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Tom Bernard: Another Friend Dies…

February 16, 2009

Tom Bernard - Back Row, Second From Right

One of my daughters, Abbie, commented recently that so many of my stories end in death. It’s not that I’m a pessimist, just a little sad. But then, that’s how it ends, doesn’t it? And then we pass the baton. These days friends and companeros of old seem to be exiting the scene in great numbers. We’re supposed to live into our late 70s, early 80s, not leaving in our mid or late fifties. Ah but as a great sage frequently said …`you make a plan for life (or death) and then life (or death) makes a plan for you.

Mostly, like Tom Bernard, I haven’t seen them in years. And yet I feel cheated, almost betrayed, that they are leaving me now to face the future without them even though they’re no longer a part of my daily life and haven’t been for years. Still there was something soothing in knowing simply that they are out there SOMEWHERE, wherever…doing good deeds. And when I read or hear how another one has slipped away, I cannot begin to explain the degree to which it saddens me and makes me feel just a little bit lonelier. And all I can do is write a few insipid words acknowledging their passing, words that do not do justice to the richness and generosity of spirit of their lives.

And here’s another one, I guess, Abbie.

I learned about a month ago of the death of Tom Bernard – who spent a fair part of his adult life here in Denver (70s and 80s) before moving on to the great Northwest. For a good part of the time when my family lived in Finland in the late 1980s, Tom managed the affairs of our house, helping our dear lawyer and friend Rudy Schware with the chore.

I knew him pretty well – the left in Denver was never that big and leftists working in the labor movement few and far between. Leftists working effectively in the labor movement were even rarer. Tom’s life as an organizer touched two great social movements of our time – the movement against the war in Vietnam and the labor movement. Tom was a key player in both – and in both – he played hard ball so to speak and the work he did was dangerous and required great courage and skill. He had both qualities. Tom organized units of the military intelligence detachment he worked with (flying AWACs) to go on strike against the US invasion of Cambodia. He was lucky to come out of that 1. alive 2. without serving much time in prison. His experiences as anti war activist within the military are touched upon in `Sir, No Sir‘ , a dvd about anti-war organizing by the soldiers, sailors and air men who fought the war in Vietnam and opposed it. Theirs was a much harder and more dangerous form of activism than that of civilians marching and protesting in this country’s streets. It is a pretty powerful dvd. He continued organizing serving military folk here in Denver where, with a group of intrepid ex-military friends he organized both in Denver and in Colorado Springs.

When I knew him, he went from job to job, and in one of those jobs – with UPS – he joined the Teamsters’ Union. It was as corrupt a union as this country has ever produced by the time Tom got involved. Reforming it, democratizing it was not the stuff for people with weak stomachs. But he was a part of that movement that actually cleaned up the union from within and cleansed its leadership. One easily lose one’s life pursuing such noble goals and how close he came to being offed by union hired goons is a story yet to be told – and I hope one of my friends, closer to the action than myself – will someday tell the tale.

He was some kind of socialist – if I remember right he was with the International Socialists…whatever. `In the struggle’ – as we used to refer to our social movements…we were on the same team. It makes me sick to think of all the hair splitting differences – most of them profoundly irrelevant – that separated us.

Of course it’s impossible to measure such things, but a few of us old codgers – talking about Bernard’s passing – rated him as among the best left organizers – if not THE best – of our era. He was extraordinary, nothing less. He set a very high standard…and his relatives came from Malta and he studied a year at Cornell!

May he rest in peace.

Below are two obituaries written about him, the first from The Oregonian, the second from one of the producers (I believe) of Sir! No Sir

1. Obituary in The Oregonian

Somewhere, maybe in Vietnam, Tom Bernard learned to turn his innate gift for gab into the art of making true connections with people. It served Tom well in all he did, as a spy in Vietnam, as an anti-war activist, as a union reformer and organizer, as a husband, father, grandfather and friend.

Tom’s talent for talking came early. He was born into a large, extended, multilingual family in Michigan. Every Sunday was spent with his Maltese grandparents enjoying large dinners such as baked ziti or stuffed artichokes, the adults eating upstairs, the children in the basement. After dinner, the neighbors came over, rugs were rolled up for dancing, and his grandfather Romeo Bernardo served everyone his homemade apricot brandy.

Tom went to Catholic schools, was an altar boy, took 12 years of Latin and attended Cornell University. It was the late 1960s, war was raging in Vietnam and the specter of the draft stalked him. After a little more than a year at Cornell, he decided to enlist in the Air Force before he was drafted into the Army.

His father had served in World War II, and his grandfather had earned his citizenship by serving in World War I.
Tom scored so well on the language tests that he was sent to El Paso, Texas, to learn Vietnamese. For two years, he flew over Vietnam, encapsulated in a C-131, listening in on and translating Viet Cong broadcast conversations. When their planes were detected, the pilots went into an immediate, terrifying nose dive to escape under the radar.

Later, he sometimes jokingly summarized the years as, “There was always plenty of cigarettes and plenty of marijuana.” But the truth was uglier. He saw and heard things that changed him. He said the translators got to recognize the voices they were listening to. Knowing firsthand how civilian centers were targeted and hospitals were being bombed, he said, he and others decided to dedicate themselves to ending what they viewed was a criminal war. He helped create WORMS (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity).

The first thing he did back in the States was to make an appointment with his congressman about the war.

Then, he joined a friend in Denver and worked with the Pacific Counseling Service. He became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was director of the Colorado Peace Network and of the Draft and Military Counseling Center. He demonstrated, organized and lectured. He was sent to Japan and Thailand to counsel GIs and to help them get out of the military. He could talk to the GIs; he took time to find connections that encouraged people to open their hearts to him.
After the war, he returned to Denver and took a job as a UPS driver. Quickly and inevitably, he became active in the Teamsters Union. He was elected an officer and then became a founding member of Upsurge, a Teamster reform organization. It was a rough-and-tumble era of Teamster politics, and Tom was in the thick of it all. Organized crime had infiltrated the union and didn’t want to give up its power. Tom was beaten up, a bomb was planted in the exhaust pipe of his car (it was a botched job and fizzled out), and the FBI knocked on his door to tell him to be careful, that he was on a Teamster hit list.

He lost his job at one point when charges were leveled against him (they were later rescinded), and he spent a year delivering newspapers in the morning and pizzas at night. He was reinstated and rose up the ladder in union work.
At a union conference in Vancouver, B.C., he met Helen Lee, who was then director of Evergreen State College Labor Education Center. They fell in love, and he moved to Olympia with her. They later lived in Oakland, Calif., before moving to Portland in 2005.

Tom and Helen were hired by Local 5017, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, she as an external organizer, he as an internal organizer.

He came with more than 200 contract negotiations under his belt and a year ago negotiated the contract for registered nurses at Providence Milwaukie Medical Center.

He took to Portland like a born duck. He always loved food and immediately found Esparza’s, Pok Pok and Bob’s Red Mill. Soon, he knew every good restaurant in Portland and loved surprising the staffs of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants by speaking to them in their native tongues.

He had given up smoking in 1991, and after a heart attack in 1993, he changed his diet and tried to keep his weight down. It was a struggle. He joined Bally and 24-Hour Fitness but wasn’t exactly a regular at either.

He was an inveterate sports fan, loyal to the teams of any city he lived in and was soon cheering on the Trail Blazers.
He worked fervently on the Obama campaign and became interested in the plight of the homeless in Portland. He hung out at Sisters of the Road Cafe. In a short time, he amassed a large group of friends from all facets of Portland life. Sometimes, he would tease them, talking to them in a Donald Duck voice or in pretend foreign languages. But always, he listened first, and whether it was sports or food or grandchildren, he always found a common bond.

Tom died suddenly Dec. 27, 2008, in the holiday snow, of another heart attack.

His friends and family gathered at the Clinton Street Theater to honor him. People came from across the country. They were all close to Tom; he had taken the time

2. Tribute to Tom Bernard from Dick Zeigler of Sir! No Sir

I met Tom while filming Sir! No Sir! in what I later learned was a typical “Tom” way. I’ll never forget the email I got out of the blue from this guy I had never heard of, telling me simply that he had been part of an extremely significant group that had to be part of this film. They had never told their story publicly, and in fact had been threatened with prosecution for treason if they ever did. I was certainly intrigued, and soon Tom and I were friends.

Several months and a couple of failed attempts later, I found myself in a house with Tom and three other courageous, exemplary members of the WORMS–We Openly Resist Military Stupidity.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the GI Movement during the Vietnam War was its ubiquitous nature. In every corner of the military, everywhere on the planet, GIs found creative, stunning ways to rebel. Even if no one outside their individual unit knew they existed, they became part of an elegant tapestry of chaos and resistance.

And none were more elegant than the WORMS. Trained in Vietnamese, they were part of an ultra-secret unit that flew over North Vietnam intercepting communications from the “enemy,” and translating them for the Pentagon to use in planning military strategy. As Tom described it to me, they began developing an almost personal relationship with the voices they were hearing, and soon knew that the real “enemy” was not the people they were listening to, but their own bosses. Knowing firsthand how civilian centers were targeted and hospitals were being bombed, they decided to dedicate their lives toward ending that criminal war.

As they told me their story, the depth of their humanity and courage shown through–and I knew Tom had not exaggerated their significance. Finding themselves in a critical position for the war effort, they developed creative, challenging, fun(that was a requirement!), and profoundly effective ways of resisting. Their impact was far greater than they or anyone else knew.

I don’t know much about Tom’s life after Vietnam, but I do know that–as is true for thousands–those years as a GI resister informed all of it. I know that he never gave up his determination to change the world and his sense of purpose that was born with the WORMS.

My heart goes out to his wonderful wife, Helen, and their family. I will never forget Tom, and am very grateful to have known him the brief time I did.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 2:55 pm

    i’m sorry to hear about your friend tom. he sounds like an impressive person.

  2. May 26, 2012 2:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this moving blog. I am Tom’s little sister. This is undoubted one of the best articles written about my big bro. I live in Costa RIca where I have been an activist protecting the jungle for almost a decade. I think that you and I have shared a smoke and a couple of burritos from Chubby’s while I passed a teenage summer in Denver.
    Thanks for all of the beautiful details. My big bro was the best.
    Marty

  3. May 26, 2012 5:45 pm

    What a surprise to hear from you Marty….and a pleasure.Glad you are doing good deeds in Costa Rica…If you come by Denver let me know… rjp

  4. Helen Leei permalink
    May 28, 2012 6:33 am

    Hi Robert, just saw this through Marty Bernard. I was withTom for 18 wonderful years. I found a song after he died that for reasons too hard to explain, I know he wanted me to listen to. It is called “this year’s Love has got to Last” and last it did. I have recently moved back to Oakland where Tom and I worked for 6 years. I thank you for honoring Tom, you are right, he was the best. I miss him everyday. I have done a fairly good job not to become a sad sack over losing him, mostly because that would be so wierd since his attitude was move on .. But it’s been hard, keeping busy working for the nurses, take care. Helen, ps if you make friends with me on face book you can see lots of cool pics of Tom!!

  5. mlh permalink
    August 23, 2012 4:35 pm

    Correction. It wasn’t the FBI that came to the door with the Teamster goon warning; it was the CBI (Colorado Bureau of Investigation).

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