Friday, August 23, 2019

Former Town Clerk Rita Bernier retires at the age of 81 after a total 44 years of service to Windham

Rita Bernier with her husband, Dick.
By Lorraine Glowczak

The two friendly rottweilers, Apollo and Rugar, greeted me on the steps as I knock on the door. The aroma of freshly canned zucchini relish stopped me in my tracks. “I’ll be right there – I’m coming,” Rita Bernier said from the other side of the door.

As a five-year resident of Windham, I had not yet met Bernier, a well-known and respected contributing member of the greater Windham community who recently retired after 44 years of service to the Windham community. Although I knew I was interviewing a former town clerk, all I really grasped, as I placed my feet at her doorstep, was that I was in for a treat and an adventure at meeting her.

The door opened and I was greeted by a friendly woman who didn’t shame me for being ten minutes late to our interview. In fact, she offered me her first warm batch of zucchini relish fresh off the stove as well as a cloth hand-made coin purse – which gave me a clue about the amazing Rita Bernier and her dedication to her life’s work. invites me to sit down at the kitchen table after giving me a taste of the relish. Then, with much ease, the interview began. “I was born on what is known as the Sawyer Farm located in Gorham – right next to the covered bridge [located in Windham],” Rita began. “I lived there the first 17 years of my life. We didn’t have running water or electricity. I was a part of a family of eight children during the depression. We had no money, but we ate the most wonderfully fresh foods from the garden, and
we were a fun, close knit family. I had no clue we were poor.”

Fast forward to adulthood. She eventually married her husband, Dick. Together, they had four children – all girls. The Bernier family has grown and now includes 27 grandchildren and 42 great grandchildren. The richness of her life continues as it has for the past 81 years life (soon to be 82).

For fourteen years, many will remember that she was a bus driver for the Windham school district, beginning in the early 1970s - the first woman bus driver ever hired. Her role as a bus driver provided a sense of passion and purpose in her life. “I never left a child at a home if the family wasn’t there and the house was empty,” she began. “I would bring those children home with me and they’d stay until their parents came home from work. The parents would come by – one by one – to pick up their son or daughter. I loved and cared for those children as if they were my own.”

Bernier had a passion for all of life, and she put it forth in action. Whether her role was that of a cook/creator at home, a mother, a bus driver – or eventually that of a town clerk, Rita has lived her life with intention and purpose.

So exactly how did this small-town woman become Windham’s Town Clerk? “I worked for an oil company as an office manager,” Rita said. “It was a fun job that I loved with no plans to leave any time soon.”
One day, the Windham Town Clerk at the time, Barbara Strout, had decided to run for state legislature and asked Rita if she’d be interested in being the next elected official for the town clerk. Rita accepted Barbara’s proposal.

I was elected immediately,” Bernier began. “I was elected on a Friday and went to the town office the following Monday. I must admit. It was a difficult learning experience.”

It was 1987 and Rita said she had the best help available to assist in her transition to her new role. “At that time, there were no computers. Everything - the ledgers, statistics, etc. was done by hand. I was blessed with the help of those in the town office and I don’t know how many times Gary Plummer [Windham Town Council, Cumberland County Commissioner and State Senator] provided guidance for me. I’m so grateful”

cstlouis@spurwink.orgDuring her time in office, she attended a three-year educational program at the Municipal Clerks Institute at Salve Regina in Rhode Island, offering training and instruction as a Town Clerk. Prior to
that, at the age of 42, she graduated from Adult Education where she received her GED.

Eventually, when she was ready to retire as the full-time town clerk, she thought her part time assistant would do a great job. “You want to trade places with me,” she asked Linda Morrell. Morrell was elected soon after that – and – well - the rest is history. So, for the past 25 years, she has acted as the assistant to Morrell, only recently retiring a month ago in early July.

Rita admits that the townspeople are what made her job. “I’m telling you – I fell in love with the people. If there is anything I miss the most after my retirement - it is the people I came in contact with on a daily basis.”

She is still grieving her time away from the town office, but she states that her daughter reminds her, “Mom, you haven’t given yourself enough time to be away.”

Today, you can find Bernier keeping herself busy with the domestic arts – whether it is the preservation of foods or creating by hand, rag rugs. Whatever you will find her doing, you will never see her sitting still. She even teaches the art of rag rug making during the fall and winter months. 

“I’ve had students who have been with me for 16 years,” she said. And she is always up for new students. “It’s a dying art, you know.”

Although Bernier has retired in the traditional sense, she has not slowed down. “She is the energizer bunny,” Morrill said of her former co-worker and close friend. For anyone who may be interested in learning how to make rag rugs, Bernier would love to share her skill with you. For more information, call Bernier at 894-8114.

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