Elroy children warm up to lovable senior volunteer
Eleanor Berge smiled coyly as some youngsters asked the small-statured, spunky near-90-year-old her age. “100?” one girl shouted out.
“Not quite,” Berge said, laughing. “On my next birthday, my age plus 10 will be 100.”
“You're 90, almost?” another girl quickly asked, as a boy shouted out, “99?”
“If I happen to be breathing when I'm 99, I'll probably be sitting right here,” Berge said. “And you'll be where?”
“The middle/high school,” the handful of second-graders answered.
Berge, 89, of Overbrook, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in World War II, has spent nearly 25 years as a volunteer at Elroy Elementary School in Brentwood after retiring as a guidance counselor at Brentwood High School in 1986. Teachers and administrators honored her with a plaque and party last week for her years of service in the district.
“She's kind and nice and I know she likes everyone,” said second-grader Jennifer Bakowski, 7, as she gave Berge a hug.
Berge, a Boston native, moved with her family to Mt. Oliver as a child and graduated from Carrick High School in 1942.
Her first job was at age 18 with Gulf Oil Corp. At 20, she entered the Navy during World War II, and was assigned to the fleet post office in San Francisco, where she sorted packages and later worked in the fleet record's office.
“I wanted to go. My parents weren't really happy with it. But I went,” she said.
Berge, who never married, entered the armed services in honor of her brother, Rider, who was killed in action during World War II when his ship took a direct hit, she said.
“I guess that's what spurred me on,” Berge said.
Working in the mail room, Berge learned a lot about the soldiers and their families by opening the packages that were never delivered.
“People would send tomatoes for the service men and they would never get them and we would have to open them,” she said.
Berge was in San Francisco when the war ended.
“That town went crazy,” she said.
The trolley cars were “spinning around like a merry go-round,” bars were broken into and the destruction was insurmountable, Berge said.
Berge made a list of songs that were written during the war about the war — she found 20, and she can hum most of them at a moment's notice.
“World War II brought this country together more than any other war ever did,” Berge said.
Berge traveled by bus from San Francisco to Chicago to tour the United States when the war ended, then she took a train home to Pittsburgh.
She signed up for the reserves and went to school under the GI Bill, receiving her undergraduate degree in health and physical education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1950.
She started teaching at Concord School then was called back to serve in the Korean Conflict.
When Berge returned, she taught at Homewood, then the University of Pittsburgh for six years before accepting a job in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District teaching health and physical education, where she taught for 13 years.
Berge then worked in the Brentwood Borough School District as a guidance counselor for nearly 14 years.
She took a year off after retiring before coming back to volunteer.
“I love kids,” Berge said. “I just want to be with people.. . . When I started here at Brentwood, I said, ‘Forget about retiring.' I don't want to leave. This is such an A+ school district.”
In Brentwood, Berge said, she feels accepted.
“This group of people, it's contagious,” she said. “This whole school district, it's small and it's just so nice.”
Berge spends two mornings every week at Elroy going over stories, working on reading lessons and doing puzzles and word games with students.
“It gets me out of bed early two days a week,” she said. “It gives me a purpose.”
Patti Bohenko, a first-grade teacher at Elroy has known Berge for about 20 years. Berge volunteers with Bohenko's students.
“She introduces them to a world they don't know about,” Bohenko said. “She's experienced so many things that we haven't.”
Berge has become a friend to the teachers at Elroy, Bohenko said.
“It's just such an inspiration to all of the teachers. She spends so much time with all of the kids and she just loves being here,” said Elroy reading specialist teacher Mark Sundo, who taught fourth grade until last year and had Berge talk to his class about her experiences in World War II.
“The kids cuddle up to her like a grandma. She just takes to them and nurtures them,” Sundo said. Likewise, Berge gravitates to the children, Principal Amy Burch said.
“From the moment she walks in, it's ‘hello to everybody, but I've got to go get my kids,'” she said.
Berge has become a staple at Elroy, teachers and students alike say.
“We hope she lasts forever,” Sundo said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.