Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sunday Serenity -- Celebrating a Life

Bernie Altman with Marcia
his wife of 69 years
Longview lost one of its heroes last month--one of my heroes--and yesterday I attended the Celebration of a Life service held at the Kelso High gymnasium in Kelso WA. A forum necessary to accommodate the size of the crowd turning out to honor this man whose heart was bigger than any I've ever encountered before or since.

Bernie Altman, advocate and teacher, dies at 92 | Local |

'via Blog this'

Bernard Altman (May 9, 1924-September 8, 2016) was born and raised in New York City and met and married his wife Marcia while they were both teaching at a four teacher school in a small Montana town.  They moved to Kelso where he taught history and government at Huntington Jr. High until his retirement in 1976.  Close to a third of the attendees yesterday stood up to identify as former students when asked.  A remarkable indicator of the positive influence on lives in our community which he wielded.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg because he didn't conduct himself as a typical retiree--sun and surf and RV vacations, TV game show marathons and recliner snoozing?  No!  He would have none of that.  He set out to make his retirement years as significant and as time and energy intensive as his three decades of teaching.  He became a political activist and an advocate for social justice and those in dire straights.  Especially those unable to advocate for themselves--the mentally ill and their families, senior citizens, the disabled and the homeless.

I'll refer you to the obituary for the details of his advocacy work--the organizations, committees, support groups, newsletters, conferences etc.

It was in his capacity as organizer and moderator of a support group for depression and anxiety sufferers that I met him in the late 90s and learned to admire him and care for him and Marcia as deeply as any of my grandparents.  For nearly a year of the several that I attended that weekly group he and Marcia picked me up and delivered me back home.  Both to take that burden off my parents and to encourage me to participate more openly with the group as it was his insight that their presence was inhibiting me.

It was Bernie's words early in my attendance of the group that lifted the burden of shame I'd carried for decades over this dark nemesis that had plagued me since my pre-teens.  He called it a disease that, like diabetes, was a chemical imbalance that left untreated was likely to be fatal.  Those words probably saved my life.

He also said that, in spite of popular opinion, depression was no more of a character flaw than diabetes or a broken leg.  Because of this I was eventually able to seek professional help.  One of my regrets now is that I never got around to contacting Bernie last year to let him know that I'd finally gotten the definitive diagnosis that had so eluded the many professionals I'd encountered over five decades--high functioning autism aka Aspberger's Syndrome.

At the time I bid farewell to the group when my husband got the Silicon Valley job in 1999, Bernie expressed his pleasure and pride in me for how far I'd come since the beginning.  A few weeks before that he'd demonstrated his belief and confidence in me by turning the duties of moderator over to me for one of the rare occasions he could not attend.  That contributed significantly to a sense of personal competence that carried me through the month that I had to live alone to pack up and close down our house while Ed was in California starting his new job and preparing for my arrival.  Something I could not have come close to accomplishing three years earlier.

Bernie was also the first--and still only--editor to accept and publish one of my poems.  He was for some years the editor of a special senior citizen newsletter insert for the Longview Daily News and the poem he published was one I'd written to honor my parents fortieth wedding anniversary.  Talk about a morale boost!

Bernie's motive for his vigorous advocacy was the impact of mental illness in his own family so it is a sad irony that his death was the result of injuries sustained at the hands of his own son, who has since been deemed not competent to stand trial due to mental illness. I know that Bernie's love for his children was steadfast and that for his son would not have been diminished one iota over this but I also know that he believed that in cases where someone was an imminent danger to self or others they needed to be committed to treatment and if necessary confined and medicated even against their will. He advocated for a better responsiveness from the system to information provided by family and others who know the ill individuals and who are in a position to know when there is a dire need to intervene.  In this case the sluggishness of the system failed the community as well as the Altman family--the son as much as his parents and sister.

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