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A Champion for County Seniors

Martha H. Bernhart Remembered as a Tireless Activist

By Lila de Tantillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page LZ03

Martha H. Bernhart, 91, a longtime advocate for seniors in Loudoun County, died Jan. 30 of cancer, said her granddaughter Michelle Bernhart.

"If you look at anything wonderful happening in Loudoun County for seniors and trace it all the way back, you might find Martha Bernhart," said Anne Edwards, division manager for the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging, who worked with Bernhart for more than 20 years. "She never thought small."

One of Bernhart's first projects was to push for the Loudoun County Adult Day Center. With several friends, Bernhart founded the Older Americans Humanities Corp., which raised more than $100,000 by baking and selling cookies and through other efforts. The Leesburg center, known as "the house that love built," opened in 1997 as the county's first full-service adult day-care center.

Bernhart also lobbied for construction of the county Senior Center at Cascades Marketplace, which opened in 1999. With her husband, Richard, Bernhart published the periodical "Senior News" for more than five years during the 1990s to keep tabs on its progress.

She pushed for a $2.67 million bond referendum for the center, which was approved by voters in 1995. She helped open the Second Hand Rose thrift shop, which Edwards said raised more than $300,000 toward the center.

"One of the things she was best at was inspiring people with ideas," Edwards said. "She was the spirit that would keep people going."

Bernhart was born June 10, 1913, in Oelwein, Iowa, where her father owned several farms. She earned a bachelor's degree in food service and nutrition from Iowa State University and moved to the University of Chicago, where she managed a campus cafeteria and met Richard Bernhart, an undergraduate studying political science.

"She said he always looked hungry, so she gave him extra food," said Michelle Bernhart, who lives in Atlanta.

The Bernharts were married for 64 years, until he died after a stroke in 2002. They traveled around the world for his job as a consultant to the Agency for International Development. During postings in Tehran, Geneva and Manila, Bernhart persisted in her passion for feeding others, often preparing huge meals for Peace Corps volunteers and others.

After Richard Bernhart retired, the couple moved to Lovettsville in 1976. During the 1980s, Martha owned and operated a restaurant in the town that was officially called the Village Inn, but was more often referred to as "Martha's Village Inn" or simply "Martha's." The design of the restaurant -- whose cuisine was heavily influenced by Bernhart's travels -- was the first project of Bernhart's daughter, Holly, an architect.

Bernhart survived two bouts with breast cancer, one in the 1950s while living in Iran and a recurrence for which she was treated in the United States. "She felt that could be an inspiration to younger women dealing with the disease today," Michelle Bernhart said.

Many of her closest friends did not know until recently that she was gravely ill -- and when they came to visit, Bernhart was more concerned about serving sandwiches and being a proper hostess than with the cancer that had spread to her lungs, according to family and friends.

And she spoke with her friend Mattie L. Lassiter about the importance of building a multilevel development for seniors in Loudoun that would include assisted living and long-term nursing care.

Lassiter met Bernhart in the late 1990s, and along with Zora "Mac" Brownell, they were known as the "Three M's." Together they lobbied the Board of Supervisors to convert the former George Washington Carver School in Purcellville into a senior center for western Loudoun. Loudoun's first modern elementary school for blacks, Carver was turned into a storage facility after schools were integrated.

"When she went out to do something, she went out with all her might," said Lassiter, 68. "She knew exactly what was necessary to get people motivated, and she worked untiringly and relentlessly."

Bernhart, who lived in Lansdowne, is survived by daughter Holly B. Cratsley of Concord, Mass., sons Michael H. Bernhart of Amman, Jordan, and John K. Bernhart of Golden, Col., seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Donations can be made to The Martha Bernhart Memorial Fund to Benefit Seniors, c/o Mercantile Potomac Bank, 19375 Magnolia Grove Sq., Lansdowne, Va. 20176.

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