Donna Bergheim, professor and Virginia arts advocate, dies

Donna F. Bergheim was a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
Donna F. Bergheim was a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. (Nina Tisara/
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

Donna F. Bergheim, a onetime Foreign Service officer and college professor who became an advocate for the arts in Alexandria and throughout Virginia, died March 27 of congestive heart failure at Capital Hospice in Arlington County. She was 84.

Dr. Bergheim became active in various arts groups soon after moving to Alexandria in 1960. She served on the board of directors of MetroStage and helped convert an old lumber warehouse into MetroStage's 150-seat theater. The theater was named for her in 2001.

In 1993, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder named Dr. Bergheim to a five-year term as a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. In that position, Dr. Bergheim evaluated arts programs and helped award grants to organizations throughout the state.

Closer to home, she worked with the Alexandria Arts Safari, an arts and crafts event for children, and the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, which presented its Alex Award to Dr. Bergheim in 2004. The Alexandria Commission for Women presented her with an award for her contributions to the arts in 1994. In a 2008 ceremony, Dr. Bergheim and her husband, former Alexandria vice mayor Mel Bergheim, were recognized as "Living Legends of Alexandria."

Donna Rose Feldman was born in South Bend, Ind., and moved to Tucson as a girl. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1945 and received a master's degree in English from the university in 1948. She received a doctorate in speech and drama from the University of Iowa in 1953 and was an authority on the works of Shakespeare.

While completing her graduate studies, Dr. Bergheim moved to Washington in 1951 and worked with the U.S. Information Agency's motion-picture service. From 1955 to 1957, she was a Foreign Service officer in Japan and Burma and helped arrange appearances in Asia by performing arts groups, including ballets, classical ensembles and Benny Goodman's jazz band. She also helped coordinate a visit to Japan by novelist William Faulkner in 1955.

Dr. Bergheim worked for Voice of America in Washington before becoming an assistant cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in 1958. She resigned from the State Department in 1959, when she married. State Department rules at the time did not allow married women to hold professional positions in the Foreign Service.

After raising four children, Dr. Bergheim taught literature, speech and drama at Southeastern University from 1977 to 1985. She was head of the university's department of communication arts and humanities and director of its preparatory college from 1985 to 1988.

In addition to her husband of 50 years, survivors include four children, Beth B. Silver of Alexandria, Laura A. Bergheim of Los Altos, Calif., Maria L. Bergheim of Leesburg and David A. Bergheim of San Diego; two brothers; and four grandsons.

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