Editor’s note: Each Monday, the Kenosha News takes a look at the life of a Kenosha County resident who has recently died. We share with you, through the memories of family and friends, a life remembered.
Polio when she was a child did not defeat her, nor did the death of her husband at a young age.
Longtime teacher Berniece Brockway lived a life of fortitude while being generous and loving, according to those who knew her.
If anything, her challenges made her stronger, said her daughters, Laura Cook and Theresa Serpe.
“She was really proud of her recovery (from polio) because she worked hard for it,” Theresa said.
Berniece taught elementary school for a total of 42 years, 30 of them in Salem and Kenosha. At Jane Vernon, she was named “best teacher” by the student body for 10 years.
“She knew she was really investing in children’s lives; laying a foundation,” Laura said.
And despite being a single working parent, she went about her business with a smile and in style.
“She loved clothes, shoes and earrings,” Theresa said.
Peter Pingitore Sr., former principal at Jane Vernon Elementary School, recalls Berniece as “a soft-spoken, kind woman. The kids loved her for that.”
On Oct. 30, Berniece Renora Brockway, 91, died at Home Inspired Senior Living, Kenosha.
Berniece is survived by her daughters, Laura (William) Cook and Theresa (Jay) Serpe; five grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; two great-great-grandchildren; her brother Frederick (Deanna) Brockway; and nieces and nephews.
A rural background
She was born Sept. 30, 1928, in Mount Sterling, Wis., to Fred and Pearla Brockway.
The time and place to which she was born presented early challenges, said her daughters. To help on the family farm, Berniece was lighting the hearth fire and making sandwiches for the farm hands by age 5.
At 9 years old, she contracted polio and was placed in isolation for a year. For “post-polio therapy,” her father had her milk cows while sitting on a three-legged stool. “It was painful but helped her regain strength,” Laura said.
At 14, Berniece was sent to help a neighbor whose wife had taken ill. She pumped water, made three meals a day and maintained the household until the wife returned. “That’s why she was so strong,” Laura said.
“It’s also why she left farm life as soon as she graduated from high school,” added Theresa.
The love of her life
When she was 17, Berniece met Gerald “Jerry” Finely at a dance above the store his family owned.
“He began smiling and wiggling his ears” in her direction, and she accepted a dance with him, Laura said. It turned out he could do an impressive jitterbug, and the two began going out.
For the next seven years, Berniece and Jerry dated “to build the foundation for their lives,” said the sisters.
Jerry completed military service, and Berniece attended LaCrosse State Teacher’s College and began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Ferryville, just north of Prairie du Chien.
“Mom said she got to work in the winter by horse and sleigh or by cross-country skiing,” Laura said.
In 1949, Berniece and Jerry moved to Kenosha where Jerry went to work at American Motors Corporation and Berniece taught at Riverview Elementary School in Salem. As they were not married, they lived separately, he with family, she at a boarding house for teachers.
In 1950, Berniece began teaching at Highland Elementary School in Kenosha. She and Jerry married on Aug. 4, 1952.
Berniece kept teaching at Highland until 1958, after the birth of her second child.
Six years later, however, tragedy struck when Jerry died unexpectedly at age 36. “It broke her heart,” Theresa said.
Getting a degree, educating others
As she had before, Berniece persevered.
She attended Carthage College part-time, began teaching at Jane Vernon Elementary School and, in 1968, completed her four-year degree.
While doing so, she cared for two very young daughters.
“We always had a full, warm breakfast and warm dinners,” Laura said. “Mom also did a lot of home repair herself because she had to be both the man and the woman of the house.”
Teaching helped her get through the tough times, said her daughters. “She was sad, heartbroken and lonely after our dad died, but you’d never know it from the way she was out in public,” Laura said.
As a single parent, “she was so grateful to have a job with benefits,” Laura said. “She worked non-stop to make a life that she and her husband had planned.”
She also just loved teaching, said her family. “She spent so many nights putting up bulletin boards in her classrooms and creating gifts for her students,” Laura said.
Loved family, holidays, fashion
When her daughters began to have their own children, Berniece was in her element. “Christmas was especially wonderful,” Laura said. “The grandkids would see her and call out, ‘Grandma Claus is here!’”
Fashion was another of Berniece’s hallmarks.
“Not a day went by when she didn’t wear one of her styled wigs as well as nylons and full makeup,” Laura said. “Students told her they couldn’t wait to see what outfit she’d wear every day.”
Berniece began wearing wigs to compensate for thinning hair that had begun in her 30s, explained Laura.
At 62, Berniece was forced to take early retirement following an injury to her back. “It was definitely not her choice,” Theresa said. “If she could have, she would have worked forever.”
Theresa said their mother set an example for all of her students, but especially the girls of the time.
“She showed that you could go to work, be beautiful and be kind.”
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