Many of us are lucky enough to get to know at least one grandparent in our lifetime. They may have a legal name, but it’s highly likely that when we were young, we called them something slightly (or drastically) different. My grandmother’s name was June, but to me, and to my friends and family, she was, and will forever be…
My grandmother passed away two years ago today, November 7th, 2010, about a month before her 87th birthday. After a long, beautiful, full life, she fought through an exhausting, deadly blood disease to see her only grandson get married at the age of 29. The last day that I saw my grandmother, she was sitting at Hillcrest Convalescent Center in Durham, in my grandfather, Charlie Bertsch’s room (right next to her room). It was ‘pajama’ day at the school where I teach, but I had time during lunch to take my wife, Mindy, over to visit. I came in the room, and Junie immediately started laughing hysterically. We sat down, chatted for about 20 minutes, and as we left, I gave my grandmother a hug and a kiss, and she smiled back at me and said “I love you.” Little did I know how fortunate I was to share this last brief, beautiful, heart-warmingly simple moment with her. She’d always been emotional, in fact every time we left their home in Warsaw, Indiana in the last probably 20 years she would cry, not just because she would miss being with us, but because she didn’t think she had much time left. Now, 22 years later, I have had valuable time to reflect on one of the most important people in my life. Here are tidbits of the story that is Junie.
June Brown, born December 6th, 1923 in Hazard, Kentucky. Yes, Hazard as in the Dukes of Hazard. She always had a special place in her heart for the Blue Ridge Mountains, and when I attended Appalachian State University, in the heart of said mountains, she was thrilled beyond belief. Here is Junie, on the right, sitting on the front porch of their Hazard home with her mother (who I called Mimi) and her brother I believe (who died at a very young age) before they moved to Warsaw, Indiana.
When she was a teenager, she and her mother moved to Warsaw, Indiana, where she would live until she moved to North Carolina in 2010. These photos were taken around 1940.
My grandmother was a beautiful, smart young woman, and she was able to get a job in the Warsaw High School front office. She would keep track of all the student’s absences; little did she know this position would change her life forever.
While working, one particular student’s name kept surfacing as absent. His name was Charles Bertsch. Junie thought he had the silliest name she’d ever heard, and as she became more familiar with the name, and eventually met the young man, she realized there was more to this person than just the name. She found out that Charlie was absent because he was spending time with his father farming. They went on dates together, and fell in love…you know, the classic good girl meets hard working bad boy story. Here they are, during the winter of 1942 outside Charlie’s family’s home.
During their young lives together, Junie and Charlie enjoyed being together in Warsaw with their families. Junie did some work in the local community at their church, as well as other local organizations, as Charlie waited to see if he would go to war. In 1943, Charlie decided to join the Army, so the two did their best to enjoy their time together before he shipped out to the South Pacific.
Here, Junie is spending time with her sister.
She had professional photos done in a studio for Charlie before he left in 1943 so that he could keep them with him during the war. Here are a few.
Junie and Charlie enjoyed as much time together as they could. Enjoying a bike ride, or spending time at the house where Charlie grew up.
In the latter part of ‘43, Charlie shipped out to Fort Bliss, Texas for basic training, where he would prepare for his two-year tour in the South Pacific during WWII, where he would fight in Fiji, Panay and the Philippines as a Anti-Aircraft unit Sergeant in the 233rd. Before he left, though, Junie joined him in Fort Bliss, where they spent a short time together, and were married while on the base. The pastor who married them would tell Junie during the ceremony “If Charlie drives you through life the way he drove me around through the desert last night, I know you’ll be OK.”
Charlie was stationed off the coast of Japan when the bombs were dropped. His unit was awaiting orders regarding the invasion of Japan, but luckily, as the war came to a close, he returned home with hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. When he returned home safely, Junie and Charlie started a family. They had a beautiful daughter, Dianne.
Around the time Dianne came around, Charlie decided he would get into the vending business. He started in his garage with one 5 cent candy machine that he took to different locations in his pickup truck. Junie became the business’ secretery, and Bertsch Vending was born. At the peak of their success, Bertsch Services would be one of the biggest vending companies in the midwest, and Charlie would serve as president of the national vending association, NAMA.
When Dianne grew up, she and her husband Jim moved to Kalamazoo, MI, where they adopted me, Jordan. Nothing brought a bigger thrill to Junie’s life than meeting her grandson. We formed an immediate, unique bond that would only grow stronger and stronger over the years.
Our family has always loved traveling, and Junie and I were fortunate to share some wonderful experiences together traveling to different places.
I also was lucky enough to grow up around Bertsch Services, where Junie, Charlie (grampa, or as my wife calls him, prampa) and I shared many amazing memories, like the first time I drove around a little tikes jeep.
Junie continued to play an active part in my life until the day she passed away. Even after we moved to North Carolina, our bond never changed.
No matter where we lived, Christmas time was always Junie time. We were lucky to be able to share Christmas together. I remember when my grandparents lived in Warsaw, and Junie had a packing table in their basement covered in gifts, where she would start wrapping in probably August. We also enjoyed many years of baking uncomparable home-made frosted sugar cookies (which is a tradition Mindy and I and our friends carry on today), and as you can see here, Junie was also a bit of a shopaholic…
Also one of Junie’s greatest loves was college football season. She’d had connections with Purdue University (she had a good friend who was a Dean there) so she got to go see Purdue play. When I got to Appalachian, she was so thrilled that we had a great football team, and she vowed to one day get to a football game in Boone. As time went on, and her ailment started to take more of a toll, we were afraid she wouldn’t have that opportunity. We were wrong.
A few years back, my grandmother donated some money to Appalachian’s scholarship fund. She had heard me talk about what an amazing man our head coach, Jerry Moore, was. She read about the team, and kept up with the scores. She wrote coach Moore a letter stating that she was so happy that Appalachian’s football program did things the right way. She was so very generous, but never expected anything in return. A week later, she received a hand-written letter from coach Moore, not only thanking her for the generous gift, but also mentioning that his son lived in Wisconsin, and that they next time he and his wife, Margaret would be up in the midwest, they would stop by to see Junie at her home in Warsaw, Indiana.
Junie was blown away by the letter, and she and coach Moore wrote a few more letters back and forth, one of which Junie used to explain to coach Moore how much she’s always wanted to own a football team (The Chicago Bears, to be exact). Coach Moore, as well as our good friends Rick Beasley and Kindsay Greene Reeder tried to figure out how to get Junie to a football game. We planned to bring her up to a game soon after she would move to NC, hoping her health would hold up. We drove her up for the day, and she got to meet coach Moore and speak with him for the only time in her life. It was amazing.
Coach said “June, if we win this game, can I get you to come down into the locker room after?” to which she said “of course!” At the end of a rivalry game in which App won by over 30 points, there we were, in the locker room, my grandmother in a wheelchair and me right behind. Coach Moore asked her to come join the team huddle in the middle of the locker room. He told the story about the letters, and about the bond he had made with Junie, how he wished that he could get her the Chicago Bears, but that he would be proud to give her the game ball. Junie was shocked, and as she took the game ball while the players around were cheering, she said “other than my husband, my daughter, and my grandson here…this is the best day of my life.”
Mindy and I, as well as our family and friends (many of my friends Junie considered her own grandchildren) were thrilled beyond belief that Junie and Grampa could both sit side by side at our wedding. At one point when Mindy and I were still dating, Junie threatened that if I didn’t “**** or get off the pot” so to speak, and ask Mindy to marry me, she would replace me with her. Her love for Mindy was just as special and unique as my relationship with her.
So as you could expect, our wedding was an emotional day for numerous reasons, and in Junie’s opinion, one of the crowning acheivements of her life. She fought so hard, choosing to get day-long blood transfusions to battle her blood disease, simply to stay strong enough to live until our wedding day. Her nurses, her doctors, her friends, they all knew about our wedding; it was Junie’s last wish, and it was an experience that we will all remember forever.
I hope that many years from now, my life will be defined as Junie’s has been; a life full of love, passion, generosity, giving, and true un-equalled kindness. Whether it be in marriage…
or family, or service. Her devotion to her husband, her daughter, and to her grandson has helped shaped how I live each day.
Junie, we all miss you, and we are truly fortunate that you shared your love with us. We are all better people because of you.
As your grandson, know that wherever you are, your spirit lives strong in me, and will always. Mom, Mindy, Grampa and I promise to follow your example, and continue to care for others, and love with the same passion you did your whole life.
I love you. Thank you for always being with me.