Making a Difference: Mama Gerry retires after serving Madison community for decades

Published: Jan. 24, 2020 at 8:56 AM CST
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The only sound louder than the thud of a bowling ball crashing into pins at Schwoegler’s Park Towne Lanes in Madison is Geraldine Bernard’s laugh.

Bernard, more affectionately known by her friends as “Mama Gerry,” bowls with her league, the Happy Ladies, every Tuesday morning.

“Sometimes I can do nothing wrong, but most of the time I do nothing right,” Bernard said. For Mama Gerry, Tuesday morning bowling excursions are more about the company than the numbers on the scorecard.

“Sometimes I start off good and sometimes I don’t,” Bernard laughed. “Whichever way the cookie crumbles is alright with me."

Many of Bernard’s sentences are punctuated with laughter, with her friends speaking in a similar manner. The Happy Ladies team certainly lives up to their positive name.

"You know, you just take things lightly, you don’t get upset about anything,” said fellow Happy Lady Marian Sullins. “I hate to say, but we are at an age, you know, we should laugh more. I like laughing.”

By age, Sullins is referring to the fact that her fellow bowlers are all retired and over the age of 70.

“80, 74, 76, oh, and 83,” Sullins reflects, pointing her to counterparts around the room.

As for Mama Gerry, the woman her friends also call the “Mother Hen” of the group, as well as a strong bowler – she’s 90 years old. Bernard celebrated the milestone birthday in December, and has not slowed down for a second since.

Despite her Rheumatoid arthritis, Bernard wears a wrist cast and continues to bowl, saying staying active help her body remain loose. Originally from Louisiana, Bernard credits the cooler weather in Wisconsin in helping alleviate some of her pain.

"If I can throw that ball down the alley, that's good for me," Bernard said.

Bernard’s friends also say that she can be a tough cookie, after a 35 year career in education.

“She was a school teacher so she’ tough, she’s tough,” said Sullins. “Like in the summertime, we're like, ‘are we going to bowl this summer?’ ‘Yes we're going to bowl!’ end of discussion."

That toughness came into play early on in her career, when Bernard became one of the first African America teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

“When I came on the scene they were asking me, ‘who are you and what are you doing here?’ And I would say, ‘well what are you doing here?’ ‘Well I'm a teacher.’ ‘So am I!’"

Bernard began teaching in Madison in the 1960s, after teaching in Louisiana. At first, she said she was a pool teacher, now called a substitute teacher. In that role, Bernard said she was able to visit multiple schools throughout the district.

Eventually, she went on to settle into teaching positions at Silver Spring, and then Aldo Leopold Elementary School. She retired as a fourth grade teacher from Leopold in 1989.

“I retired in 1989 and I’ve been busy ever since,” she said.

From fourth grade, to a food pantry, Bernard has dedicated her retirement to serving others. In 2000, she volunteered to help her church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison, establish a food pantry.

Little did she know she would be the one to ultimately run the pantry, and that about 20 years later, she would still be at its helm.

"A lot of people need help, and I’m saying why not me.” she said. “The state, Madison, and the county have been good to me, I got what I came here for, it has worked.”

Bernard said she decided to make the pantry “choice” based. Volunteers individually take recipients through the food pantry, asking them what items specifically they would like that visit, rather than giving them predetermined bags or packages of food. Bernard said that way, no food goes to waste.

Even in volunteering, Bernard still acts the part of Mother Hen, warmly welcoming people inside, cautioning them against the ice on the sidewalks outside, and letting them know which options they may enjoy, or which are healthiest.

Much like at the bowling alley, Bernard is still quick on her feet at the pantry. In a moment, she’s restocking shelves, sorting through freezers, and walking people to the waiting area.

But after a 35 year teaching career, nearly 20 years volunteering and leading the pantry, and turning 90, it is finally time for Mama Gerry to slow down.

“Now I have a most important job. My job now will be to take care of me,” she said. “When somebody asks me to do something, I first look at what I need to do for me. And if I have to say no, I feel good. No problem saying no. I’ve said yes a long time.”

Bernard said she will never completely stop going to the pantry, planning on dropping by to help every once in a while. Now, her friend and fellow bowler Sullins, will take the reins.

“I’ve been doing this for about six years now working with Mother Bernard, and she’s getting ready to retire. Hopefully I can fill her shoes, hopefully,” Sullins said. “Gerry is very organized. Her energy level is off the charts.”

"It's time to let somebody else take over,” Bernard said. “I’m not as strong as I used to be. I can’t lift anymore, and I know that. I don’t want to wait until I fall or hurt somebody else. Get out while I’m ahead and still feel good. You know, it’s time."

Bernard still feels strong enough to bowl, saying she won’t stop her Tuesday morning league. She and her friends plan to continue living up to their team name.

“Life is short enough, you know,” Bernard said. “So be happy."