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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

You Had to Be There, Part 4

The 1992 Big Band Reunion was the last my mother Martie attended. She was in the hospital the night of the 1993 Reunion and died the following month. While my father continued as president of the BBAA and emcee of the Reunions, the popularity of the annual event set about on a slow decline at that point, as did my dad's health. With my mom no longer there to prod him to see a doctor, my dad chose to ignore and deny symptoms -- at first minor -- of a failing heart.

Compare the strength of my father's voice at the 1994 Reunion ...

... to his opening remarks in 1997, which he precedes by clearing his throat before delivering a single word ...

... and then to the palpable struggle for air he exhibits in 2002, his next-to-last show ...

The comment in the 1997 clip about "last year's dinner" refers to the aborted 1996 Reunion, called off when the intended honoree of the evening, Artie Shaw, pulled out at the last minute. That saga alone would require a lengthy essay.

My father's philosophy of life was self-reliance in the extreme. From at least the time of my earliest recollections, he would chide my mother for "running to doctors," the implication being that to seek medical assistance was a sign of weakness. Bolstering this philosophy was the fact that my dad had never faced serious illness himself or been hospitalized. And I have to give him grudging kudos for staying true to his belief even when his own health began to break down. As the '90s gave way to the early 2000s, my father's cardiovascular issues now included swelling of the feet and ankles, along with shortness of breath while sleeping on his back, in addition to the decade-long symptom of gasping for air while speaking, especially publicly. Yet despite the flashing red lights, he remained resistant to getting even a cursory check-up.

Two months after the 2002 Reunion, those of us urging my dad to see a doctor finally prevailed. He agreed to go to an urgent care center, but in typical Milt Bernhart fashion, he insisted on going alone and driving himself, telling us he expected to be given a clean bill of health and sent back home. Instead, the staff at the urgent care center took a single blood pressure reading that was so low (80/50) they immediately called for an ambulance and my father was rushed to the nearest hospital.

A week later and about 30 pounds lighter thanks to diuretics, my dad came home having been formally diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It was a blessing that he'd been pulled back from the brink of death, but we knew his long-term prognosis was poor.

Remarkably, he forged ahead one more year in charge of the Big Band Academy, serving as host of the 2003 Reunion. Though his gaunt appearance startled some and his voice was weaker than ever, he kept an upbeat demeanor and went the distance, from the top of the program ...

... to the words that turned out to be the last he would utter from the stage ...

Even more remarkably, my father actually went on to make plans to emcee the 2004 Big Band Reunion. As of the second full week of January -- less than two months before the March 7 event -- he had signed the usual contracts with the Sportsmen's Lodge and the Musicians Union, mailed out ticket order forms and already received some checks in return, completed a few but not all of the many other preproduction tasks and announced that this show would be his farewell both as master of ceremonies and as president of the BBAA.

Then he abruptly took to his bed.

I don't know what imminent death feels like, but it was overtaking my dad. He spent a week in bed without eating, drinking, complaining or asking for assistance of any kind. Clearly he had become prepared to depart this life. My sister and I, however, weren't ready to give up; we decided on January 18 to have him taken to the hospital. He didn't want to go, but he didn't fight us either. He died in the hospital four days later.

The Big Band Academy had no plan of succession for its presidency. There were a couple of logical candidates on the board of directors, but both had declined the job at the time my father announced that he would retire following the 2004 Reunion. Similarly, no one came forward in the hours after my dad's passing. I understood. The Reunion was only six weeks away and too many commitments had been made to permit the notion of canceling, while simultaneously a great deal of the work my father would have otherwise finished by then remained to be done. Whoever ended up at the helm of this floundering ship was going to have their hands full.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I volunteered to step in and at least get the organization through the Reunion. I wasn't qualified to serve as interim president for any reasons related to big bands or the music business, but having observed the master at work since 1986, I knew the things that needed to be done. And I was willing to assume the role. It wouldn't be so bad. The extra activity would help take my mind off of my father's sudden absence.

I also agreed to emcee the Reunion in my dad's stead.

That was more daunting.

To be continued ...

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