Somerville smiling widely on a carousel with a flower-patterned dress and white gloves
Joanne Somerville in 1951, when she was a student at Berkeley High. Courtesy: Mark Somerville

Beverly Joanne Berthelsen Somerville died Sunday, at age 88. She dealt with years of debilitating dementia after 83 years of vibrant life.

Mom was born in Sacramento and moved many times. She met dad as a sophomore at Berkeley High, which her father also attended. They both attended Cal (as did mom’s parents and I) and mom moved to 875 Indian Rock Ave. in 1959 — the home dad has been in for 91 years so far.

Mom’s grandfather ran Berthelsen’s Indian Motorcycle and Bicycle Garage at 2121 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley (corner of Cowper Street). Later on, she moved to Cedar Street, just off of San Pablo: The house still has a distinctive glass waned moon in the front door. During these years, mom’s mother, Dorothy Wirter Berthelsen, became friendly with a woman whose husband, Victor Bergeron, ran Hinky Dink’s hamburger joint on San Pablo & 65th, which morphed into Trader Vic’s, and they stayed friends.

Her background is primarily Danish: Family legend says that Henry Ford trusted Danes and offered mom’s grandfather the West Coast rights to deal Ford automobiles, and great grandpa turned Henry down as there was no future in cars. History tells us that Ford was quite the fascist so maybe it’s just as well.

Over the years mom’s father became close friends with fellow Dane Bill Ortman, proprietor of the beloved Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor on Solano and Colusa (people raved about the crab sandwiches but they overlooked the bubble gum ice cream; its color adorned the exterior walls). A heretic Starbucks stands there now just as Peet’s Coffee occupies the space of rival McCallum’s.

Speaking of Peet’s, mom and dad knew Alfred Peet from frequent visits to his original store at Walnut and Vine in the ’60s. Peet roasted and stirred coffee beans in front of his store, which led to complaints from neighbors; so Peet rented a space in West Berkeley and grew his business, which altered how Americans drank coffee.

Newspaper clipping with headline "Ex-Turlock Girl Tours World With Swim Team"
Newspaper clipping. Courtesy: Mark Somerville

Mom bounced around as her father was a military supply officer during World War II, which took them to La Brea, Tucson, and Turlock before returning to Berkeley. Her parents eventually settled at 1124 Spruce St. Mom became a swimmer with Oakland’s Athens Water Follies Synchronized Swim Team. She was an AAU Champion in ’54 and went to the ’56 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, and a World Tour in addition to multiple gold Pan American medals at the ’55 and ’57 games.

Mom and Dad attended Cal, but Mom finished at UCSF to become a surgical nurse (Her parents both attended Cal against the wishes of their parents.) Mom and Dad each joined the Greek house of their parents. Mom lasted about one semester in her mother’s old house. When she was told to cease dating a Jewish man, she chose to move back home.

They were married at the Berkeley City Club — where her mother would later run the gift shop for a very long time — on April 28, 1957 … allegedly (hyperbolically) the hottest April day in Berkeley history.

After a brief move to San Luis Obispo for Dad’s continued schooling, where my brother was born, they bought 875 Indian Rock from his parents (hello Prop 13). I was born, and Mom wasn’t working for a while. Dad became the first Equal Opportunity Program Director at Cal and would later use the Freedom of Information Act to access his rather significant FBI file. Seems that Hoover wasn’t a fan of Berkeley or minority admissions.

In ’65, Sergeant Shriver recruited dad to become part of the Peace Corps in Nigeria, which meant numerous horrifying trips to the Alameda Naval Base for a phalanx of shots from what seemed to be a two-foot needle. There was a one-lane tunnel to get onto the base and I prayed for its signal to stay red. Inevitable green lights proved that God hated me, but revenge was mine as we never followed through with the move and full battery of shots. The potential move to Africa spurred, or increased, Mom’s interest in the culture which manifested itself 10 years later.

Couple in dress clothes, with man holding woman's arms
Joanne Somerville and her husband, Bill, in 2010. Courtesy: Mark Somerville

As the ’60s found a vortex in Berkeley, my parents listened: We attended Pete Seeger and Country Joe & The Fish concerts on Upper Sproul. We all marched, but when Mom and Dad knew conflict was ahead, my brother and I were sent home to watch from the windows as helicopters circled and occasionally disgorged tear gas.

As the ’70s began, mom began working in pottery and collaborated with local artists, led by Andrée Singer Thompson, to host pre-Christmas sales at 875. Pottery, photography, clothing, and jewelry filled our home for three days as strangers, pulled by handbill adverts and word of mouth, came to our door. Mulled wine/Danish Gløgg burned memories and association into me.

By 1974, Dad was in the midst of changing careers, and was out of work for three years. Mom worked as a 3-11 RN at Herrick hospital on the psychiatric ward, which she hated. She described the overuse of Thorazine and the zombification of many of the patients. She felt she wasn’t nursing but babysitting tranquilized patients (antipsychotics are derived from major tranquilizers).

Her academic wanderlust brought her to SF State for a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology with a specialization in African Dance during the S. I. Hayakawa years. This culminated with a 1974 drive in our third VW bus, because we were gluttons for punishment, to Chicago for a cultural anthropology convention, which included major engine trouble 50 miles west of St. Louis where Mom and I (the only two to make the trip) walked the roadside of I-70 until we met a family and spent the night in their home with no running water and two total beds for the two parents and six children. They did have a large gun collection, a chandelier and color TV; our home had none of these, hell we didn’t even have UHF (you know, channels above 12). But we had our own beds and faucets.

Mom was coping with chronic back pain and was told that surgery was her only answer. Refusing this, she gravitated to less traditional treatment and started the process of becoming a chiropractor at Life Chiropractic West. Along the way, she became trained in The Alexander Technique (popular with actors for learning how to change their bodies for roles) and Feldenkrais movement, which she studied with Feldenkrais in his later years.

Holding a chicke n
Joanne Somerville in her backyard. Courtesy: Mark Somerville

She completed her training in ’84 and opened her private office over Jack’s Antiques on Adeline, near Ashby Avenue, in Berkeley. She was not a typical bone-adjuster; she worked with musicians and “regular” folk to retrain/reeducate their bodies to prevent the very motions that caused pain in the first place. Mom never got back surgery and was pain free for more than 30 years until she cracked her pelvis about six years ago.

A few days ago, I sat by Mom’s bedside and spoke with her.

I remembered events from her life: many of the small details that make us who we are. And I told her, again, about the death of her sister and that I gave one of the eulogies at her memorial service, and that mom was remembered by Aunt Marcia’s friends and family.

I told her of her grandson Scott completing law school and granddaughter Jenna working as a psychiatric Social Worker and now the mother of Mara Joanne (Somerville) Boyer. I spoke of Jenna’s husband Derrick‘s courage in advancing his career and the growth of their family. Most of all, I told her that the three of them are good people who treat others well.

I told her that we will continue to support her lifetime husband, Bill, as his life continues, as we have been doing.

For two seconds the fog lifted, she looked at me, rather than beyond me, and said “thank you.” The moment passed.

The gates of life welcome us when we arrive; and when we depart. May she be remembered for the person she truly was.

Somerville young and black and white seen in profile at a restaurant
Joanne Somerville. Credit: Mark Somerville

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