If you worked at Glenbrook North High School between 1953 and 1997, you probably knew Bernie.
“Whenever someone came to from somewhere else, one of the first things you learned was: get to know Bernie,” recalled Blaine Royer, who was assistant principal at the high school until his retirement in 2005.
Werner “Bernie” Bernhard, who worked in a series of jobs at the school, passed away July 14, following four months in nursing homes after emergency response personnel found him lying emaciated on the floor of his Northbrook home in March. His daughters, Lisa and Susan Bernhard, one of whom he lived with, were charged with criminal neglect on July 15 in connection with his death.
Reached at home last week, Susan Bernhard said she and her sister do not want to speak to the news media while the charges are pending.
Friends and acquaintances who knew Bernie through Glenbrook North said that while he was quiet about his home life, it was clear that his work at school was what brought him the greatest joy.
“He found his real happiness coming to work,” Royer said.
Bernie worked at Glenbrook North for 43 years, from 1953, when the high school first opened its doors, until he retired in 1997. He held a variety of positions, including industrial education teacher, coordinator of the school’s audiovisual department and, ultimately, administrative assistant for technology for the principal.
Around school, he was known simply as the guy who could get things done, Royer said. If you needed photocopies, you went to Bernie. If you needed something fixed, like a slide projector or a VCR or a computer, you went to Bernie. Even teachers who needed an oil change (before the school prohibited it) went to Bernie.
Although he was physically imposing—tall, with a deep voice and a crew cut—Bernie had gentle eyes and an easy smile.
“He lived the golden rule, his heart was as big as Texas, and he did things with humility and without selfishness,” Royer said.
One of Glenbrook North’s First Staff Members
The Chicago native took a job at Glenbrook North as an industrial education teacher, just out of the Army Reserves, according to Howie Helfrich, former department chairman of physical education. Along with Bernie, Helfrich was among the school’s first staff members.
“In the summers, he would go over to Des Plaines, and he wound up as a top mechanic for a Chevrolet dealer,” Helfrich recalled. “He was an excellent worker.”
After obtaining a master's degree in media services Bernie became became coordinator of the school’s audiovisual department in 1966, a position he held until 1992. He laid out posters, oversaw the school’s printing operations and fixed technical problems with computers, VCRs and other machines throughout the building.
“He could fix anything,” Royer said. “He could take apart a projector; he could find the intricacies of a computer.”
Despite demands from all corners of the school, Bernie was known for his patience, said Royer.
“Teachers always would want hundreds of copies of stuff, and they’d use the copy machine until it broke down, and then they’d have to go see Bernie,” he said.
Although Royer could tell when something irritated his friend, Bernie rarely said anything.
“You knew when he was mad at a staff member, but it didn’t come out in an overt sort of way,” he said. “He would not hesitate to tell you, but in a low, gentle voice, ‘That can’t be done.’ ”
Jennifer Cook, a 1994 Glenbrook North graduate who worked for Bernie in the audiovisual department, also remembered him as patient and kind.
“He was kind of like a gentle giant,” she said. “If you needed a ride home, he would always offer.”
Cook said she only remembered Bernie getting upset with her once, when she and other student workers were goofing off.
“He put on a really good show that he was really mad, then called each one of us into his office and laughed at us,” she said.
His Patience Came in Handy On the Green
Besides tinkering with and fixing things, Bernie loved golf, Cook said. Toward the end of his career at Glenbrook North, he also worked after school as an assistant girl's golf coach.
“He was always trying to get me to be on his golf team,” Cook recalled with a laugh.
One day, Bernie even taught her how to swing a golf club in the TV studio, using a basketball for practice.
Although Bernie wasn’t great at golf, friends said, he was good at coaching.
“As a golf coach, he was exactly what the girls needed,” said Bill Fuller, who retired as associate principal in 1998 and coached alongside Bernie. “He was just about as easygoing as you could be with the kids and not let them run all over you.”
Work Colleagues Were His Family
Coaching was not just fun for Bernie but a way to escape his home life, friends and colleagues say. Even when he retired, he continued to work at a nighttime security job.
“He always seemed to want to be active some place, away from the situation,” Helfrich said.
Bernie rarely spoke of his wife or daughters, who went to Glenbrook North, and never brought his wife to social events, he added.
“Nobody on the staff really knew her at all,” Helfrich said. “If they had to bring something over there for Bernie, or deliver something or get something, she would come to the door and take it, not say a word, just close the door.
"From what I’ve picked up since then, I think some of the administrators felt that she had some mental problems."
When emergency workers found him in March, Bernie was living with his daughter Lisa, while his wife was living with their daughter Susan, in houses just a block away on Beckwith Court and High Point Lane. His wife is not charged in the case, and a spokesperson for the state’s attorney office declined to comment why.
Royer recalled that Bernie’s wife and daughters rarely left the house, and if they did, they wore scarves to cover their hair, dresses that went to their ankles and long coats even in warm weather.
“He was very private about his home life,” said Royer. “His family, it seemed to me, was the people he worked with.”
And at work, at least, Bernie was home.
“Hopefully he’s enjoying heaven at this point,” Royer said. “I’m hoping he’s enjoying peace, because he found his peace at work.”