Joe Bergen - June 3, 2005
Joe Bergen, lifelong resident of Valley Stream, doer of countless good deeds during his eighty-five years, a fellow who lays equal claim with Bert Keller to the title, "Mr. Valley Stream," husband to his late beloved Dorrie, my friend and co-worker in the distribution of food, money, and turkeys for the Salvation Army, dear, dear Joe died this past week following another in a series of several hospitalizations for a failing heart. Joe's son Randy phoned me the day of Joe's dying and asked if I would offer a eulogy during the "wake" Friday evening at the funeral home. Of course, I said "Yes." Herewith is the text of my message and the prayer that followed it:
Joe. My friend. Your friend too. Grandpa. Brother. Father. Friend. At the funeral for Joe's contemporary in this village, a fellow who shared all of the past eighty-five years with Joe, Bert Keller, the reputation for Central High School's principal echoed by everyone was "Mr. Valley Stream." Bert wasn't alone. Joe was Bert's equal to that title. Postmaster. Leader of the Democratic Party. Unrelenting booster of the Central High Alumni Association. Salvation Army volunteer, for the Advisory Council of the late Wayside Home School for Girls, but also for the Valley Stream Unit, and Joe was the person responsible for most of the red Christmas kettles you saw in banks and shops along Rockaway Avenue.
The Salvation Army brought Joe and me together. Yes, Doris, his beloved Dorrie, was a member of the Methodist Church, but, to tell the truth, I didn't see her very often on Sundays. Joe brought me into Doris' orbit, just as the Salvation Army brought me into his. We delivered turkeys together at Thanksgiving. Other things too, food and money. For fifteen years or so we would spread the bounty around this village Monday and Tuesdays before the fourth Thursday in November. We laughed a lot. Joe would accuse me of giving him the heavier birds to carry.
Then there's the oft-told story I'm going to tell again about that Tuesday in November we found ourselves in front of a house in an eastern corner of Valley Stream delivering a turkey and a box of fixings to a family down on their luck. In the driveway on a trailer was a twenty-five foot motor boat. Joe looked disgusted. I offered an explanation, tongue firmly in cheek, that the family needed the boat to fish for food to feed their children. Joe cocked his head at me. He never was one to belly-laugh. But a smile, a big and somewhat disapproving smile, came across his face as he shook his head. Later, many times later, we would recall that day, that boat, and that wisecrack from me, and chuckle again.
All in the serve of God and man.
Nor will I ever forget that fateful day in November, the day of turkey deliveries, when Doris served me a ham and cheese sandwich at lunch at 100 South Central Avenue, complaining a little, she did, about not feeling all that well. That night Joe phoned me the sad news of her passing. How very much he loved her, was proud of her; and when she died, he was diminished, even though, true to his fashion, he never demonstrated his grief.
The same goes for the rest of the family. In our travels together he told me about you. I mean, I know about Randy's DJ gigs, how Dad was often his backup. The garage was filled with the equipment. I know about the Senas of Millerton, the candidate for town selectman, the quarterback who should have gone to Williams, my alma mater, but went west, young man, instead. I know about the sisters who were more than sister, friends and confidantes.
Joe always called me "Pastor," and I never really thought much about that habit of his... until now. He had other pastors, good ones, friends of mine too; but he regarded me as his "other" pastor, I think, leveled with me, asked my opinion, shared his thoughts about life and our life together in this village. Joe didn't mince words. What he thought he said. What you saw (and heard) with Joe was what you got. A man after my own heart.
Last spring the phone rang in our home in West Hartford CT. Joe was on the other end. He called to ask what I thought about this and that, prefacing his questions, "You don't mind my calling you in Connecticut, Pastor, do you?" Of course, I didn't mind. I also knew to say otherwise would be to disappoint a fellow I never would want to disappoint. It was the last time we spoke personally, except to exchange greetings following Bert Keller's funeral service.
When Randy phoned me the news of Joe's passing, I said, among other things, "If anyone gets a free pass, it's Joe." I meant the gate of heaven. His life was full of deeds of compassion, if to all of us - friends, beneficiaries, please say, "Amen" - then to those Jesus singled out, the least and lowest of these our brothers and sisters. He did it with his eyes wide open, with, I mischievously report, a certain softness toward those with Irish surnames. But all of God's children were his family too. Joe did it officially and he did a lot of it entirely on his own, for neighbors neither the parish nor the Salvation Army would ever hear of. And you know what Jesus says to those on his right hand, those who have fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, and visited those who are sick and in prison? "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Where (in that kingdom), God love him, as we surely did, Joe and Doris have already enjoyed a sweet reunion in the Father's House, and where, I hope, she will have a ham and cheese sandwich for me when (and if) I finally get there too.
God and Father of us all, who loves each of us as if he were the only one, we thank you this night for one of your children it was easy to love, our Joe, yours too, father, brother, grandfather, friend, and neighbor. We thank you for giving him a long life even as we praise you for showing him how to fill it with good things, like love and fun, usefulness, and faithfulness. In your name and in response to your clear command, he considered the poor, fed the hungry, welcomed strangers, sought justice, was frequent in prayer and worship, and made a special place in his heart for the children, his own, but everyone else's too. We thank you for his winning spirit, always hopeful, ever earnest, ready to laugh, with a wallet open to every need that stopped at his door. And to your honor and glory, good Lord, Joe certainly knew how to beg for you, happily putting the touch on everyone of us for those causes that claimed him, doing it all with great good humor and never a hint of embarrassment.
On Joe's behalf, Father, and sensing a certain urgency about it coming down to us from him in the communion of saints, we thank you for the many, many bright spots in his journey here. Doris, dear Doris, the brightest. Randy and Donna too, yes, yes. How proud he was of them, how glad he was with them. And this village, where he spent his life, devoted to it he was, the people and the place, from his beginning to his ending, working to make a a better place and a more just and compassionate community: on his behalf we thank you for giving him this corner of your creation to love. For all the friends he met along the way, in one arena of service or another, politics, church, community service, school, neighborhood: on his behalf we thank you for the loving return which flowed his ways from all of these endeavors. You were good to him, he would tell us; and we respond to him that, yes, he was good for you.
Hold him in your everlasting arms. Give him a special room among your more stately mansions... with Doris, of course. And keep him close to us, in memory, yes, but also in the vast communion of the faithful, whenever we gather in your name, share your bread and cup, think of you and the personal blessings you provide through the presence of the other. We offer these thanks and ask these prayers in the name of him whose name is Love, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.