, since many such service providers are not fiduciaries.

However, if you are working with a person who has the Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), you will not notice any changes in the way your IRA or other retirement account is serviced. This is because all RIAs are required to operate according to fiduciary standards. Clients of our firm have the satisfaction and security of knowing that our advisors are required to act in a fiduciary manner, and that all recommendations are made with the client’s interest foremost.

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Should You Have a Retirement Timeline?

Those who are working toward retirement often focus all of their energy on making sure their asset base for retirement is adequate and well positioned in the market. To a degree, this makes sense; when we are working, and especially when we are in our peak earning years, we should pay careful attention to funding our future retirement.

But how much time have you given to thinking ahead about the events leading to and during retirement?

Right now, each day when you go to work, you probably have some sort of plan for what you intend to accomplish that day. Maybe you’ve got a meeting with a potential client; you will probably run down your mental checklist of topics you want to cover in the meeting. Then, you will probably give some thought to what might happen later in the day: a report you need to finalize; a meeting you need to schedule; some data you need to check.

But what about when you retire? No longer will you have those daily meetings, phone calls, emails, or presentations. How will you organize your day? Do you plan to volunteer? Work part time? Travel? Spending a little time planning can take some of the stress out of those first days of retirement.

Similarly, you might consider a pre-retirement timeline: certain benchmarks or points of reference on the way to retirement that can help you make the transition into retirement with a sense of purpose and strategy.

40s: Do you have a financial plan in place? How does college for your kids fit into your long-term planning?

50s: It may be time to review your plan. Do you need to up your savings goals? Should you focus on paying off the house?

Mid-50s to early 60s: You will want to start learning about any special terms your employer has for separation from employment. What about your 401(k) vesting?

59 ½: You are eligible to make withdrawals from your IRA accounts with no IRS penalties. The same applies to withdrawals from SEPs, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and 457 plans. Certain rules may apply to these withdrawals if you are still working for the employer who sponsors the plan; you should check these out.

60: Your Social Security survivor benefit can start, but if you begin taking these payments now, the amount will be reduced permanently.

62: You become eligible for personal Social Security payments, though they will be reduced if you don’t wait until full retirement age (FRA).

65: You can sign up for Medicare; the window is from three months prior to turning 65 until three months after. Don’t miss this window!

65-67: FRA–if you were born in 1937 or earlier, it’s 65 and increases to 66 for those born 1938-1954. A birth date in 1955 or later means your FRA is 66 and a few months, and if you were born in 1960 or later, your FRA is 67.

70: You get the largest Social Security benefit if you wait until now; your benefit increases 8 percent each year you wait past your FRA.

If you are looking ahead to retirement, consider these timelines. They can help you do a better job of planning for and transitioning into a satisfying and well-funded retirement.

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College Planning for High-Net-Worth Parents

Many parents with good financial means already know about 529 plans: the tax-advantaged plans “designed to encourage saving for future college costs,” sometimes known as “qualified tuition plans,” according to the website SEC.gov. These plans, available in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, are certainly excellent vehicles to use for preparing for higher education expenses, since they permit accumulation that is exempt from federal and, in many cases, state income taxes. Furthermore, withdrawals from the account that are used for qualified expenses such as tuition, room and board, books, and fees, are also not taxed as current income. And the high contribution limits–some in excess of $200,000–allow parents with the financial resources to set aside enough to cover most of the expenses directly associated with their child’s attendance at a college or university. Finally, recent proposed legislation would strengthen the appeal of 529 plans even more, permitting their use for repaying student loans, which was previously not considered a qualified expense.

But are there other good options for defraying college expenses? Should high-net-worth parents be looking beyond the 529 plan in their search for college funding? Following are a couple of suggestions that can also offer financial help for higher education costs.

Don’t forget about merit-based scholarships. Because these are not predicated on financial need, but rather on the student’s scholastic and other achievements, they can become a major source of financial assistance. Often, however, high-net-worth parents don’t fill out the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, assuming that their financial resources will disqualify them for financial aid. The problem is that the FAFSA, or its counterpart, the College Scholarship Service (CSS) form, is required in order to be considered for most merit-based scholarships. So, parents, fill these forms out, by all means.

Many parents utilize the Uniform Gift to Minors (UGMA) or Uniform Transfer to Minors (UTMA) account to accumulate funds for college. These should be used with caution, however, since the assets in such plans, which are registered in the student’s name, can limit the student’s access to other types of financial aid that might otherwise be available. Sometimes, it is a good idea to “spend down” these accounts for uses like summer camps, prep school tuition, or even braces, and re-allocate the funds you would have used for such expenses to a 529 plan.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use the good, old-fashioned technique of direct negotiation with the college. Let’s say your child’s first-choice college isn’t offering quite as much in the area of scholarships or special grants as the second-choice school. You should tell school #1 about the other offer and give them the opportunity to match it. Many times, admissions counselors who believe that a student is a good fit with their institution will find money somewhere in order to remain competitive and insure the student’s enrollment. You can and should leverage the competition among college and universities for the most qualified students–it can pay off in lower costs for your child’s higher education.

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From Gifford to Hickman

Pvt. Jonathan Lee Gifford was the first U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.  He was killed just two days into the war on March 23, 2003.  Spc. David Emanual Hickman was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on November 14, 2011.  The Washington Post on December 17, 2011, said Hickman “may have been the last” U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.  After reading an article about Gifford and Hickman my sister, Gloria, was inspired to write the following poem “From Gifford to Hickman.”

 

From Gifford to Hickman
by Gloria J. Bernhardt
 
From Gifford to Hickman…and all those in between,
You fought bravely amid chaos and dangers unforeseen.
Twenty-one guns have sounded, the riderless horse walks on.
Fond memories are remaining. A nation’s child is gone.
 
Sons and daughters; fathers, mothers — broken hearts intertwined.
Hugs and kisses; their successes – major milestones left behind.
Your selfless gift — a life laid down; for fellow soldier, family, land.
Duty called — call was answered — no greater love hath man.
 
“I’m getting taller. I lost a tooth. I got 100 on my test!
Miss your pancakes and your tickles, goodnight kisses were the best.
Who will answer all my questions now? I’ve important stuff to learn!
You said you had a big surprise on the day that you’d return.”
 
“I talk to you at bedtime — after lights go out at night.
I told Jesus that I miss you…sure wish you could hug me tight.
When Grandpa says I look like you, Grandma starts to cry.
I’m mad that you’re not coming home…I need to say goodbye!”
 
From Gifford, to Hickman, through every soldier who has served,
Liberty’s fruits are savored and freedom is preserved.
We live freely due to soldiers, willing to support and defend
Our Constitution, our country — against enemies ‘til the end.
 
Sons and daughters; fathers, mothers — broken hearts intertwined.
Hugs and kisses; their successes – major milestones left behind.
Your selfless gift — a life laid down; for fellow soldier, family, land.
Duty called — call was answered — no greater love hath man.
 
“I had a dream the night before…you smiled and walked on by.
When I awoke, I thought it odd…it seemed like a ‘good-bye’.
I couldn’t put my finger on the dark cloud that remained,
When the phone began to ring…I knew my life had changed.”
 
“I questioned God, ‘Why MY child? Why do I have to lose?’
I imagined His response would be ‘If not your child, then whose?’
Your bright life flashed too briefly… seems He only takes the best.
I’m thankful for the time I had. For that I’m truly blessed.”
 
From Gifford to Hickman and every warrior who has passed,
The price you’ve paid bought freedom, but will we make it last?
Your last breath drawn for citizens in this country and abroad
Are we worthy of such gifts is known only but to God.
 
Sons and daughters; fathers, mothers — broken hearts intertwined.
Hugs and kisses; their successes – major milestones left behind.
Your selfless gift — a life laid down; for fellow soldier, family, land.
Duty called — call was answered — no greater love hath man.
 
“My world stopped spinning…I couldn’t breathe! Lord, how can I go on?
My days are all one midnight…but they say it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn.
I can hear you say, ‘I’m proud of you! I know that this is hard.’
What do I do without you here? What dreams do I discard?”
 
“I miss your laugh. I miss your smell. I even miss our fights.
No more messes. No embraces. It’s more ‘real’ late at night.
I saw you in a crowd today; but you vanished in the throng.
Wishful thinking changes nothing! I know my “rock” is gone.”
 
FOR Gifford, FOR Hickman…FOR all the fallen in between,
You’ve trudged through shadowed valley and joined heroes’ ranks unseen.
Upon freedom’s altar, we sacrificed our daughters and our sons.
Empty boots stand at attention. The flag is folded. Your mission’s done.
 
© 2012 Gloria J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted by permission.
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Seniors and the “Sharing Economy”

Uber, Kickstarter, TaskRabbit, WyzAnt . . . The names of these online enterprises may cause you to think of younger people–“hipsters”–sitting in a coffee bar, closely engaged with their smartphones and tablets as they use the above apps–or one of the dozens of others that are now available–to peruse their latest chance to make some extra money in what is being called the “sharing economy”–or sometimes, the “gig economy.” The idea is that by using platforms like Uber, Airbnb, and others, you can turn excess or underutilized assets–a spare bedroom or your car–into a profit center. Apparently, the concept appears to be working; according to a 2016 report in Time, 53 million Americans did at least some freelance work in 2015–more than a third of the US workforce. By some estimates, the sharing economy will be worth more than $300 billion, worldwide, within the next few years.

Surprisingly, though, the fastest-growing segment of participants in the sharing economy may be seniors–especially Baby Boomers who are starting to hit their retirement years. These aging entrepreneurs are taking advantage of platforms like GoFundMe, Care.com, Chegg, and others to augment their retirement income.

In 2015, AARP announced a partnership between its Life Reimagined program and Uber, the leading peer-to-peer ride sharing program, to recruit older drivers. With a combination of exploding demand for Uber’s services and older Americans either forced into early retirement or otherwise sidelined by the Great Recession, the idea was to produce a win for Uber, which needed more drivers, and for seniors, who typically own reliable transportation and had enough flexible hours to provide transportation for paying customers. Adam Sohn, vice president of strategic initiatives at Life Reimagined, said, “The sharing economy is offering people an opportunity to . . . be empowered to make money and be their own bosses.”

Seniors report generating significant incomes with platforms like DogVacay.com, which matches those willing to dog-sit in their spare time with pet owners who prefer not to board their animals with vets or other standard operations. Retired teachers can sign up with WyzAnt or Chegg to offer homework help, tutoring, or help with other educational tasks. Retirees with good handyman skills can reportedly make as much as $6,000 per month by creating a profile on TaskRabbit.com and getting paid for odd jobs like painting, simple carpentry, or even assembling someone’s new Ikea furniture.

But there are some unresolved issues and cautions related to the boom in the sharing economy. For one thing, the regulatory environment is uncertain, especially as tensions foment between companies like Uber and Lyft and standard cab companies, many of which are unionized. Also, with the anticipated rapid increase in the value of this sector, some increased government oversight seems likely. Second, many seniors are concerned about allowing unknown persons to stay in their homes, as with Airbnb. Because seniors are prime targets for scammers and other undesirable actors, such caution seems warranted, though some peer-to-peer platforms do require background checks for both service providers and consumers. Finally, the cost of wear and tear on assets–vehicles, tools, homes–and the providers themselves should also be taken into account.

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Controlling Healthcare Costs in Retirement

In a recent study of persons nearing retirement age conducted by Bank of America affiliate Merrill Lynch, two of the top worries of respondents were health concerns and the cost of healthcare. Seventy-two percent of those polled indicated that serious health challenges were the main concern, with the closely related issue of having sufficient resources to maintain a comfortable lifestyle without becoming a burden on their families.

The fact that health matters rank near the top of the anxiety list for those nearing retirement should not come as a surprise. For decades, healthcare expenses, along with the cost of higher education, have inflated at a more rapid rate than the core rate of inflation in the United States. And with the Baby Boomer generation entering retirement and beginning to make up a majority of healthcare consumers, this trend is not likely to change.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to exert some measure of control over your healthcare costs in retirement. Some of these are simple, common-sense matters, and other, more complex decisions may call for the aid of a qualified and trusted advisor.

  1. Take care of yourself. This may seem obvious, but it is an all-important first step. Without question, we have no control over our genetics and other factors that play a part in determining our general health as we age, but each of us can exercise good stewardship over the health we have. Appropriate, regular exercise, controlling your diet, and following your doctor’s advice–including taking any medication as prescribed–will help you conserve your health and spend less time and money on healthcare.
  2. Learn about any retiree health benefits offered by your employer. This option is less common than it used to be, but some larger companies make available certain benefits to their retirees. Coverage, if it exists, can vary widely, so do your research well in advance of retirement in order to take maximum advantage.
  3. Do your homework on Medicare and Medicare supplements. Medicare is the number-one health benefit for most retirees, but the coverage structure is complicated. This is an area where a trusted advisor can be of tremendous help, since the ins and outs of Medicare coverage can create a number of confusing choices with regard to which Medicare supplement insurance plan is best for you.
  4. Investigate Health Savings Plans (HSAs). If you are eligible for an HSA, you can make pre-tax contributions. The funds in the plan can then be used to cover eligible medical costs, now or in the future. Funds can accumulate to offset future expenses, since these plans are not subject to the “use-it-or-lose-it” provision of Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs).

One of the most important steps you can take, of course, is to simply be as well-informed as possible about your options for healthcare and related coverage. A recent study by Fidelity indicates that a couple retiring in 2014 could expect to spend $220,000 on healthcare during their retirement years. This makes advance planning, budgeting, and careful investment strategy all the more critical–now and later.

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A Tribute to My Mother

Grace

The Life and Legacy of Irene Bernhardt

January 6, 1936 – August 28, 2006

 

I.  A Flourish of Color and a Sweet Song

She was born like a flourish of color against the dismal grey milieu of the Great Depression, the grace of her presence like a divine promise that our country might soon emerge from its hard times with renewed life and vigor. Fair haired with deep blue eyes and a disposition as gentle and sweet as her countenance, the little girl came into the world just as she left it seventy years later—an angel. If love is patient and kind, and if love bears all things with grace and equanimity, then Irene Elizabeth Anne Wittig was love.

Margaret and Herman Wittig welcomed their daughter into the world on January 6, 1936, in Rushville, Nebraska. They brought her home from the hospital to their rural ranch-farm southeast of Hay Springs, a respectable town of around nine hundred folks. As war began to erupt in Europe and President Roosevelt struggled to revive the country, little Irene had already begun bettering the world in what small ways she could by bringing peace and comfort through her good-natured demeanor and nurturing presence. It was a practice that would thread through her life, constant as breathing and natural as sunlight.

On the Wittig farm, the family raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. The corn, wheat, oats, and hay grown in the fields were supplemented by a rich vegetable garden where young Irene would help her mother pick beans, carrots, parsnips, peas, kohlrabi, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The Wittigs never thought of themselves as wealthy, but their humble lifestyle was garnished with all the riches of their harvest, their stomachs filled and palettes satisfied by Margaret’s adroit cooking skills and Irene’s contributions as her tiny apprentice.

Indeed, life’s hardships had hardened Mrs. Wittig into a stern woman, but the sweeter side of her personality shone through in her cooking. Irene often helped her mother bake cinnamon rolls, cakes, and pies, picking up Margaret’s dexterity in the kitchen. In other walks of life, she mirrored the peaceful inclinations and quiet footsteps of her father, who saw to it that his wife and children were always cared for and happy. Sugar was rationed during World War II, and in watching her father buy 60-pound cans of honey from a Wyoming beekeeper so his wife could continue to bake, Irene learned the value of resourcefulness and self-sacrifice.

Just as the Wittigs cultivated a healthful bounty to nourish the body, they also cultivated strong characters in their children that centered upon faith, morality, and good will. They were patient and kind, teaching Irene and her brothers, Phil and Ed, to memorize Bible verses. If the Wittig children knew the words of the Bible by heart, they could rest assured that following their hearts would always lead them down the right path. Irene’s faith in God became so fundamental to her soul, in fact, that when she would suffer a stroke decades later, she was able to recite Scripture again long before she was able to produce common speech.

Though quiet and soft-spoken, young Irene was playful and full of wonder. She would coo with delight when her grandmother brought her a little straw hat or a charm bracelet after trips to San Francisco. She would giggle at her two grandfathers when one would tell her she should brush her teeth every day, while the other would tell her that brushing one’s teeth was dangerous. Both had spectacular teeth, and amidst the good humor, the little girl was quick to understand that there can be two sides to a story.

Along with her soft laughter, Irene filled the Wittig house with piano music. As she graced the air with gentle melodies, one couldn’t help but listen to the notes and realize that she was, above all else, a giver. She did not seek the spotlight, but instead projected it, radiating a pure and nurturing energy that encouraged others to be the best versions of themselves, and to enjoy life to its fullest.

A mind for music is often built for math as well, and even her older brother Phil had to work hard to keep up with her in class. The Wittig farm was three miles from the nearby two-room country schoolhouse, and the plains of Nebraska were often transformed into harsh, windswept terrain in the winter months. The thermometer would drop below zero, often to negative twenty degrees with forty mile-per-hour winds that chilled to the bone. Still, Irene and her two brothers would make the trek. Slipping jeans on underneath her dress to keep warm, she rode to school on her small black-and-white Shetland pony, Trixie, with a tenacious commitment to her studies that would eventually earn her the rank of salutatorian of her high school class. Before long, she had grown too big for Trixie and began to ride Beauty, the larger horse that Phil used to ride.

Irene’s childhood would not have been what it was without Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she had begun Sunday School at the age of four. Her cousin, Marilyn, was only six months younger, and the little girls loved to play games in the back of the church at recess during summer vacation Bible school. Nothing excited them more than having sleepovers at the Wittig farm, and at age nine, Irene moved only two miles away from her beloved cousin. The two would ride to church together on Saturday mornings and would perform up-tempo duets together on the piano—Marilyn on harmony, and Irene coursing out the sprightly melodies.

Party telephone lines and wall-mounted crank-up phones were common in rural areas at that time, and as Irene and Marilyn matured into young ladies, they were thrilled when their families decided to construct a “private” telephone line for their exclusive use. The best friends had their own number—a short ring, a long ring, and another short ring. They would chat about their days and about the 4-H Club, as both girls were members.

There was certainly a lot to discuss when it came to 4-H Club. Those days were long and grueling—after finishing their morning farm chores, Irene and her brothers would go into town, wash calves, and ready them to be shown at local fairs. Irene would also sew clothing, cook, and participate in speaking contests that tapped into the subtle competitive streak that sometimes shone in the deep blue of her eyes. She so excelled in the 4-H scene that she was named Sheridan County’s first 4-H Queen during her freshman year of high school. Phil was also crowned the county’s first 4-H King on that same day—November 26, 1949.

4-H consumed much of Irene’s attention and energies, but she was also an avid participant in her church group, Luther League. From an early age, the Luther League was fundamental in shaping her character, and she and Marilyn even traveled to Hastings, Nebraska as local teenage representatives for a week of leadership training.

II.  Goodnight Irene, the 4-H Queen

Some folks, they like their sugar

Some folks, they like their wine

Some folks love their music

And they sing it all the time

Irene, goodnight

Irene, goodnight

Goodnight, Irene

Goodnight, Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams

The jovial and spirited singing of Irene’s boy cousins came wafting through the window of the girls’ cabin as they strolled by one night for a serenade, and she and Marilyn giggled with delight. It was a Luther League camping weekend in Chadron State Park, and Irene was leaving the days of her childhood behind as she bloomed into a lovely young woman. With her days full of laughter, music, learning, friends, family, and community activities, time began to pass faster and faster.

Busy and popular as she was, however, Irene would still steal moments to herself in the evenings to read in the soft glow of the kerosene lamp. When electricity came to the farm, she would listen to the radio too. Her favorite pastime activity, however, was playing board games with the family. The Wittigs would spend hours dueling over Monopoly or Chinese Checkers, and Irene was a cunning pinochle and pitch player as well.

Christmas was among the most special times for the Wittig household. Christmas Eve church services were followed by a feast of Margaret Wittig’s oyster stew, which in turn was followed by the elegant Christmas fruit-and-nut bread that Irene helped bake. Each Christmas, Margaret would make Springerle, a special German sugar cookie. Before electric mixers, the eggs and sugar for the cookies had to be hand-beaten for an hour—a tiresome task that Margaret would delegate to her husband and sons. Baking Springerle thus became a tradition that brought the entire family together in the kitchen. After the men were done, Margaret and Irene would add the flour and other ingredients before rolling out the dough with a special rolling pin that would imprint lovely patterns and designs into the flattened dough. Margaret would cut the designs apart, separate them, and leave them to dry overnight before baking them the next day.

Irene and her brothers were growing up, however, and the close-knit days of the Wittigs were coming to a close as it came time for her to begin making her own way in the world. When she would daydream about what she might be when she grew up, Irene had had her heart set on being a teacher, but after a brief stint serving as a teacher’s aide, she found her naturally gentle demeanor averse to disciplining the children of others. Graduation day finally came, and after receiving her high school diploma along with her 42 fellow classmates, she instead enrolled in a two-year pre-nursing program at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, with aspirations to become an administrative nurse. Those aspirations, however, were soon to meet their match.

III.  A Better Offer

?gniddew ym ta ronoh fo diam eht eb uoy lliW

Marilyn held the letter from Irene—a full page and a half—quizzically, before realizing her mischievous cousin had written the entire thing backward. She held it up to the mirror and read:

Will you be the maid of honor at my wedding?

While the letter itself was a joke—a trademark example of the silly and sweet little things Irene would do to make others smile—Marilyn suspected that its message was no joke at all. Tall, slim, and shapely with a million-dollar smile that struck the boys weak in the knees, Irene had more than her graceful and good-natured personality to attract the attention of potential suitors. Marilyn, however, had never taken these passing romantic interests very seriously… that is, until Bobby Jean Bernhardt moved to town and joined Luther League. He was a dynamic, hardworking, 24-year-old farmer who felt that meeting the 17-year-old beauty was God-ordained, and she fell in love.

Their courtship was simple and pure. Bobby had enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Kansas but would get away whenever he could to visit Irene at nursing college in Nebraska. He would drive up to take her to dinner at their favorite Omaha restaurant. As the two grew more serious, Marilyn began to fear that their giggly schoolgirl days of constant togetherness were coming to an end, but the cousins managed to find opportunities to go on double-dates from time to time. Once, they even drove to Black Hills’ state park to see Mount Rushmore, with Marilyn and her date roaming around the Hills to explore while Irene and Bobby stayed behind in the car.

Later, the Wittig siblings were together in Phil’s car when Bobby met them on a country road and flagged them down. Delighted, Irene hopped out of one vehicle and got in the other, and Bobby drove them to Walgren Lake as he went on and on about some “new bait” he had gotten that was sure to help him with his next great catch. When they arrived at the lake, Irene leapt from the car and turned to him expectantly. Instead of pulling out his fishing rod, however, he sank to his knee before her, holding out a diamond ring.

The wedding took place on June 1, 1956, when Irene was twenty years old. She had spent weeks sewing the wedding gown herself—a lovely, long, formal white dress with full veil and train that rendered the purity of her spirit to all who attended. The summer air was made sweeter as the young lovers pronounced their vows in the small rural church, and as they proceeded down the aisle after the ceremony, tears of happiness filled Bobby’s eyes.

That “new bait” Bobby had offered forth that day at Walgren Lake landed him the best catch of his life, and thereafter, Irene gave up all plans of becoming a nurse. He had vowed she would never have to work outside the home as long as their children were young, and Irene knew she wanted to focus all of her energy on perfecting the art of motherhood and homemaking. People laughed at her readiness to abandon the nursing path and urged her to see it through as it might prove fruitful later on, but Irene didn’t bat an eyelash. “I got a better offer,” she said with a smile.

IV.  The Foundation of a Family

The newlyweds quickly settled into their life together, farming wheat and raising livestock near Hay Springs, and within two years, their daughter Donell was born. Donell was followed by Gordon in 1960, Devonne in 1961, Gloria in 1963, and Barbara in 1969, thus completing the small Bernhardt family. Both hardworking, God-fearing, and good people, Bobby and Irene formed a perfect union—he as a leader and protector, and she as a nurturer and supporter. She adored her role as a mother and cared for her children with a grace and innate adeptness at the role so pronounced it was as if she had been born to do it. She would sew and cook long into the night—stretches of precious stillness and peace that were only punctuated by the welcome interludes of one of her children getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Just as Irene had sewn her own wedding gown, she would also make a new dress for each of her girls every Easter. The loving practice called for many late night sewing marathons, but the loveliness of her daughters in their new dresses at church on Easter Sunday was worth it for Irene.

This act of dedication exemplified the kind of hard work and care that was so fundamental to the lifestyle of Bernhardt farm. Whether it was chores out in the field or around the house, the young family always put in a good day’s work. Irene herself would tend the animals and tend to her impressive garden, which measured twenty by a hundred yards and boasted many of the vegetables she had helped her mother grow when she was a child. The sweet corn, tomatoes, and kohlrabi were enlivened by a colorful cornucopia of flowers that lent a whimsical quality to the farm. Hollyhocks bloomed near the garage, and gladiolas and daffodils—two of Irene’s favorites—brightened up the farm as well. When Bobby and Gordon would return from the fields after a long day of hard work, they were often greeted by Irene as she pulled the weeds out from amongst the vegetables and flowers.

During and after those long days, meals were especially important occasions for the Bernhardts—a special time when the family came together to enjoy Irene’s exceptional cooking. She would put together her own ad-libbed recipes, and fried chicken and leg of lamb stood out as particularly mouthwatering highlights. Creamy soups, casseroles, cornbread—all were eagerly anticipated by Bobby and the children.

When the family would gather around the table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, each meal would begin and end with a prayer—an outward display of the deep faith that coursed through their family heritage. Not even the littlest child was permitted to leave the table before the closing prayer was said, demonstrating that theirs was a family united in faith and love. Above all else, and with her whole mind, body, and soul, Irene believed in God. It was from this immovable faith that her grace was derived, and that grace radiated through her voice and touch whenever her family members were sad or in distress. When Irene said, “It’ll be alright,” her children knew it was true, regardless of whether the problems they faced were big or small. Irene truly believed that, no matter what the trouble was, God would prevail and make things right.

This strong Christian faith was undergirded by an encyclopedic knowledge of and intimate familiarity with the Bible that Irene could share with her children whenever they needed advice. When they began leaving the farm to go out into the world and start their own lives, they would often write home to her with questions about things they were encountering. Irene would respond with a dialogue all her own—an interpretation of Bible verses and proverbs that never failed to inspire her children to be the best people they could be.

To Irene, being a good person rested on a foundation of compassion, and she never permitted her children to speak negatively about others. She abhorred gossip and always espoused the motto, “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, don’t say anything at all.” As well, Irene believed in joy just as deeply as she believed in respect and kindness. She was quick to laugh and had a delightful sense of humor—the same kind that compelled her to scrawl that backwards letter to Marilyn all those years before. She would look for jokes and stories in Reader’s Digest or on the Johnny Carson show to share with the family at mealtime, when she’d often begin laughing so hard she could barely speak. This would make Bobby laugh, and the children were quick to follow suit.

Nothing made Irene laugh more, however, than her children’s own antics. When she’d chop off the heads of chickens to prepare them for cleaning, for instance, the kids would cradle them in their arms pretending they were babies. They would then grab them by their wings and walk them around, laughing and playing. Irene and her children had a special relationship, and when Bobby would go out of town for meetings, she would throw all caution to the wind and take them downtown for the special treats like frozen pizza, which he normally forbade.

It wasn’t only Irene’s own children who were drawn to her. Recognizing in her the childlike innocence and lightness that they themselves possessed, kids were attracted to her innate glow. When they would look at her in church, she’d wink back, and once in the grocery store, a little girl even left her grandmother’s side and snuck her hand into Irene’s. Animals, as well, could sense the nurturing and gentle aura of her presence. When Irene would stroll through the barnyard, a loyal following of cats would follow along behind, and she would often stop so one or two special ones could hop onto her shoulder.

Just as she filled her childhood home with music growing up, Irene continued to fill the Bernhardt house with upbeat and fun piano medleys. She would always play the songs in a specific order, cultivating her own mini concerts that featured “Shrimp Boats (Is A-Comin’),” “Aba-Daba Honeymoon,” and Guy Mitchell’s “My Heart Cries for You.” She would weave in songs from earlier generations too—classics like “Red River Valley” and “Mairzy Doats”—and was especially overjoyed when the children would stand up and sing the lyrics. Never liking to be the center of attention, Irene left the singing to the kids when they had company, but when it was just the immediate family, she would join in enthusiastically as Bobby, never one to sing himself, enjoyed the melodic voices of his wife and children.

These voices sang especially sweet on Christmas—always a big celebration for the family, and one of the most treasured times of the year, just as it was for Irene growing up. Among her favorite songs of the season was “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” on Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. The site of the festivities would rotate between Irene, Phil, and Ed’s households, and every year they had a beautifully-decorated tree. Irene would keep the children’s presents hidden so well in the weeks proceeding the holiday that they sometimes wondered if they’d receive any gifts at all. Then, when she’d magically produce them on Christmas Eve, the children would laugh with delight.

Even on Christmas, the Bernhardts remained frugal and cost-conscious. As a lower-middle class family with five children to support, they had to keep a vigilant eye on their finances. Still, Irene made it a rule to always give ten percent of the family’s earnings to the church. Even on those particularly tight years when hail would destroy a considerable portion of their crops, Irene maintained a positive attitude that was firm in its conviction that things would work out, no matter how bad they might get. This commitment to optimism and generosity even in inclement conditions seeped into the consciousness of her children, and several still maintain the practice of giving religious tithers by donating ten percent of their income to the church today.

The ten percent rule spoke much to the values of the Bernhardt clan. They were sensible, down-to-earth, and had their priorities in order. Irene was never one to be bewitched by Hollywood or to idolize actors and actresses, but she did enjoy a good story. In the fifties, she and Bobby liked to cozy up and watch Gunsmoke and Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Later, they enjoyed Columbo, Perry Mason, and even the soap opera General Hospital. She liked James Stewart and Julie Andrews movies like The Sound of Music, but much more than being any sort of movie buff, Irene was an avid sports fan. Bobby had been a first-rate softball pitcher in his youth and won a number of championships while serving in the Army, but his wife’s enthusiasm for athletics seemed to surpass even his own. She loved listening to football games on the little kitchen radio, rooting tirelessly for her very favorite teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Denver Broncos. She loved baseball as well, always rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who later became the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her daughters didn’t care to listen to the games in their younger years, but Irene would get so excited that she didn’t mind listening alone.

Irene’s favorite sports player of all, however, was always Bobby. After they married, he pitched in local softball games, and Irene would go to each and every one, always rating his performance. She loved watching Donell, too, who was naturally athletic and picked up football in high school while also learning how to play the guitar Bobby had bought before joining the Army. The Bernhardts were very supportive of each other, and Irene was always her husband and children’s biggest fan.

V.  Right, Wrong, and Resilience

Like Bobby, Irene was always politically conservative and could be very impassioned and articulate if engaged in a political discussion, drawing on the skills she cultivated in her 4-H speaking contests as a young lady. Still, politics never played a big part in the discussions of the Bernhardt household. Instead, conversation and practices were more geared around an ethical, moral compass that granted the family an instinctive and inner conviction in knowing right from wrong. For instance, the Watergate Scandal, among the first political discussions the Bernhardt children can recall having, was put simply: what Nixon did was wrong.

Equipped with these strong internal senses of morality, the children did not often misbehave, but when they got out of hand, Bobby tended to be the family disciplinarian. Barb was too young to get too wrapped up in the sibling antics, and Gordon was always incredibly cognizant of rules and proper behavior, but the three other girls could sometimes get rowdy. Irene could certainly dole out punishment when necessary, but the children certainly had an acute awareness of which parent was more stern. While she never yelled or spanked, however, they acknowledged that simply knowing their mother was disappointed in one of them would have a tremendous impact in itself.

Perhaps Irene’s aversion to punishing and disciplining her children was because she loved them so deeply she would often take their successes or failures on as her own. Her most devout commitment in life, aside from her devotion to God, was the protection of her children from the hardships of life, and when one would encounter a serious obstacle, she would take personal responsibility by asking herself what she could have done differently as a mother to have avoided the outcome.

Among the greatest of these obstacles came when Donell was confronted with a teenage pregnancy and was counseled by a minister of the Lutheran Church to terminate the pregnancy. Irene and Bobby heeded the minister’s guidance but immediately regretted the decision to abort the fetus. Donell and her parents weathered the storm and emerged on the other side, deciding to transition over to the Church of Christ and finally settling on the Baptist Church as a better fit for their faith.

It is easy for a family to stay strong and united in good times, but it is the bad times that truly test the integrity of the glue, and when the Bernhardts came face to face with the accident that would define them, it became clear that Irene was that glue.

This accident came in November of 1976, a few months before Donell was to be married on February 12, 1977. Irene had just spent a week at a health seminar in Georgia, and Donell and her fiancé, Maurice Turnbull, picked her up from the airport that night. The three were driving home when, just over a hill on a country road, they were involved in a car accident. When the cars crashed into one another, Irene suffered a minor concussion and lacerated hand, and Maurice suffered serious injuries and spent months in rehabilitation in the hospital. Donell, tragically, was not so lucky. Her neck was broken in the accident, and she died immediately.

The tragic death of her eldest child was the most profound sorrow of her life, but Irene didn’t skip a beat in showing her love and affection to her other children. There were moments of incredible despair, especially the stormy night of Donell’s burial when Irene awoke and wept periodically throughout the night, feeling as though her lost daughter was cold and needed a coat. Drawing on the unshakable religious faith that had guided her through her whole life, however, she persevered and thereafter kept her sadness private, remaining a pillar of strength and unity that kept the family together even in the wake of that unprecedented hardship. The remaining four Bernhardt children knew their mother would think about Donell and cry, but they were never made to feel that they had to live in the shadow of a deceased sibling.

Loss and sadness work their way out of us in mysterious ways, and Irene’s experience in the matter was more tangible than most. Every time she would rub her forehead where she had hit it on the windshield glass, tiny shards would work their way through the surface of her skin and out into the air. This, like her pain, went on for years, yet her resilient spirit and firm belief that her child was with the God she had always known and loved allowed her to carry forward and smile for what she still had—a loving husband, four wonderful children, and a world that, while complicated and mysterious, was still full of wonder.

VI.  A New Peace

As Gordon, Devonne, Gloria, and Barb grew up and ventured out on their own, Irene found the immediate obligations of motherhood making way for more time to cultivate new skills and interests. One day, she came across a newspaper advertisement for census takers and asked Bobby if he thought she could do it. He replied that he thought she could but that he didn’t want her to go too far away alone, so she answered the ad and worked outside of the home for the first time in her life. Later, she expanded her repertoire further and began to sell cookware at Pampered Chef parties, where Bobby would accompany her. She would show the cookware in peoples’ homes, and even bought a good set for themselves since she received a discount for her services.

As the years continued to pass, dusting Irene’s short hair a light salt-and-pepper color, she bloomed from a wonderful mother to a doting grandmother and great-grandmother. Dressed in culottes and tennis shoes, she routinely drove the thousand miles to Texas, where Barb, Gloria, and Devonne lived. She was present at many of her grandchildren’s births, visited at least a few times each year, and never failed to send birthday gifts and Christmas boxes of baked treats. Just as she had always related to children on a level of shared innocence and wonder, she lived for her grandchildren and was most in her element when she was near them.

When she wasn’t around her grandchildren, she filled her days with Blue Bonnet Club gardening activities, sewing, and reading. She not only read books, but also began surfing utilizing the internet to read online articles about health and to email her grandchildren. Though Irene enjoyed her technological ventures, however, she still enjoyed playing cards far more than surfing the web. She knew eight distinct games of solitaire and would sit at the table playing one after the other, in succession. When her mother, Margaret, moved into a nursing home, Irene would visit her several times a week to play cards. Music still brought her an unrivaled sense of peace as well, and she had begun to collect small hand bells.

VII.  Decline, Only to Rise

In her late sixties, something fundamental changed for Irene—she seemed to lose her ability to play the piano. This came in the wake of deepening health problems that included headaches and a possible mild stroke. Still, she eagerly anticipated her and Bobby’s Golden Wedding Anniversary party celebrating their fifty years of marriage, to be held the following June. The party was to be followed by a cruise to Alaska in July which the Bernhardt children had planned for Irene and Bobby. In anticipation for the exciting festivities, Irene was whisked off to Rapid City to shop for new clothes after spending time with her children and grandchildren in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for a family reunion.

Irene’s cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright at the Golden Anniversary party in the Hay Springs Community Center, which a number of out-of-state relatives came into town for. Two days later, however, she had a stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where a blood clot was removed from her brain. She then underwent physical and occupational therapy and, with a good prognosis, was released from the hospital in July. At home, Bobby took her for walks, and they progressed to quarter-mile strolls. Irene’s spirit, however, was nearing the end of its stay here, and on August 28, 2006, she passed away. Bobby always described his wife as an angel, and from that day forward, she surely was one.

At the funeral of their beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Irene’s family played old hymns that Irene would have loved, as well as the song “One More Day” to express their deep love for the woman that had shaped them so fundamentally. I would hold you every second and say a million I love you’s / That’s what I’d do with one more day with you, they sang. Reflecting back on Irene’s life, each and every one of them was at once inspired, grateful, and at a loss for how so much good will, grace, and Godliness could be embodied in one person. She was always patient, kind, compassionate, and hardworking. The name Irene means peace, and rightfully so, for through the beautiful peace she kept tranquil and constant within her own soul, she was able to inspire the same in others.

Losing Irene was unlike anything the Bernhardt family had experienced before, but having watched her cope with loss and grief with her characteristic grace, it was almost as though she were still there supporting her loved ones in their time of mourning. The fundamental elements of her life—grace, love, compassion—continue to resonate in the world, in both tangible and intangible ways. The Steinway Model L piano that enlivens the music ministry of Alexandria Presbyterian Churh in Alexandria, Virginia, for instance, is but one example of the breadth and intransience of her memory, as it was donated in her honor by her son Gordon several years after her death. Even as Irene is with God in Heaven now, her legacy continues to allow others to express their faith and love on Earth, just as she did each day of her life.

© 2012 Gordon J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgement:  Thank you to my father–Bob Bernhardt, my three sisters–Barbara Wood, Gloria Bernhardt, and Devonne West, my uncle–Phil Wittig, and my first cousin once removed–Marilyn Wright for contributing their thoughts and memories to this tribute.  And thank you to Emily Burns for taking those thoughts, organizing them, and crafting this tribute.

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Saving for College? Don’t Overlook 529 Plans

As tuition costs continue to rise at double the rate of inflation, parents are thinking more and more about how to help children afford college. But surprisingly, surveys continue to reveal that many Americans have never heard of one of the best tools for education saving, the 529 plan.

This tax-favored account has been available for more than 20 years; it was established by Congress and is authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. According to SEC.gov,

“A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future college costs. 529 plans, legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” are sponsored by states, state agencies, or educational institutions . . . There are two types of 529 plans: pre-paid tuition plans and college savings plans. All fifty states and the District of Columbia sponsor at least one type of 529 plan. In addition, a group of private colleges and universities sponsor a pre-paid tuition plan.”

Funds deposited in a 529 plan accumulate tax-free. Withdrawals are also not taxed, as long as the money withdrawn from the plan is used for “qualified educational expenses.”

Over the years, the plans have been tweaked by Congress; in 2015, for example, the law was changed to classify computer purchases as eligible expenses for which 529 funds could be used, as long as the computer is being bought for educational use.

Recently, legislation has been proposed in Congress that would further liberalize the uses to which funds from 529 plans may be put, including the repayment of student loans. The provision permitting plan assets to repay student debt would be especially welcome in the current environment, when college graduates are facing mounting student loan balances. The bill, H.R. 529, would also incentivize employers to offer payroll-deducted contributions for employees. Additionally, the new legislation would enhance plan owners’ ability to direct the investments within their plans. Currently, 529 plans can be rebalanced or reallocated only twice per calendar year. But H.R. 529, proposed in January by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), would allow plan owners to manage the assets in their plans much like owners of 401K plans do currently. Plan funds may be invested in mutual funds, money market instruments, and other types of investments.

Information on 529 plans is available through the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Additionally, the College Savings Plan Network maintains a clearinghouse for state-sponsored plans and also works to promote legislation that makes 529 plans more widely available and user-friendly.

If you have questions regarding your 529 plan or 529 plans in general, contact us or your financial advisor.

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The Pros and Cons of Refinancing Your Mortgage

The announcement by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) on April 13, 2017, that 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have fallen to their lowest level of the year, averaging 4.08 percent, has many homeowners wondering if now is the time to refinance. After all, with the general interest rate outlook calling for an upward trend–influenced by the likelihood of two or three Federal Reserve rate hikes–wouldn’t it make sense to lock in a lower rate now, before the cost of borrowing goes up?

The most important factor is, of course, the currently available interest rate in comparison with the rate on your present loan. Most of us have heard the longstanding rule of thumb that if you can’t save at least two full percentage points below your present rate, refinancing isn’t worth it. While many question the validity of the “two percent rule,” it is true that saving money on interest is the number-one reason most people refinance.

Another factor is time. If you plan to stay in your home for a long time, even a smaller rate reduction can add up to thousands of dollars in interest saved during the life of the loan.

Of course, there are other costs to consider besides the interest rate. Closing costs can add thousands of dollars to the expense of a refinancing. You should also look at the total amount you will pay over the likely length of time you will be in the loan. Even though your monthly payment might drop as the result of a refinancing, greatly extending the term of the loan could still result in many thousands of extra dollars paid in interest.

Some homeowners use a simple break-even formula: Total closing costs divided by monthly savings equals breakeven point.

So, for example, if the total closing costs for the refinance are $3,000 and the new payment will save you $100 per month, the breakeven point is 30 months. Do you plan to be in the home significantly longer than 30 months? If so, refinancing might make sense. If not, then it’s probably best to stay in your current loan.

Homeowners can take advantage of numerous free online mortgage calculators to help with the number-crunching. Quickenloans.com, LendingTree.com, and BankRate.com are just three of the dozens of financial websites that offer free tools you can use to do your research.

Finally, a word of warning: Be cautious about your motives for refinancing. Sometimes, converting your equity to cash can allow you to invest in a business, pay for a home remodel that adds value, or pay for education. But refinancing to pay off credit card debt has a downside. While it’s great to get rid of that high-interest debt, the disadvantage is that what was unsecured debt is now secured–by your home. Missing credit card payments tarnishes your credit rating and can result in nasty collector calls. But missing your mortgage payment can forfeit your home to foreclosure.

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