Most Italians in Highwood or Highland Park think back on Dr. Hugh Bernardi with the fondest of memories. For decades, many of us sat on the vintage 1960s orange and aqua Naugahyde benches in his Highland Park office with one medical problem or another. He was such a character, profoundly intelligent, friendly and empathetic, a down to earth joker who made light of his patients’ ailments in order to take their minds off them.
Above all he was a great diagnostician, unlike today’s doctors who commonly require thousands of dollars in diagnostic tests to tell us if our problem is actually serious. His bedside manner was friendlier than most, and he quite often asking about the relatives he knew while he was inspecting our ears. “How’s Mom? And your Nonna?” He knew them by name. When your long wait was up and your name was called, it wasn’t unusual for him to spend an entire hour with you if he felt like it. He was just that kind of doctor: Every patient had his undivided attention. Recently, I sat down with his daughter, Rosemary Bernardi, to get an inside look at his life, and how he came to be our community’s cherished, old-fashioned doctor.
Hugh Bernardi was born in Gramolazzo, a small village in the province of Lucca, right in the shadow of the mountain they call “il Pizannino.” The Doctor’s father was a mechanic. His grandfather had descended from further up in the mountains to Gramolazzo to find work. Hugh’s father had a third grade education, but knew the importance of a higher education for his son. When Hugh was young, his father went to work in the mines in Cherry, Ill., then eventually, he found his way to Highwood, working as a mechanic for Borden Dairy on Green Bay Road in Highland Park.
His father sent money home to Gramolazzo regularly and made it clear to his wife that Hugh was to be educated in La Spezia under the watchful eye of the friars. There he learned the classics, Latin and Greek, and it was there he learned to think and to analyze.
As Mussolini was beefing up his military, Hugh’s father became concerned. Mussolini was creating an alliance with Hitler and began enlisting Italy’s young men. He was getting ready for the Spanish Revolution and World War II. Hugh’s father quickly sent for him to come to America when he was 17 to avoid being drafted for war. It was 1935, and before he knew it, Hugh found himself attending English classes, listening to American radio and attending Highland Park High School as a senior.
Upon graduation, Hugh attended Loyola University for his undergraduate degree, while boarding with a family. He was then was accepted to Illinois Research Medical School (now the University of Illinois). During Hugh’s sophomore year in college, he exhibited symptoms of tuberculosis. Hugh’s doctor wanted to put him into a sanitarium for patients with TB. But Hugh’s father wouldn’t have it. He knew that if he allowed his son to be admitted, he would surely acquire the disease if he didn’t already have it. So Hugh’s father brought him to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for thorough testing. As it turned out, Hugh did not have the disease and even luckier for him, his college professors still passed him with flying colors, waiving his final exam requirements because he was such a bright student!
Doctor Bernardi graduated from med school in December 1943. He was married the same year and immediately served in the Army treating soldiers injured in WWII. After the war ended, he wanted to return to Italy to see his mother and sisters, but it wasn’t yet meant to be. The army sent him to Asia instead to continue his service to his new country, caring for soldiers.
The Doctor had an unbelievable reverence for older people. In Gramolazzo, he was raised by his father’s father, sharing a bedroom with him. There, he had also watched his mother as she went around the village taking care of people. Rosemary shares that, “This must be where he picked up the love of caring for the elderly.” Rosemary also recalls going on house calls with her father. “God forbid, if there was something on the stove, no problem, he’d walk up to the stove and taste it, and they’d say, “Dottore, please sit down and have some.” He made it easy for the old people by making house calls to them rather than have them make the trip into the office. “And if it was lunchtime and he had three house calls, then he had three lunches, he loved to eat!” He loved his patients’ tortellini, tortellacci and polenta.
Rosemary continued, “I was told that there were plenty of people who couldn’t pay. He told me once, ‘You don’t deny medical service if someone doesn’t have the money. It doesn’t say in the Hippocratic Oath, above all, do no harm if they have money, but if they don’t then go ahead. There is no shame in being poor,’ he once told me, ‘It is just too damn hard.'”
The Doctor didn’t always get paid in cash for his services. “We had a number of improvements done to our house as payment for services: a gorgeous stone fireplace, a beautifully remodeled basement, a custom bar,” Rosemary recalls. “And there in the basement he kept a work room/studio. It was his creative room, where he worked on projects and stored his collections from garage sales and resale shops.”
Saturdays were garage sale days. “I remember him bringing home all sorts of interesting things, candlesticks, furniture,” Rosemary recounts. He knew all the employees at Ort and the Hadassah House by first name. Once, at Ort, he found a fine suit that seemed to fit him perfectly. One day, this one doc said to him, ‘I had a suit just like that.’ His son in law was with him that day and just about crawled under the couch. The other doctor continued, ‘Hey where’d you get that?’ My father said, ‘At Ort.’ The doctor said, ‘Hey that was MY suit!’ And my dad said, ‘Yeah, I know, it’s got your initials in it.’ He would never be embarrassed by that, because that was the kind of person he was. He was not impressed by wealth and fancy things. He was not pretentious at all. My father believed the quality of a person is on the inside, not the outside.”
I guess you could say that his hobby was tinkering with mechanical things. He loved working on old cars. He had one in the back, at his office. He “fixed” the wiring so that if you turned on the lights, the windshield wipers would turn on. He had a few more cars at home to work on for fun. Rosemary remembered that once, when they went for a Sunday drive to Wisconsin, it stated to rain. The family was in their 1960 red convertible with checkered interior, and the top was down. They just couldn’t get the top up, no matter how hard they tried. They were driving down the road, in the rain, getting completely wet. “People were just staring at us!” Rosemary recalled.
There were other cars the Doctor would try to fix under the hood. If he changed something, it never worked again. He even fixed Rosemary’s car once and then it would only go backward. He loved working on all sorts of mechanical things. “As soon as he’d try to fix something, we all knew we had to call the repair man. Just like the time he fixed the toaster, it caught on fire the next time we used it!”
Doctor Bernardi had a bypass at 66, but continued working his usual long hours. He just loved the Italian people. He loved the interaction with them. It was like he was revisiting his homeland every time he visited with his patients. He especially loved the old people, and loved making house calls. He would pinch their cheek, and then say “Ayyyye, what are you doing in bed?” Well, they would say, I have this and I have that, and he would say, “Yeah, same story as last time!” He would get them laughing. It was like he was their son, who had come to take care of them. He joked with them because he believed that the mind controlled everything. He would say, “Even if you are ill, if you have a good attitude, the body usually heals itself.”
The good doctor retired in 1991 at 73 years old. He passed away peacefully in 1997 at 79 years old. He will be remembered fondly by all those whose lives he touched.
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to share it with others.