Tales of Retirement in Paradise
|Chapter 25: Too Much of a Good Thing... Is Wonderful!|
Polly G. Vicars
|From below came the melodic strain of Las Mañanitas sung by Mariachis and many friends.|
Bernice Starr, artist, educator, philanthropist, writer, humanitarian, children's advocate, warm, loving, sparkling human being, reached the very young age of four-score on January 26, 1995. She greeted this milestone with her usual equanimity and the love and well wishes of the profusion of friends that breach all barriers of age, race, gender, nationality, social and economic station.
|Performing especially for Bernice, Los Mariachis coaxed great peals or laughter from the guest of honor.|
|A former becada, now a distinguished teacher, La Señora, serenaded us with a haunting ballad.|
|Former Becados and teachers, Hector Ulloa and La Señora entertain with a fast paced dance.|
|Bernice with Ron Walker showing us all how it should be done.|
|Ron and Celia Walker with Husband filming it all.|
|Wow! Those Mariachis could dance as well as sing.|
|Becas member and former assistant to John Huston, Joan Blake.|
|Former Becado doing what comes naturally.|
One month earlier, looking to completely surprise her, a longtime friend from Chicago threw her a wing-ding of a surprise birthday party. More than one hundred friends, admirers and "children" came bringing gifts, flowers and love. Many brought checks made, not to Bernice, but her greatest love, The America-México Foundation, Inc. It was a magnificent evening in a lovely setting decorated with shining stars and crowned with the brightest star of all - Bernice.
Having celebrated her eightieth birthday in grand style, Bernice then settled down to business - working tirelessly to secure a library* for the children of Vallarta, and setting the wheels in motion for the March AMF dinner-dance, She did not anticipate any further celebrations or surprises. She should have known better!
She awoke on "the day" to the constant ringing of the telephone and the sounds of beautiful (or in my case, off-key) voices singing the English "Happy Birthday" or the Spanish "Las Mañanitas" accompanied by the well-wishes of her dearest friends and admirers. The Brown Baggers, a group of friends who have played bridge together for years, took her to a birthday lunch at her favorite restaurant. She had a wonderful day.
A gang of her ex-scholarship students had decided she must have the traditional Mexican birthday greeting of a dawn serenade. However, in deference to her neighbors and the gringos who can't quite get into rising ahead of the sun to sing, they had agreed to hold it at dusk. Husband and I were asked to be sure she was at home and to record the event in video and still pictures. Thus, we asked if we could meet with her in her home at 6 o'clock in the afternoon.
Casa Estarr, her home, is perched on the hill overlooking the lush islands that split the beautiful Rio Cuale. The walls are filled with colorful Vallarta scenes painted by her late husband, Ed. Bernice and Ed lived in California when they were first married. He was a color coordinator for animation for top Hollywood studies, including Walt Disney. In 1954, his desire to paint as his inner-self directed prompted him to convince Bernice to make the move to Puerto Vallarta.
She gave up her job teaching sixth graders, which she says, while not glamorous by Hollywood standards, was a most wonderful experience. (Remember, I, too, felt that way about my sixth graders. Sixth graders are balanced on that beam between child and adult: they retain all the curiosity and wonder of the child, but blend it with the responsibility and ability of the adult. Working daily with sixth graders develops a love and respect for children that stays with you for your entire life. I'm sure this was the seed that grew into Bernice's and my complete dedication to the AMF.)
When we arrived for our "appointment," we sat at her round table which serves as desk for her many papers pertinent to the library committee, the AMF, and the children's book she has recently penned to narrate her whimsical and colorful paintings. Yes, it seems after she lost Ed, she found she also had a talent for painting, and she is just now, at this young age, employing her talent in that direction. (I love the cover she painted for this book.)
As we sat there, I began to ask her questions about her first years in Vallarta. She told us that after Ed moved them to Puerto Vallarta. he found a happiness he could never have found working for someone else. When asked how they managed financially, she explained that at first they lived solely on rental income from their California home.
Then she told us of Ed painting and displaying his paintings in a gallery in the then gringo gathering place, the Hotel Oceana. She said that each evening they would dress, go to the hotel bar to which all roads led, schmooze with the customers, hoist a glass or two, and average selling a couple of paintings a week. The income from the sale of his paintings and the greeting cards they made together fed their stomachs, and the beauty of Vallarta and its people fed their souls.
Bernice quickly became a part of the community by working in a free children's clinic, trying to get a library established, and joining a group of caring Mexican and American women who were raising money to send a few ambitious, but needy youngsters to school.
From that beginning came the present AMF, Inc. Bernice is not only the President, but is the Queen, the Guiding Light, the Mother Superior, albeit, at times, the nagging voice, the prickly pin, and the demanding perfectionist, but always the loving heart and soul of the organization.
She will proudly tell you that, this year, there are almost 200 junior high, senior high and university students on Foundation scholarships. In a family with several school age children, the cost of books, uniforms, transportation, housing and tuition is often so great a financial burden that some cannot continue beyond the mandated sixth grade. So these scholarships are especially meaningful here where families are traditionally larger than those in the States and in Canada.
The scholarships are not just given to any one. There are stringent criteria: great economic need, a B average or above and good citizenship. Social workers from the schools visit the homes of the applicants to talk with the parents and to check their financial status; teachers recommend only those students who meet all criteria.
Thus the cadre of becados (scholarship students) comes from the best and the brightest Vallarta offers. Our ex-becados bear this out: prominent lawyers, architects, doctors, dentists, teachers, writers, mothers and business people are plying their professions in Vallarta. The rewards of this program extend to the far reaches. As you read in "Dreams Do Come True," Doctor Luz María Rodriguez is currently practicing and teaching in her alma mater, the prestigious Academic Hospital in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
Luz María is not the only becado who reveres Bernice. Last year Bernice wanted Husband and me to meet some of our University becados. She told one student who was studying at the University of Guadalajara (this was before we had our branch in Vallarta), she wanted him to come to meet us. The day before the meeting she spoke with him and asked him to bring his school records so that we might see them. He said, "Sí, Señora Bernice," and she thought nothing more of having made the request.
The next day when Bernice and he arrived, he apologized for a yawn by saying he had been on the bus all night, as he had to return to Guadalajara (a seven-hour bus ride each way) to get his school records to show to us. Bernice was dumb struck and I, in my well known abrupt manner, said, "I would have just told her I didn't have the records and let it go at that!"
He looked at me in bewilderment and said, "You would say that to Señora Bernice? I would never do that!" That kind of devotion to Bernice should prepare you to hear the rest of the story of her fiesta.
As I prodded Bernice to tell me more of her story, from below the balcony came the melodic strain of the Mexican birthday song, "Las Mañanitas." We went to the balcony and below us was a stunning group of Mariachis playing the traditional trumpets, violins, violas, and guitars. Joining in the salute was a group of ex-becados and committee members who had arranged this special tribute. Husband whipped out the video and I pulled out my handy point and shoot.
Bernice was thrilled, surprised, and moved to tears by all the love flowing up to her. Husband had to interrupt filming to lend a handkerchief to wipe away tears, and I'm not sure he didn't use it himself a few times. After a snappy rendition of the American version of Happy Birthday, all filed up the stairs and into Bernice's gracious home. The guests thought of everything: they brought plates of lovingly prepared food and the paper plates in which to serve it, a bottle or two of "celebration liquid," and, of course, the music. To quote Ron Walker, a foundation member and a planner of the event, "It is very simple to throw a great party. All you need is music, Mexicans and ice. Stir well and you have it!"
And "Great Party" it was! Mariachi Nuevo Vallarta delighted us with song after song. Then an ex-becada, now a dignified teacher, captivated us with her stirring rendition of a popular ballad. Amid cries of "Otra, Otra" (more, more), much clapping and urging, she pulled another ex-becado, a well-known, up and coming entrepreneur, to the center to join her in a fast-paced dance. Together, to the beat of the group's clapping hands, they danced with the expertise of youngsters from the University of Guadalajara's Folkloric Ballet. How their bodies can move in all those directions is something that will forever remain a mystery to us gringos!
Then everyone sang, clapped and danced, often led by the guest of honor. There was laughter; there were times when everyone joined hands and swayed rhythmically to the music; and there were comical impersonations by the talented Mariachis. A night of nights!
There was a mixture of sadness with all this merriment, but somehow the Mexicans handled even that with ease and grace. Two señoras, mother and daughter, came in carrying an enormous arrangement of colorful tropical flowers that they lovingly gave to Bernice.
I had never met these señoras, and during the evening they told me their story. About ten years ago, son and brother of those two lovely ladies was a becado studying at the University of Guadalajara. He came home for Semana Santa (Easter Week) and with a group of his friends went in a borrowed truck out to a deserted beach for the day. On their return, they ran off a steep embankment, and the boy and three other becados were killed.
Bernice, being Bernice, visited the homes of each of her beloved becados to mourn, to lend love and support to those who had lost such precious young family members. All these years later, Mother and Sister came to celebrate and to show respect to Bernice on this important milestone in her long and loving life.
This writer has been privileged to attend parties all over the world - some with Presidents, Ex-Presidents and Presidents-To-Be, Governors, Ambassadors and stars of stage, screen and athletic arena. (Wow! I didn't know I could drop so many names!) However I tell you honestly I have never attended a party to equal Bernice's.
Whether laughing or crying, speaking in English or Spanish, dancing or watching - whether old or young, Mexican, American or Canadian - our hearts were bound together in love and joy to pay tribute to the life of this unique and magnificent lady - Bernice Starr! It was an evening none of us will ever forget.
*Another dream is coming true. On June 5,1995, the Mayor of Vallarta, joined by Bernice, broke ground for the Puerto Vallarta Public Library. This is the dream for which Bernice has been laboring for more than thirty years!
(Of course Bernice is no longer with us, the library, Biblioteca Los Mangos, is growing by leaps and bounds and the America-Mexico Foundation, Inc. / Becas Vallarta, A.C. continues to fund the education of hundreds of economically challenged girls and boy of Puerto Vallarta. And the spirit of Bernice still burns brightly in the Foundation and many ex-becados help keep it going with their involvement. If you want to be a part of this marvelous foundation check out our web site at americamexicofoundation.com or write to me at phvicars(at)gmail.com or call me at (322) 223-1371)
Polly G. Vicars and her husband of 57 years, Hubert (a.k.a. "Husband") retired to Puerto Vallarta in 1988 and soon became active members of several charitable organizations. Polly is the author of "Tales of Retirement in Paradise: Life in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico" [a sell-out!] and "More Tales of Retirement in Puerto Vallarta and Around the World." Proceeds from the sale of her books go to the America-Mexico Foundation, a scholarship foundation that is their passion.
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