Bernice was two years old before she met her father: He was away in England when she was born, serving his second mission. When he was released, her father wired her school-teacher mother to bring Bernice from the southern Utah mining camp where she had been born to Salt Lake City, where Bernice grew to young adulthood.
Folk wisdom has it that a child’s experiences in the womb shape his future life. That may be true in Bernice’s case: with a gospel-teaching father and a readin’-’n’-writin’-teaching mother, Bernice was a born teacher. She began teaching the Beehive girls when she herself was only 17 and newly graduated from high school. Her girls lay on blankets under the night sky and picked out constellations while she gave one lesson on the beauties of nature. She organized a “hobo breakfast” – the girls dressed in overalls with bandanas tied to sticks over their shoulders, as they “panhandled” in pairs from one of their homes to another: the mother of one girl gave out bread at her back door, the mother of another gave the beggars eggs, and so on, which they tied in their bandanas. Eventually the girls met at a city park, where they cooked their breakfasts over a fire in a pit. Her photo album shows Bernice with her own “hobo” pack tied to a stick, a bright checkered patch sewn to the seat of her worn overalls. She taught folk dancing in preparation for one MIA June conference, and helped the girls sew their muslin costumes. Before the year was out, every single girl of Beehive age in the ward – even the otherwise inactive ones – was attending MIA, because their friends couldn’t stop talking about how much fun they had in Bernice’s class.
Then came World War II. Bernice joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and spent most of the war years as a photographer on the Air Force training bases of Texas. Even there she found herself being a teacher: The Army eventually discovered that Bernice was a math whiz, and had her teaching both pilots and ground personnel the math they needed to make accurate aerial maps. Many expressed themselves as deathly afraid of the trigonometry they knew would be taught in the course. Bernice just waved her hand and said that would come at the end of the course, and she went on teaching them math line upon line, precept on precept. As the course neared completion and students again expressed fears of trigonometry, despite how well they were doing with their math to that point, Bernice finally confessed that they had been successfully doing trigonometry for many weeks.
Bernice returned to Salt Lake City after the war and resumed her interrupted secretarial career. She was the private secretary for several years to Mr. Stevens of Stevens-Heneger Business College, where her duties included filling in as a last-minute substitute in any course taught in the college. It didn’t matter. Bernice could do it all.
She married somewhat late, to a man she had met in the service ten years earlier, and began to raise a family. The timing of her marriage, with the couple’s resulting move to a tract subdivision of Salt Lake City, put Bernice in the heart of baby-boomer territory. When her daughter was three years old, Bernice taught that class (then called “Moonbeams”) in Primary. She had 24 – yes, 24 – three-year-olds in her class, which was held in one corner of the cultural hall. The hall was divided into “classrooms” by the use of wooden partitions which stood on legs 18 inches above the floor – perfect for three-year-olds to squirm under in order to go exploring. Bernice had to work to keep her mob of toddlers interested in the lesson and entertained by sufficient rest exercises to corral them successfully.
Bernice was for several years a stake Primary Inservice leader in Reno, Nevada. Her stake then covered a huge swath of Nevada and northern California and required her to drive over Donner Pass in her visits to some ward Primaries. She never missed an appointment, even in winter. Her stake meetings were filled with demonstrations of teaching techniques, illustrated in Bernice’s personal style: When one lesson was centered on living the gospel yourself to serve as a model for your students, Bernice made the concept concrete. She said, “If I tell you that I have a recipe for a savory bread that is incredibly easy to make, you might nod your head and agree that such a thing would be nice. If I teach you how to make it by giving you the recipe –” (she then passed out copies of her Dilly Bread recipe) “– some of you might actually make it. But if I show you how wonderful it is, inviting you to smell and taste it along with me –” (and here she passed out small loaves of the bread itself) “– then you will know just as I know how good it really is, and even more of you will make it yourselves. So it is when you show your students how sweet the Gospel is by sharing its fruits in your own life.”
Bernice always watched for the one in her class who needed a boost. When teaching the theology lessons in Relief Society, she planned her classes months in advance so that she could think of ways to involve sisters who never took part. One older sister had been a fine pianist for years before her left arm developed a terrible tremor. Bernice invented the need for someone to play a short and simple melody for one of her lessons, and asked Sister A. to help her with that. Because she asked months in advance, Sister A. accepted, and worked until she was prepared for her part – the first time in years, and possibly the last time in her life, that Sister A. played the piano in public.
When Billy came to Las Vegas from Florida to live with his grandparents, the other seven-year-olds in Primary made fun of his accent. The next week, Bernice tacked a large map of the United States to the wall and asked the children to name the places they had visited. Some had been to St. George; some to Salt Lake City; and some to places in Idaho. Bernice pointed to those places on the map and had the children describe ways those places were different from Las Vegas, emphasizing how far away from home they were and how some things – like the kinds of trees, and whether or not there was snow – were different the farther away from home you went. Then she called on Billy (whom she had visited during the week to teach him how to find Florida on the map) to point out the place he had just moved from. The other children let out an appreciative gasp – none of them had ever been so far away from Las Vegas, and they wanted to know what was different about Florida. Billy described a few things, then Bernice pointed out that Florida was so far away that people even talked a little bit differently than they did in Las Vegas. Suddenly Billy’s accent was cool, and he had no more trouble with his Primary class.
As Bernice grew older, she often mentioned how she wanted to spend her last years rocking babies and reading to her grandchildren. She didn’t have the chance to do either. Blindness robbed her of the ability to read, and a stroke made it difficult for her to hold babies safely. She was still a teacher, though. Her many grandchildren came to her house on the day before their birthdays, and she coached them verbally through the steps of baking and decorating their own birthday cakes. In the weeks before Christmas, the grandchildren would visit her in pairs, and she talked them through the steps of baking cookies – half their batches went into the freezer for the family Christmas party, and the other half were carried home by the proud bakers.
The children she had taught may not have forgotten her, either. During one low period when her family thought that Bernice might be dying, one of her sons gave her a blessing, and Bernice rallied. He later said that during that blessing, he kept hearing children’s voices praying “Bless my teacher,” as if all the prayers offered by the Primary children she had taught through the years had been kept in reserve for that day.
Bernice lived to “see” her first great-grandchild. Although she could not open her eyes or lift her own head, Bernice stroked the top of the baby’s head when her granddaughter placed the baby on her bed, and she whispered how sweet he was.
Bernice passed away nine years ago this morning. I love her, and I miss her.