Brommel, PhD, Bernard Brommel, Bernard Joseph 8/13/1930, Des Moines, IA - 9/22/2018 Kalamazoo, MI. Dr. Bernard J. Brommel Age, 88 of Kalamazoo, MI, died Saturday, 9/22/2018 after a long battle with heart disease and kidney failure. Born 8/13/1930 in Des Moines, IA, raised in St. Marys, IA. Taught 46 years in high schools and universities, including 26 years at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Retired from teaching in 1997, but continued private psychotherapy practice until struck by cancer in 2007. Author of important books in the fields of Labor History and Family Communication. Survived by partner, Carl Ratner, of 22 years and his 6 children: Michaela, Brian (Sheila), Debra Foyo, Brent (Fany), Bradley (Marianne), and Blair (Maureen), 16 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. Wake: Church Hall, St. Marys, IA, 9/28/2018, 5-8 pm. Funeral: Immaculate Conception Church, St. Marys, IA 9/29/2018, 10:30 am. Memorials in Chicago and Kalamazoo, TBD. Donations to the Bernard J. Brommel Endowed Professorship at Northeastern Illinois University or the Ratner-Little Opera Society Endowment at Western Michigan University.
Bernard Brommel, dead at 88, Northeastern Illinois prof funded 25 scholarships
By Maureen O'Donnell
With his knack for investing and a work ethic forged by plowing fields and milking cows on a family farm, Bernard Brommel became the first $1 million donor to Northeastern Illinois University, where he had been a professor.
Thrifty habits — like always packing a lunch — helped. “He squirreled away every dollar he could,” said Carl Ratner, his partner of 22 years.
Mr. Brommel also had good instincts for stocks, according to Ratner: “Very early on, he said, ‘I don’t much like coffee, but these yuppies seem to like it, so I think I’ll put some money in Starbucks.’ ”
After retiring, he became the North Side school’s second-biggest donor. Ultimately, he gave more than $2.5 million to Northeastern, funding more than 25 scholarships, as well as faculty research stipends, a lecture series and a garden for its library.
In 2010, the school named its science building for him: Bernard J. Brommel Hall.
In addition to teaching family dynamics at Northeastern, he was a therapist and wrote books. “Bernie worked three jobs all his life,” his partner said.
He died Sept. 22 at 88 at his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Ratner is a professor of music at Western Michigan University. Mr. Brommel had a heart attack due to kidney failure, his partner said.
His donations made a big difference at Northeastern, where many students are the first in their families to go to college, said Richard Lindberg, author of “Northeastern Illinois University: the First 150 Years.”
Mr. Brommel studied how families interact and deal with conflict, roles and decision-making. His textbook “Family Communication: Cohesion and Change” has been reprinted about 10 times, Ratner said.
Bernard Brommel passes away at 88
by Matt Simonette
Bernard Brommel, a retired Northeastern Illinois University ( NEIU ) professor, therapist and philanthropist, passed away Sept. 22 at his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, according to an NEIU statement. He was 88. Brommel taught from 1971-1997 at NEIU's Department of Speech and Performing Arts—now the Department of Communication, Media and Theatre—where he specialized in family communication. He is survived by his partner of more than 20 years, Carl Ratner, as well as six children.
NEIU officials praised what they called Brommel's "tremendous legacy" of giving to NEIU. He was the first million-dollar donor to the institution; his total donations amounted to about $2.5 million. He had invested his earnings from his family therapy practice.
"His enthusiasm and passion for Northeastern Illinois University shone through in our every interaction," Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson said in the statement. "Bernie will be missed by me and the Northeastern community, but never forgotten."
"It's impossible to put a value on what Dr. Brommel means to Northeastern," NEIU Foundation Board President John Roskopf said. "He asked others to be generous and he led by example, contributing to endowments and scholarships where they would have the greatest positive impact on the academic experiences and successes of the University's students."
"For decades Dr. Brommel inspired and mentored students and faculty," Department of Communication, Media and Theatre Chair Shayne Pepper said. "He cared deeply about Northeastern and remained connected to us throughout his life. It is comforting to know that his legacy will live on through his written work, the students and faculty who knew him, and the many who will continue to be connected to him through his numerous endowed scholarships and faculty positions. He will always be part of this university."
In a 2008 interview with Windy City Times, published in 2017, Brommel, an Iowa native, spoke about why he didn't come out until middle age, noting that his family had "this rich legacy of Catholicism. We have this legacy of nuns and priests. I certainly didn't come out until after my mother died. I had no experiences. Went through college and frankly didn't even know the meaning, growing up on a farm, of the words 'gay' or 'lesbian.' I figured it out in a college sociology class. I had no experiences until I was 38 or 40 years old. So, in many respects, in our world, I was a late bloomer."
In the early '80s, Brommel became active in the fight against HIV/AIDS, recalling that a fateful trip out west served as inspiration to work on spreading the word about the virus in Chicago.
Brommel said, "A colleague of mine at Northeastern, Randy Majors, God rest his soul, is dead now. He died of AIDS out there in San Francisco. I went out and stayed with him. He said, 'Brommel, you are too stupid and naive. Come out and stay with me, in San Francisco. I will show you what the Department of Health is doing. I'm never coming back to Chicago. I love San Francisco.' I never knew he had AIDS. I knew he took a lot of pills. Anyway, he took me to bars and some clubs."
He tested positive for HIV in 1986, he said. But he stayed motivated to work on behalf of persons with HIV/AIDS: "It comes back to my mother and my sister, who was a nun. I just thought it was something I had to do. I was passionate about it. I gave up my own writing. I didn't write many research articles in those years. I never have written on the gay crisis, though I could. I began to go to conventions on AIDS, but I never came out of the closet. Also, by that time, I was starting a practice. I eventually had a good family practice. I bring in complete jungles of families."
He and Ratner met at a meeting of the Chi-Town Squares dancing club in 1995, and moved in together the following year.
Brommel requested that memorial gifts be placed in the Bernard J. Brommel Endowment for Communication, Media and Theatre. Checks can be made out to the NEIU Foundation with "In memory of Dr. Brommel" in the memo line, and mailed to NEIU Foundation, 5500 North St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625-4699. For more information, contact the NEIU Office of Development at 773-442-4200.
Bernie Brommel looks back at early years of TPAN
As the Test Positive Aware Network prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary as an official agency, and more than that as a group of HIV-positive people gathered for support, one of its original members, Bernie Brommel, is prepared to tell his story. This interview took place in 2008, but Brommel was not yet ready to have his story printed. Now, as he marks his 87th birthday, he wants his story to be told. His partner, Carl Ratner, sat in on this interview, and Amy Wooten, a WCT reporter at the time, transcribed this interview.
Bernard Brommel: I live in two worlds. I've always lived in two worlds. I divorced after 24 years. It was a messy divorce, contested. She kept thinking I would come to my senses. I was probably born just like you.
Tracy Baim: What year would that have been when you got married?
BB: I got married in 1950 when I was 20 years old, just a few days after I was 20, and she was, too. She had already graduated from Iowa State University with honors. I had gone there my freshman year and met her while we both worked in the cafeteria. We were both poor kids.
TB: Where did you grow up?
BB: St. Marys, Iowa, on a farm. My sister was a nun. Two of my favorite cousins were nuns. I was supposed to be a priest.
TB: St. Marys was the name of the town?
BB: Yeah. It's still there. Tiny town south of Des Moines. …That's where you'll find the farms. … I'm the only one in my family who went to college, except my sister, the one off to be a nun. I'm one of nine children. My mother was from St. Patrick's, Iowa. Remember when the pope came to Iowa, St. Patrick's? …My mother's family is buried there. I grew up in St. Marys. My dad was the first from St. Marys to marry a girl from St. Patrick's. So we have this rich legacy of Catholicism. We have this legacy of nuns and priests. I certainly didn't come out until after my mother died. I had no experiences. Went through college and frankly didn't even know the meaning, growing up on a farm, of the words "gay" or "lesbian." I figured it out in a college sociology class. I had no experiences until I was 38 or 40 years old. So, in many respects, in our world, I was a late bloomer.
TB: Can you say when you had your children and how many you had?
BB: Wilma was at Iowa State University at 15. I was a slower learner; I didn't get in until a year later. I was 16. She graduated at 19 with a degree with honors, and I didn't graduate until a year following. By that time I had gone on to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls to be a teacher. I followed my beloved teacher Miss [Grace] Laird. … Of course, I was an altar boy. And I don't mean short term. Ten years or 12 years, and when the priest would see me come home for a weekend, he would get me up on the altar. He was an old drunken Irish priest who slapped all the other boys off the altar. … Alcoholism was rampant. …
After my own year at Iowa State and meeting Wilma, I spent the next three years at the University of Northern Iowa. I'm on the alumni board there … .
We married in 1950 … in 1952, the oldest of our six children was born. Michaela Ann, named after my older cousin, a nun. … So then we had six children. … Two girls and four boys. It's Michaela, Brian, Debra, Brent, Brad and Blair. … They all like Carl [Ratner].
TB: So you graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in '51. Taught in Rowley High 1951-1954. Taught in Keokuk 1954-1959. Taught at Indiana State University 1959-1967. Taught University of North Dakota '67-'71. Taught Northeastern Illinois University '71-'97. Forty-six years of teaching.
BB: And I went back for my 49th year and filled in for a teacher.
Carl Ratner: But that doesn't tell your degrees after UNI. So your Master's was—
BB: University of Iowa in 1955.
TB: Master's in Education?
BB: Master's in Education with an emphasis in Speech and Theater.
CR: Doctorate number one?
BB: Then I went on to Indiana. Left high school teaching in Iowa after eight years in Iowa and coached some debate teams in Rowley, Iowa, and in Keokuk, Iowa. By the way, I'm in contact with students from all of those places and they come and visit me.
CR: When did you get your doctorate from Indiana?
BB: I got my doctorate in 1963, but actually finished in 1962. I had taken a college teaching position at Indiana State. I left Keokuk High School, where I was head of the English department and the Speech department, and went to Indiana State University as an assistant professor in 1959 when child number four was born. Then, immediately taught full time, overloads. That poor wife of mine was always pregnant.
CR: All by herself.
BB: I still didn't know anything about the other world.
TB: What was the kind of teaching you were doing?
BB: You name it. My first job I taught history and speech, theater, directed the high school plays, started debate teams, coached individual state champions in Iowa from Rowley, Iowa on.
TB: And at Northeastern?
BB: I taught everything from creative dramatics, family communications, psychology of communications, interpersonal communications, and persuasion. Again, worked with the debaters, individual speakers. After my first Ph.D. in Communications with minors in American Studies and American History, I continued at Indiana State. I did my entire Ph.D. in Saturday classes, night classes, and summer sessions. Wilma went back to school to get her second degree in Elementary Teaching just to get a job. At that time, we had four children. And she got pregnant again. …
Catholics. Someone today asked me, why did you have so many children? We were Catholic and careless. Of course he and others would say, also closeted.
TB: Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the early '70s. You said you were married 24 years. So 1974 would have been this pivotal year for you to make this decision. What led up to that?
BB: I was beginning to move around, shall we say, and get to know people on Broadway [in Chicago]. Most of the bars were on Broadway. I was also at Newberry Library. I had 10 years as a scholar in residence in history, where I did my [Eugene] Debs book and all my early publications are on the American Labor History.
CR: He's an important authority on Debs. His book won the Society of Midland Authors for best biography.
BB: I gave Newberry all my papers, manuscripts, primary sources. I collected interviews, letters from Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair, et al. I spent 19 years on my Debs book. I really should go back and do some more writing in American Labor History. If I live long enough, I might.
Then in '60, I finished all of my course work in August of '62 so I could get a raise and get a promotion. And by that time, Brad had been born, our fifth child. I got my Ph.D. with highest honors, fastest of any student. … They let me work around my full-time teaching schedule at Indiana State University, and I drove back and forth 58 miles through ice and snow and the God-awful hills of Indiana. I went there in 1959 and it was Saturday classes starting immediately in September and night classes. They had three-hour seminars.
TB: It sounds to me like you are one of those gay people that over achieved because it kept you very, very busy and you could avoid thinking about your personal life.
BB: I won't go there because—
CR: He didn't even know he was avoiding anything.
TB: You can't be in denial if you don't even know.
CR: He was in major denial.
BB: All I did was go back and forth and help raise the kids.
CR: When did you finish at Newberry?
BB: I was 10 years at Newberry. I came to Northeastern in 1971 and I was scholar in residence for 10 years—
CR: So all the '70s and '80s. That was the time you were starting to get a whiff of things.
BB: Well, so to speak. I would go to Newberry after I taught my classes. I have spoken a number of times at Bughouse Square on the same programs with Art Weinberg and Lila [well-known Clarence Darrow scholars, they have since both passed away]. Here I was working on Eugene Debs, and they were working on your beloved family, the great Clarence Darrow. I would find things on Darrow, and I'd give it to Art and Lila. They would find things on Debs and give it to me. … But I don't think your mother [my mother, also deceased, was Joy Darrow, a distant relation of Clarence Darrow] or the Weinbergs also know that I'm queer. I have worked very hard in service behind the scenes.
Then at Northeastern, I've always been an amateur shrink, and my students always laugh at the fact that I turned out a psychologist. So, I went back and got a Master's in Counseling, with an emphasis on family therapy.
CR: When did you get that?
BB: I don't know—sometime in the early '80s. Then, I went back to Northwestern and did a post doctorate at the famous Family Institute in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. I was trained by Dr. Bill Pinsof … . I was on his team. At that time I was now 50-something. He really didn't know what to do with me. But at that time, Kathleen Galvin and I had written the first book in the field on family communications. About what is normal in families, not that I didn't come from a very dysfunctional one and she also.
TB: That's what's normal.
BB: That's normal!
TB: Let's get back to the coming out, or at least coming out of marriage. What happened with that?
BB: It was horrific because by that time, I had six children. My wife did not figure out, even though I hinted to her, until after seven or eight years.
TB: Seven or eight years of what?
CR: After the divorce!
BB: It was a psychologist that told her, "He's living over here on Barry, and he's living with a man!" Get a clue!" Of course, she denied it. Not the father of our six children.
TB: Were your six children—the youngest would have been 10 or 11 at that point?
BB: No, it was 1972 when I left her, and it was a contested divorce in 1974. The youngest would have been eight and 10.
TB: What did they know about what was going on?
CR: It would be interesting to know when they started putting two and two together because they met George. They knew you were living with George.
BB: I never asked.
TB: How soon after did you get together with George?
BB: I met him one night after I had worked until closing time at Newberry. Then I'd go to a bar. And he was later a bar owner—owned several bars: Buck's, and that bar that was largely a Hispanic bar on Clark Street—and we fought all the time over his owning bars. He also owned a liquor store out in Westmont. I worked there because I had to put six kids through college. My wife worked then in Evanston High School. My late wife worked hard, substitute taught in chemistry and physics and math. Double major in Home Economics.
TB: What were the years you and George were together, approximately?
BB: From 1972 until 1987. And I finally had to throw him out. George owned three or four bars. Still around. He's … living with Bob Gammie on Lakewood. [George died in 2014.]
CR: Bernie had another but brief love with Randy Treff. That was from '87 to '91, when Randy died of AIDS. Bernie and I got together in '96. We met in '95 at a Chi-Town Squares Dance, and started dating in '96.
BB: Carl learned it in New York City. He had learned 400 square dance calls and I can only do about 200.
TB: There are that many?
BB: Yes, he's at the challenge level. I'm at the advanced level.
CR: We met at square dancing but didn't start dating until the next year in the beginning of '96, and then I moved in with Bernie August of '96.
BB: And we are registered in Cook County. But my children don't know that.
CR: Yes they do, sure. One of them was here for the commitment ceremony.
BB: I don't think it registered. Just the same as it didn't register with me.
TB: Let's talk about then your first discovery of Chicago's gay community and what how you were living this double life in the late '70s prior to your work on HIV/AIDS issues.
BB: I would then go to a bar, and usually never met anyone. I would go to Kitty O'Shea's, a gentleman's bar. I would be dressed coming from teaching. And to work from Newberry, which closed at 10 p.m. I would go quickly there for one drink. I've never been drunk in my life. But with Kitty O'Shea, if you didn't have one drink, she'd throw you out. … And oh, can I tell stories on Kitty.
TB: Can you talk about the mob connections with Kitty?
BB: I wasn't even aware of that until much later. I would see other men come in from work in Brooks Brothers suits. That kind of worked for me, but I had to be home by 11 p.m. My wife thought Newberry closed at 11, so I had to get back up there. I've always lived a double life.
CR: Always from age 30-something—
BB: What was I? About 38 when I had an experience in a hotel here in Chicago.
TB: When is it that you first became aware. When we talked on Saturday you said you were in San Francisco and remembered hearing about HIV/AIDS. What year did you first hear about it, and what were you trying to do education-wise?
BB: I would have been around '84. I was at the National Communications Association Convention. There's a national award now named after me in family research and therapy. A colleague of mine at Northeastern, Randy Majors, God rest his soul, is dead now. He died of AIDS out there in San Francisco. I went out and stayed with him. He said, "Brommel, you are too stupid and naive. Come out and stay with me, in San Francisco. I will show you what the Department of Health is doing. I'm never coming back to Chicago. I love San Francisco." I never knew he had AIDS. I knew he took a lot of pills. Anyway, he took me to bars and some clubs. They were handing out pamphlets for AIDS education.
They were much more vigilant out in San Francisco. The 15-20 people I sent clippings to—you're lucky, Tracy. that I didn't send you any. I wrote on the clipping that this is something you need to be aware of. I came back with pamphlets from the San Francisco Department of Public Health. It was in or about that time that the baths closed in San Francisco. I admit I had gone to them here. It was another place in Chicago—a very safe place to go. I would just take off my wedding band. Again, I had worked that into my free time between Newberry and having to be home in Evanston. So, I brought those pamphlets back, which had led me to this article. When I left our home in Evanston, she was teaching at Evanston High School. So I had met George and I had moved in with him. He had a falling out with his partner, who was none other than a famous Chicago actor. I replaced him in George's life. This actor is really quite closeted.
It was a very bitter breakup. George is a very charismatic "people person," but he is also a con artist. I lost whatever money I had when we sold the house in Evanston, investing in his first liquor store. I wouldn't have done it except that the store was clear out in Westmont where no one knew me. I worked the weekends, did the payroll, filled in whenever a liquor store clerk couldn't come or had sick children. With that money, on top of my salary at Northeastern, which at that time was around $17,000 minus heavy alimony.
CR: Bernie, when you brought the stuff home from San Francisco, were you living with George at that time?
BB: I would have been.
TB: Talk about how you tried to distribute these materials. You were kind of this one-person army of education.
BB: I took some of them to the gay bowling league. [George] Rezek is a champion bowler. And Dan DeLeo was on the team, and that's how I got to know Dan DiLeo and Gernhardt—Ralph. [They were publishers of Gay Chicago; DiLeo died in 1989 of AIDS complications; Gernhardt died in 2006.]
TB: I found a photo at a bowling alley the other day of Gernhardt, DeLio and Paul Adams.
BB: I knew Paul.
CR: So you brought the stuff back to the league?
BB: But I thought behind the scenes we could do something here in Chicago. We can start to educate Chicago. So I went to Dan several times when we wouldn't be bowling. I brought pamphlets on different nights. I just didn't walk in with my pile of goodies. I'd say, Dan, read this, this is very simple. You can just reprint it. Here it says the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I said, "You can put it in your magazine and we can start saving some lives." I became obnoxious about it, a little bit. One night he got fed up with me and called Gernhardt over. He had already told Gernhardt about this mad bowler with this anti-gay literature. He called it anti-gay literature, and that I was a fear-monger. Dan introduced me to Gernhardt, who already knew who I was, and said, "You tell him why I won't publish any of this." He said, "We're just not going to do anything that controversial and upset the boys and the men on Broadway and Halsted." And so I backed off. Though I would bring it up occasionally with Dan DiLeo and say, did you read about those deaths in San Francisco, New York? I'm always a teacher/educator. I said, did you read about a couple of deaths in the newspapers, a couple of bowling people on bowling teams died? They didn't die of pneumonia. Oh yes, they did die of pneumonia, but c'mon.
TB: What was their response? Did you ever sense a turning point at all with them?
BB: No, until later they began to do some publishing of some articles. You'd have to go back and look carefully in the magazine, but this could all be documented.
TB: I just found some '82 and '83 GayLife newspapers. I started GayLife in '84 and there were 50 cases at that point, and one of the doctors that still practices today said, the numbers seem to be plateauing. People were so concerned about upsetting people. It was a downer when the community was just starting to get so strong.
BB: They were terrified. Also, they almost closed the baths here in Chicago.
TB: They never closed them here.
BB: They haven't closed them to this day.
CR: I can pick up a tiny piece of this story because I was involved in the founding of the Reimer Foundation with Del Barrett, who is now living in New Jersey but is tragically totally blind.
BB: He went blind from a single dose of Viagra. A multi-million dollar lawsuit. [The lawsuit was unsuccessful.]
CR: But at any rate, I think of the reasons for the Reimer Foundation. I called Del up and asked what happened when you were dealing with the same people a few years later? It would have been he said probably around '88.
TB: The Reimer Foundation gave out thousands of free condoms around town.
CR: In local bars.
BB: He was a condom peddler. Del would pull up to a place in his car and my boy toy would run in and toss in the condoms.
CR: Actually I recommended it to new people in town because we went to every bar in town. Nearly 50 bars.
BB: He's always been as out as I've been in.
CR: That's practically true. So I asked Del about this recently, and he said he got a good reception from Ralph, Paul [Adams] and Dan DiLeo. Then, he said, of course, we paid for the ads in the newspapers. So, that was the difference. Del came to them and they helped Del do fundraisers in bars and would publicize those as part of the bar advertising.
BB: It became profitable then.
CR: Then Del would buy ads. I don't think Del was trying to put that spin on it, but that's what I heard. He said they were always very helpful and cooperative. That was by the late '80s, which was a big difference in the time period. At any rate, I'm sure there was a big difference in Del, who was a graduate of Cornell Hospitality School and basically came to the bar owners businessman-to-businessman kind of thing. He worked out benefits. We'll put an ad in Gay Chicago if you do a benefit. So he had a kind of different approach, which I think resonated more with the businessman aspect of all of it.
BB: And dear, what was your approach?
CR: I was just a delivery boy; I'm not sure what you mean.
BB: Well, you also dated Del.
CR: Yeah, Del and I were dating at the time.
TB: Let's talk about Test Positive Aware Network and the founding of that.
BB: I was in on the founding.
TB: And when was that?
BB: 1986. I was in on the very beginning. I was one of the first 20 members with Chris Classon meeting in Chris's apartment and establishing the first public outreach and establishing the clinics that we set up.
TB: Tell us why that was so important to have an organization that was representing the point of view of the people that were HIV-positive?
BB: Everybody then was dying within a relatively short period of time. Chris and some used to say, maybe we'll be here a month or two, let's get this going. I was chairman of the first committee that hired the first two executive directors. By that time, I had my Master's in counseling and had done my post doctorate in psychology. And before that, I did part of my training for Horizons. I was a volunteer. I've done my charity work behind the scenes. I counseled by that time, hundreds and hundreds free as part of the Horizons psychological network. It was part of my training. I did it until I burned out. I did this at the same time I was in on the founding of TPAN.
I was one of the first 20 members. I was not one of the original 13. … I go back to the day where everything was unpaid and volunteer. I worked with Hannah Hedrick—what a saint. She taught me how to do massage. And then I started doing group work. They used to call me "Touchy-Feely Brommel." I would do lectures and prepare them for death. We would have a "Bye" session at the end of the Wednesday night and Friday night meetings. We had programs.
A "[Good-]Bye" section where we would remember those who had died that week. I would often narrate that. I started doing this with Bill Rydwels and Charlie Morris.
CR: So, in the early days, it was really more of a support group for the dying? Is that what you are saying?
BB: Yeah. And in the bye section people would tell horror stories of doctors; they would tell about friends who were in the hospitals here where the doors were closed. You couldn't go in and see somebody who was sick or dying. I went to see many, many people over here at St. Joseph's and Illinois Masonic and we had to wear gloves and masks. It was a horrible time. Then when we came out, all these nurses would point at the containers were we were to take off these things and drop them in so they could be burned. They didn't know really what was causing AIDS.
After I met Carl, he wanted to sing. He started to sing. He had never had a singing lesson even though he is a graduate of Oberlin in the music conservatory. But he's a music history graduate and he couldn't get anyone to give him voice lessons. He worked at Lyric Opera of Chicago, he worked at Santa Fe Opera. … He's had a wonderful career.
CR: Assistant director, stage manager, that kind of thing. And then I started singing very late.
BB: After he met me he said I think I'd like to teach. I said oh no you won't. He said why not? I said you never finished your Master's at Juilliard! He said, but I've got 20 years experience in some of the top opera houses, including Lyric. You were in on the founding of Chicago Chamber Opera.
CR: Right Chamber Opera of Chicago, which went away and came back. And I was artistic director of Chicago Opera Theater. One of my favorite moments in my career, and this is a total aside, but I was directing a show at Chicago Opera Theater and Windy City Times ran a headline, "Gay Man to Direct Opera." But I thought isn't that sort of like "Dog Bites Man?" That's a 400-year-old headline. I wasn't back at the first opera in 1597, but the odds are good.
BB: It's a wonder that we didn't break up. I became a family therapist. I began to write with my colleague Kathleen Galvin at Northwestern. We wrote the first book on Family Communication, as I had mentioned earlier. What is normal communication in families? There are lots of books on schizophrenia, paranoia and all that.
CR: It's now in its seventh edition [in 2017 the 9th edition].
TB: Getting back to TPAN, when did your day-to-day activism with it kind of wane?
BB: I burned out when Test Positive Aware got up to about 6,000 members. I would go every Wednesday or Friday night and do the intake interviews. Charlie, Bill Rydwels or I would do them. I was particularly valuable because I was the only one who was a psychologist. By that time I had my Horizons experience. And so, to get into TPA, we did screen, members because we did all kinds of group activities. And you can't have a schizo and a paranoid or a raging bipolar in groups.
I first started to work with 15 or 20 in groups, and then 40 and then 60. And so I would go and hour and half early before the meetings and then it got to the point where two of us had to do the intake interviews. All we were doing was saying, let us help you. I was also on the board of the Lakeview Mental Health Center. I knew where they could go get free counseling. I would say I think you need to go there first or I would say, you are really too upset because you've been diagnosed and the people in the group have moved beyond that. We didn't have our peer program yet where we could match levels. I said you don't want to really upset a group. You're not really ready to do group activities, and they would agree with me. I never had one that I didn't help, and so did Charlie and Bill, to get connected to Lakeview Mental Health Center or to Horizons to get individual help free, because most of them didn't have any money.
TB: A lot of people were in denial in the '80s. Can you say how you think you were motivated to stick with it?
BB: It comes back to my mother and my sister, who was a nun. I just thought it was something I had to do. I was passionate about it. I gave up my own writing. I didn't write many research articles in those years. I never have written on the gay crisis, though I could. I began to go to conventions on AIDS, but I never came out of the closet. Also, by that time, I was starting a practice. I eventually had a good family practice. I bring in complete jungles of families.
TB: One of the things about the founding of Test Positive Aware, my impression was that everybody was HIV positive. Was that the case?
TB: So, were you HIV-positive?
TB: When did you find out for yourself?
BB: I never admitted that. Evidently, I picked up at the baths or with somebody early on. I had never done any of the unsafe practices. I was just unlucky.
TB: So you knew from the early '80s?
BB: I tested in '86. I figured I'd be dead and gone just like most of the rest of them.
CR: Did all this happen after '86, Bernie, or were you already involved in the cause before you got tested?
BB: In trying to educate Dan DiLeo and Gernhardt, that was before then. And then you could say my passion went to Test Positive Aware.
TB: Tell me a little bit about [the late] Chris Classon and what his role was?
BB: A very unique, charismatic, totally out, serious, flamboyant, part-time drag queen.
CR: His non-drag personality was not all that flamboyant.
BB: The typing of the first mimeographed letters of the first issues of Test Positive Aware—I've taken all of those and all my early issues of Test Positive Aware and I've given them to Gerber/Hart. A dear friend in the early group, Charlie Cox, took a lot of pictures. A gal that I worked with in the AAHP, AIDS Alternative Health Project, became his guardian and inherited his papers and pictures. And she gave them to me, so for years I had all these photographs. There are thousands of them and they're in Gerber/Hart. I'm in some of those pictures. I'm in some of those groups. Someday my children will probably go and find them and that's okay. But I'm just still not ready for that.
TB: Do your children know to this day that you're HIV-positive?
CR: Oh yeah, they know about it. I don't know why—
BB: They knew then because my second partner, Randy, a great man, had also been married and had two sons he was raising. Had come here from California to work for United Airlines. He came here because of his partner, Rick. … Randy left me with two sons he had custody of. Who cares after you've had six. My older kids also helped me raise his sons—
TB: How old were his kids?
BB: 17 and 19 when Randy died.
CR: One was gone—
BB: One was a sophomore at University of Kansas.
CR: But the other one was finishing out his senior year at Evanston High School.
BB: To keep him in the high school I had to move up to Evanston and meet with the counselors at Evanston High School. Randy had taken me in to the high school and said, "I'm dying." From the time he had an official diagnosis, which meant your T-cells fell below 100 and CD4's and your CD8's were less than 15 percent. Based on what men would tell me in the intake interview, and what Charlie and Bill would tell me, I could say they had six weeks, six months to live. If I knew their CD4's, their CD8's, their T-cell count—this old farm boy is not dumb.
TB: How has your own health been?
BB: AZT came along. Had Randy just lived six months longer, he would still be alive and we would still be together, and that is okay with Carl because he also knew Randy.
CR: I knew Randy before Bernie knew Randy.
BB: He went through a false positive. A doctor here in Chicago, a gay doctor. He didn't even test him.
CR: I was in denial, but I went to TPA, interestingly enough, and Bernie—I mostly saw Bernie across a crowded room. He was there doing a presentation with one of his middle sons—
BB: On how do you tell your family.
CR: So, already his family knew—
BB: They were just traumatized on how to tell their family, but they might have been dying in six weeks.
CR: At any rate, I soon left TPA because I was not really ready to deal with it and was not dealing with it. As it turns out, I didn't have it. I wasn't ready to find out for sure and everybody else in that room knew for sure. I didn't find out for six years that I was negative. It was in '87, and then I found out in '93 or January of '94. Actually, at the time, I called the clinic and—I'm trying to remember—I guess I was asking at the clinic if my doctor could have figured it out just from my T-cells because my suppressor were greater than my helper cells. … It just turned out that was natural for me. It wasn't by a huge difference—
… I did kind of become maniacal about condoms and all that. And that's why I became Mr. Condom Delivery Boy. Then six years later, I called Howard Brown for my routine results, which would have been STD checks, which would have been pro forma anyway, and the person said, blah blah, your syphilis test is negative, you're still immune to hepatitis B, and you're still HIV negative. I went, "I am? That surprises me to hear you say that." I said, "Well, first of all, I signed a waiver to prevent you from telling me my HIV status and you weren't supposed to do that, but I'm not mad because six years ago … ." He said, "Listen, you've tested negative 20 times in a row." But at any rate, back at TPA, I saw Bernie across a crowded room and immediately thought, wow, his son is really handsome and this guy is just way over the top. I was sure that the two of us would never get along.
BB: You should have heard me lecture. I really lectured on you've got to tell your family, so I brought in a couple of my kids after I told them, including this strapping six-foot-four red-headed son of mine, Brent. You were there the night we dialogued about it, what it was like for him to hear that his daddy was HIV-positive.
TB: So your health, then all that stuff in the mid-'90s with drugs, so the drugs had been working for you.
CR: He was in one of the cocktail studies.
BB: I had also been in many early experimental studies at Northwestern. They loved me down there. I figured I was going to die, and I was the oldest thing they had coming in. I said, what do I have to lose? People might say you could have done more—to hell with them. I've done my part. I've done years of service behind the scenes. I also, as poor as I was, I tried to keep TPA's bank account over $1,000 so the checks wouldn't bounce. Checks were bouncing. First, we didn't do a very good job of hiring as the first executive director. His first name was Bob. He couldn't make his rent payments, so with gifts and donations he was using to pay his rent. We had to let him go. By that time I had run many university search committees. I could do it very professionally. I had to admit Bob fooled me. Bob was desperate.
TB: Who was the second E.D.?
BB: Steve Wakefield. … But what I didn't know was two members of my committee never let me know they were promoting him and I was chairman of the committee. … It was a total conflict of interest with Bob Hulse. … Bob tried to break Tony's will. He was the first one to leave a major gift. Tony was—what was Tony's last name? [Kaiser] He was a dentist. Bob Hulse was a journalist trained at Northwestern. … A couple of times Charlie Morris and I—and Charlie was chairman of the board of TPA at that time. ( Bill Rizzo was the first president, but he died. ) Charlie has always been more open. I introduced Charlie to Tim Sullivan. I'm just sort of like a Yenta because I've always had gay clients, lesbian clients and transgender clients. Listen, a few of those transgender ones really fooled me. One of them said, Dr. Brommel, you don't really know who I am. Yes, I do, you're name is such and such. No, she said, this is the third time I've seen you. I am male transformed to female. I said it doesn't make any difference. I had worked with transgender [people] at Horizons. I'm telling more today than I've ever told.
TB: You mentioned on the phone you're going in for something Friday?
BB: I have prostate cancer. … Early stage, and I'm going to beat it. … You don't know how many times I've turned your photographers down. Don't take it personally. … I've always been on the scene and behind the scenes. I've always been raising funds. And Hannah Hedrick—I couldn't do it because I had too much child support and alimony to pay. When they had to move to larger quarters and move out of apartments for TPA, I told Hannah, I'll keep trying to give TPA a thousand dollars. I gave TPA their first endowment of $5,000. I gave AAHP their first endowment of $5,000. I gave AGLO [Archdiocese Gay and Lesbian Outreach], good little Catholic boy, their first endowment of $5,000. AGLO still has theirs. TPA still has theirs and AAHP got ripped off. I adored Michael, the director of AAHP. Michael was actually an Evanston High School graduate and worked for my daughter, and that's where my former wife also taught.
TB: Is Hannah still around?
BB: She retired from the AMA. She had her doctorate in English. Mainly, she did the writing for all those doctors that couldn't write. She would get grants … . Her first and only husband taught with me at Indiana State University.
TB: What is it you want out there, because this Gay Chicago letter inspired you to want to talk, and I'm really glad for that, but I want to do this in a way that is respectful of what you're goal is here.
BB: I guess I want your advice. … I remember you from almost day one.
TB: I came at it [AIDS] from a different perspective because I came in and already felt like I was in a war. People didn't want to say there was a war on. I don't think it was about Gay Chicago. I think it was about most of the community. I'm not saying it's unfair to target them, but it should be in the perspective of the entire community—the bar owners, everybody. Until people like Reimer Foundation came along, and Chicago House and other groups that came along and made it palatable to be inclusive. So, it changed around '85 and '86, things started to change, especially. I don't really think the story is about what Ralph or Dan DiLeo did or didn't do. I think it's more about what the community did or didn't do. More important, who did work, who did the stuff or deliver condoms.
BB: I wonder where all those pamphlets went that Randy Majors helped me carefully dig, pick up, and bring back, because I eventually gave them all in desperation.
TB: If you affected five out of 10 people you reached, that was five out of 10 people, you know? I think that's what was important—the people who did do stuff.
BB: I finally said to Dan, in desperation when he was blowing me off and he was snubbing me, I said, "Dan, come on, I like you." Dan was charismatic. Much more likable than Gernhardt. I said, "You've got to do something. You can do it." He said, "You go out and do it."
TB: Did you ever approach GayLife at the time—Chuck Renslow?
BB: Yes, once and got blown off, too.
TB: To me, the story is the people who did, despite being called names—the people who did see. Because some of the people who didn't see paid with their lives. Dan paid with his life. Maybe in the back of his mind—
BB: Do you know what he said to me the last time he blew me off? He said, Brommel, I will be laughed off Broadway and Halsted Street and the baths. I said, yeah, I go to the baths. I know you are there. He said, I will be ridiculed. It will hurt the publication. I knew that behind the scenes he discussed that with Gernhardt. How did I know that? They both were trying to quiet me.
TB: I just don't think they were alone. Chuck owned a bathhouse, and I put AIDS statistics on the cover of an issue, and he would say in an editorial meeting, I don't think that's good for business. I fought him on that. But he took a different approach. He said, okay, this is a newspaper. I don't think Gay Chicago treated themselves as a newspaper. I think that kind of psyche is very different. A newspaper has a different responsibility than a bar rag. I think how they were seeing it back then was we are entertainment and it will be a downer if we talk about this.
CR: That was Del's genius because he could see things from their perspective and he could say, okay, what do I need to do. Instead of appealing to their better instincts, he figured it out. It took me a while. When I was working with Reimer Foundation, Gay Chicago didn't have reporters. They didn't consider themselves a newspaper. So they would print press releases and Del would write press releases as opposed to them doing something to address the epidemic, they would just print a press release.
BB: There were bars that wouldn't even take the condoms.
CR: That was the funny thing. The last bar in Chicago to put condoms out was Little Jim's. Someone said we don't want to be known as some sort of slut bar! As people would say back then, "But you are, Blanche!" That was kind of the gay response.
BB: My point is you don't know how many homophobic people I've argued with. I've been with families and treated families who never knew I was gay. They are going to come back and haunt me.
TB: You think?
BB: Oh God, yes.
TB: Who does that hurt?
BB: They are going to see me as hypocrite. Frankly, they never would have come to me as a therapist. I've handled some leading families here in Chicago.
CR: The odds are that they will never read this. The reality is, of course, is that Bernard is different percentages in the closet depending on what group he is in. He would never talk about being HIV-positive at Northeastern, but they of course all know that we are a couple now. It's really a few former clients and a few former students that he is really nervous about.
- Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI) Tuesday, 25 Sep 2018
- Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, IL) Tuesday, 25 Sep 2018
- Windy City Times (Chicago, IL) Wednesday, 26 Sep 2018
- Windy City Times (Chicago, IL) Wednesday, 13 Sep 2017