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Mr. Bergner's Lifelong Impact

Former Greendale School student Karen Conklin remembers lessons she learned from Richard Bergner, who taught her sixth and eighth grade class more than 50 years ago.

I’ve been blessed with many wonderful teachers over the years, but only one stands out as extraordinary: Richard Bergner Greendale School in Wisconsin.

I was assigned to Mr. Bergner s class for both sixth and eighth grades, allowing me the privilege of benefitting from his wise and gentle ways not once, but twice. He was a marvelous teacher who was able to make each and every one of us believe in our heart of hearts that we were his favorite.

I think it was being made to feel so special that I remember the most. Mr. Bergner taught in a different time, and as a result he seemed to have a lot more flexibility in his methods than is allowed today. For example, there was nothing wrong with a teacher giving a child a hug back then, or even taking a class outside without all of the paperwork required for that sort of thing today. There was no air conditioning in those days; so when it was hot, it wasn’t at all uncommon for Mr. Bergner to have us pack up our books and go out under a big shade tree for our lessons, or tromp through the nearby woods to identify various plants, critters, or footprints we might come across.

Mr. Bergner was also an assistant football coach and seemed to be respected and loved by all of the players. He wanted them to win of course, but more important to him was that they do their best for the team!

So long as everyone gave it their all and worked together as a team rather than trying to stand out, he was satisfied.

Mr. Bergner had a knack for bringing his coaching skills into the classroom and his

teaching skills onto the playing field. He expected (and received) a lot from all of us, simply because he believed in us; and no one ever, ever wanted to disappoint him. Because he had such faith in us, we grew to have faith in ourselves. Most, if not all, of us left his class feeling as though we were ready to take on the world, truly believing it was possible, with hard work and dedication, to be anything we wanted to be. We just had to want it enough and work hard enough to accomplish our goals.

Naturally there were some kids who misbehaved from time to time. Mr. Bergner’s way of handling these infractions was to call his Kangaroo Court into action. Here’s how it worked:

He appointed students to act as the lawyers to either prosecute or defend the person on trial, and he was the judge. Quite often, he assigned the student who had been wronged to defend the wrongdoer and the wrongdoer’s best friend to prosecute. It was a unique way to help us learn how to better understand each other and to delve into motivations underlying human behavior.

The rest of the class acted as the jury, deciding not only guilt or innocence but also an appropriate and fair consequence for the wrongdoer’s actions, should it be decided that he or she was, indeed, guilty as charged.

Through these Kangaroo Court sessions, we learned a bit about points of law, and we learned how to think outside the box.

Most of all, we learned not to be so quick to judge others as we came to understand some of the motivations underlying human behavior. These were invaluable lessons we carried with us for the rest of our lives.

Even though we were 6th graders and practically all grown up, Mr. Bergner still encouraged show and tell now and then. The kicker was that we had to turn in a paper and give a talk on what we brought to share, and this required some research to be sure we knew enough to actually teach the class something they didn’t already know. Not only did this broaden our learning experience way beyond what our standard textbooks could provide, it also gave us a feeling of importance as we gave our presentation to the class. If we got stuck, Mr. Bergner seemed to have such a vast knowledge on any and all subjects that he was able to broaden the presentation without ever making the presenter feel upstaged or stupid. He was amazing.

One time two students brought their dogs as their share-and-tell item on the same day, and while their talk was going on, these dogs ended up mating underneath Mr. Bergner’s desk.

Never missing a beat, Mr. Bergner turned that unanticipated event into a discussion about the birds and the bees. He explained that the dogs were simply following their instincts, but as humans it was up to us to develop sufficient self-control so that these same animal instincts we also had could be fulfilled at a more appropriate time and place. I remember he asked the class when an appropriate time might be for human beings to indulge in such behavior, and it wasn’t long before everyone was in agreement that this would be after we were all grown up and married, so that if children resulted from the act there would be a family in place to care for them. He had made his point, and we never forgot it.

When the time was right, Mr. Bergner arranged for all of us to visit the new mother and her puppies. That day we talked about responsible pet ownership and the need to sterilize our pets, if they weren’t meant for breeding, so the huge population of unwanted animals could be reduced.

Mostly Mr. Bergner didn’t lecture. Rather, he discussed options while guiding us toward making choices based on common sense, morality, and integrity. When teaching something from the textbook, he asked,

What do you think about that?

How does that make you feel? He wanted us to learn to actually think and not just digest material, and he encouraged lively discussion on the right and wrong of things as well. It was stimulating and exciting to be treated as someone whose opinion mattered at such a young age, and we loved him for it.

One of my of sweetest memories was of participating in a spelling contest. There I was, standing in front of the entire class by myself, and when I was told to spell Chicago, I didn’t have a clue. I was mortified! Fortunately I got through it fine with Mr. Bergner’s clever hints of I bet your sister is quite a chick in her WAC uniform.

After I spelled C-H-I-C he began humming the melody from Long, Long Ago, cleverly providing me with the clue I needed to so I could then sit down feeling so proud of having gotten it right. He never criticized us, but rather made it plain that he was there to help us be the best we could be. We knew that if we did our part, then together we would find a way to solve the problem at hand and thus experience the joy of success.

One year, Mr. Bergner brought a pet chameleon to class; we named it Alphonse.

Alphonse was quite often allowed out of his cage to meander around the room, changing colors, as chameleons do, to match whatever was near by. One day when the window was open

Alphonse fell two stories down to the ground. We all were allowed to rush down the steps and out the door, only to find Alphonse happily chomping on some nearby grass. How he survived that fall was pretty amazing indeed, leading to a good discussion about survival of the fittest and how wonderful all of God’s creatures really were.

Shortly after that incident someone leaned on the shelf Alphonse was sitting on, bringing about our chameleon’s demise.

Mr. Bergner turned even that sad incident into a learning experience as we then discussed how death is a part of life. We all helped to arrange for the funeral the next day and tromped off into the woods to find the perfect spot for the burial. One or two students, including the one who had leaned on Alphonse and felt so bad about it, were given the privilege of saying a few words in remembrance of the interesting things we had learned as a result of having this chameleon in our lives.

Perhaps for me the best example of Mr. Bergner’s incredible skill as a teacher was when a boy pushed me down during recess, and I returned to class crying. After learning what had happened, instead of berating this boy in front of everybody, Mr. Bergner chose to share a story about how he, too, had pushed a girl down when he was our age. He explained that boys that age don’t yet know how to handle their conflicting feelings about girls so will sometimes use bad judgment in their efforts to get a girl to notice them. He gave me a big hug and said, Someone in this class obviously luuuves you! Everybody laughed, of course; and now instead of being angry at that boy, I found myself blushing with pride, delighted with the thought that at least in one boy’s mind I was special. The boy was mortified, of course, which was probably punishment enough.

All of us learned that day that it was NOT ever appropriate to chance hurting someone else just to get that person’s attention. How much wiser Mr. Bergner’s handling of the incident was than simply to criticize this boy’s behavior and make him apologize. I doubt any of us ever forgot this valuable lesson in understanding human behavior and potential consequences for the choices we might make as a bid for attention; I know I never did.

When Mr. Bergner taught any subject, whether it be math, science, history, English, or social studies, he personalized it. His joy in helping us learn was contagious, and his obvious love of children and gentle ways made us all feel safe to explore new concepts, and even to chance being wrong when speaking out in class. We knew there was nothing to fear because we were accepted just as we were, and we knew it. Being wrong was part of the learning process, and, as he told us many times, we often learned more when we came up with the wrong answer than when we were right on our first guess.

Mr. Bergner taught generations of children over the years, and almost without exception all remembered him as being the best teacher ever. When I returned for my 50th high school reunion, I fully intended to look him up to thank him. Unfortunately, it was too late. He was in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s and didn’t remember much of anything or recognize anyone anymore.

I felt so bad that I had never taken the time to let this wonderful man know what a difference he had made in my life. Why do we wait to tell others what they mean to us, and thank them for the role they had played in our lives? Perhaps it’s because we think that surely they must already know it. Then again, maybe this was one more lesson Mr. Bergner teach me, until tomorrow to say what needs to be said.

I pray that, at some level, Mr. Bergner was aware of what a huge impact he had made on so many lives. He was a great man in the truest sense of the word.

Richard Bergner died in 2008. 

Lisa Ziolkowski March 07, 2013 at 02:11 PM
What a truly wonderful article about a man that made a difference in so many lives.
Sue March 07, 2013 at 03:22 PM
Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing your wonderful memories of such an incredible man. There are many teachers today who could take a few lessons from Mr. Bergner's ways!
Katie Wahl March 07, 2013 at 05:04 PM
Thank you, thank you for remembering my grandfather so kindly! He was one heck of a guy- in and out of the classroom!
Mike Hoffmann March 07, 2013 at 06:56 PM
Thank you... I was his favorite son-in-law to his only daughter. Made me feel special too!.
KAREN CONKLIN March 07, 2013 at 11:24 PM
I'm so very pleased to hear this article, and my fond memories of your grandfather and father-in-law reached you. He was truly an exceptional individual, and the best teacher ever! My name when growing up on Berry Court in Greendale was Karen Thomas, by the way (just in case you're still a Greendale person and were wondering).
rick bergner March 08, 2013 at 05:13 AM
Karen, what year did you graduate? I lived right next to Mrs Borden in the early 70s.
Kyle Hoffmann March 08, 2013 at 05:58 AM
Reading this has put me into tears. I'm one of Mr. Bergner's many grandsons. It saddens me that the few memories I have experienced with my grandpa were when he lived in a retirement home suffering from Alzheimer's. I remember as a toddler running next door to play War with him and my grandma or "Oma". Throughout my life I've heard hundreds of stories, especially from my mother about what an amazing and caring person he was. I just wish I would have been able to experience more. Reading your stories about my grandpa has given me insight of who my grandpa really was and I wanted to thank you Karen for taking the time out of your day to write this heart-warming story about my Opa. Because of you I now know more about who he was and why he has been my role model my entire life.
KAREN CONKLIN March 08, 2013 at 12:49 PM
Had my family remained in Greendale, I would have graduated with the Class of 1955. However, when the Village was sold in 1952, my father moved us to Whitefish Bay so I only completed 9th grade there. I have lots of fond memories of those growing up years, and will submit an article or two about my Greendale experiences before the 75th Greendale anniversary celebration in August, which I plan to attend.
KAREN CONKLIN March 08, 2013 at 12:52 PM
You couldn't pick a better role model, Kyle. I'm so sorry you never got to know your grandfather as a younger man. He was very special indeed. Your response, and those of other family members, makes me ever so happy I was able to share these memories through the Greendale Patch. Reaching Mr. Bergner's family was precisely what I had in mind when writing it. You all can be very proud of your heritage.
Dawn Zabkowicz March 08, 2013 at 02:53 PM
What a wonderful article about a lovely man who made such an impact on so many lives. It makes me want to look up some of my teachers and thank them. Thank you for taking the time to write this and sharing it.
John Bergner March 08, 2013 at 09:26 PM
Karen, I am one of four Richard's siblings and thank you for the touching letter and you have shown us you have a wonderful talent in writing. You also have some great memories. As a son of Mr. Bergner, I was quilty of getting jealous of all the attention he would give his students and we hated going to the grocery store with him because he knew everybody and getting a loaf of bread took hours in kid time. I have numerous stories to share, but my favorite one is him being a physical education teacher had the responsibilities of teaching his 6th grade classes sex education. I was one of his students. I came to his class one day and noticed all the kids had slips to give him from their parents and of course I did not get one since my parent was him. I was shocked when the class started and here's my father in the front of the class starting to teach us about the birds and the bees. (no dogs were used and it was all diagrams mostly drawn up by him). I was mortified and wanted to crawl under my desk when he started to explain the facts of life and I can still hear some of the giggles. Yes, your father telling you all in front of all your classmates and this also was coed. I chose not to speak with him for the rest of that day, but he later approached me and told me he did not warn me because I would of stressed out worrying in antcipation. He was right, but I did not understand until much later and now I am proud to tell the story and no longer embarrassed. Thank you again.
Susy Jacobson Nelsen March 08, 2013 at 10:52 PM
As another former student of Mr. Bergner's I can't tell you enough how your story has touched my heart! I can relate to most everything you said. I know alot of my classmates had him for physical Ed., and feel the same way. We all loved this gentle man. Thank You.
John Bergner March 09, 2013 at 04:44 AM
I thought I would add to Karens letter by listing a letter from another one of my dads ex-students three years ago. I had to submit three times below since I used too many characters. Subject: Patrick Noonan sent you a message on Facebook Date: Tuesday,February 16, 2010, 2:05 AM. I am sorry to hear Mr. Bergner is no longer with us. I will give you the brief story of my experience with him that fateful day. It was in the Spring of 1987. It was the weekend that I was playing Riff in Greendale High's West Side Story. One weekend dayI was mowing our lawn when out of nowhere, a car pulls up on our neighbors driveway and out comes Mr. Bergner. He gets out of his car and comes over to greet me.I always liked Mr Bergner. He was always good and fair to me. But we never really had a one on one talk. He walked up to me and began a conversation that would alter my life in a very positive and profound way. He told me that he just saw me in West Side Story (I guess every high school has to do that musical, as it were a part of a prerequisite of a teenage would-be actor). Anyway, he gave me high praise which was very nice. But he then told me something that would make me remember that day forever. He told me that I was lucky because I "found my niche". He told me how lucky I was to find what I was really good at so early in my life at the ripe age of 16. (To be continued below).
John Bergner March 09, 2013 at 04:47 AM
(Continued from above) He said the word "niche" to me several times throughout that conversation and it was the first time I ever heard that word. I knew what he meant, but I never heard anyone talk to me in such a matter of fact way. It was then that I decided that I was going to be an actor for a living. He told me that he just saw me in West Side Story (I guess every high school has to do that musical, as it were a part of a prerequisite of a teenage would-be actor). Anyway, he gave me high praise which was very nice. But he then told me something that would make me remember that day forever. He told me that I was lucky because I "found my niche". He told me how lucky I was to find what I was really good at so early in my life at the ripe age of 16. He said the word "niche" to me several times throughout that conversation and it was the first time I ever heard that word. I knew what he meant, but I never heard anyone talk to me in such a matter of fact way. It was then that I decided that I was going to be an actor for a living. A professional actor. The prospect was dangerous and exciting but comforting. It felt right. It felt like I was being welcomed home. 26 years later I am performing in a play Off-Broadway.
John Bergner March 09, 2013 at 04:49 AM
(continued from above) This time it's at a theatre in Rochester, NY. I have been invited to do a prologue before every show. It lasts for about 20 minutes. In this prologue I speak extensively about "moments of Wonder". We have all had them in our lives. I speak of these magical moments being the lenses that allow us to see more of these moments that are always around us but too often go unnoticed. After I am done speaking I ask for questions. Quite a few times people ask me what made me decide to become an actor. Then I remember one of my own moments of wonder of an old gym teacher approaching me on my lawn.I tell how I never saw him there before or since. I tell how because of that talk I, that day, decided to be an professional actor. I tell how that gym teacher was, in my belief, a conduit. I truly believe that Mr. Bergner was an angel that day for me.The other day, a theatre patron asked me if I ever told this gym teacher of how important that talk was to me, what an influence he was in my career. It gave me pause because I never did. But I want to. If not him directly, than those that love him. I want anyone who knows him to know that he mattered to me.That day was absolute magic for me. I will continue to mention Mr. Bergner during the run of this play. Now , during prologue, I will just say a private "thanks" wherever you are, Mr. Bergner."
KAREN CONKLIN March 09, 2013 at 03:21 PM
Thank you for putting the letter from another student out here for us all to read, John. It's indeed a wonderful tribute to a fine man. I especially liked his reference to Mr. Bergner being one of God's angels. Years ago there was a movie called, "Oh God!" with John Denver and George Burns, who played God. Denver's character asked God, "If you care so much about us, why don't you help us?" to which God replied, "I have helped you . . . I gave you each other." Mr. Bergner was one who acted out his faith in so many ways, and was a lesson to us all to do the same. Thank you, Mr. Bergner, for what you did for so many of us, and especially for the marvelous example you provided for how we should all live our lives.
Carrie Sobie Pankowski March 10, 2013 at 06:23 PM
Mr. Bergners influence on students did not end with his retirement. He continued to work and support Special Olympics of Wisconsin for many many years. I remember going with him for at least 15 of those years to the spring track meet. Towards the end of his being able to help out he had me bring my neice along teaching her his lessons of acceptance without the classroom. He was truely a joy. He is missed by many.
rick bergner March 13, 2013 at 03:48 AM
Thanks to all of you who have commented about our father. But let it be known there was was one heck of a force at home helping him along the way. Trudy is also missed.

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