Marguerite A. Bergstrom Left Her Mark on Island Hospitality, Housing and Politics


Marguerite A. Bergstrom, a celebrated Island humanitarian, died in her Wing Road home Tuesday at the age of 81.

Better known by those who loved her as Bergie, Ms. Bergstrom was a war veteran, a retired nurse and hospital administrator, former innkeeper, veteran Tisbury official, affordable housing champion and prominent church leader.

Ms. Bergstrom was born on Jan. 4, 1922 in Natick to Eric G. and Alice Isackson Bergstrom. After her mother died during Ms. Bergstrom's infancy, her father married Alice's sister, Elisabeth, who became surrogate mother to Ms. Bergstrom and her two brothers. Ms. Bergstrom's parents moved to Oak Bluffs in the early 1950s - marking the her first exposure to the Island she would call home for the last 33 years.

As a young girl in Natick, Ms. Bergstrom dreamed of becoming a medical missionary in China.

"We had this fascinating missionary in my home town, who had been to China. He made it sound wonderful, so I wanted to be a medical missionary and go to China. So I went into training, but by the time I got out, Uncle Sam was having a little conflict, so I answered his bugle call," she said in a 1986 interview with the Martha's Vineyard Times.

The call took her all the way to England in 1943 as a first lieutenant in the United States Army Nursing Corps. In 1947, the army shipped Ms. Bergstrom home with a cane, after an injury caused by an ambulance accident she rarely discussed. Ms. Bergstrom tolerated a severe limp from the age of 23.

Back in the United States, the veteran took advantage of the GI Bill, graduating from Boston University in 1952 with a degree in nursing. She went on to earn a master's of science in nursing administration from Boston University in 1955. She worked briefly as a nursing service administrator at New England Medical Center before taking a post as director of nursing service at Morton Hospital in Taunton until 1970.

That's when Ms. Bergstrom found her way to the Island, ending a relationship with Martha's Vineyard that she described as one similar to a "carpetbagger." She ran the now defunct 28-bed Vineyard Haven Nursing Home, a post she held for just six months before the state closed its doors.

Ms. Bergstrom and her now-deceased partner Lydia Palmer turned their attention to the hospitality business - purchasing the nursing home building, now the Hanover House, and operating what Ms. Bergstrom often jokingly described as the first affordable housing on the Island.

"After the state came and closed it, Mary Cronig asked if we wanted to buy it. We didn't have a nickel to our name, but it was the deal of the century - $38,000," she said in an interview with the Gazette last summer.

Called Aidylberg - a nickname derived from the backward spelling of Ms. Palmer's first name and part of Ms. Bergstrom's last name - the casual bed-and-breakfast hosted young summer workers for $10 a week. Through the 1970s, Ms. Bergstrom could be seen tending rose bushes in front of Aidylberg, while Ms. Palmer, a longtime Edgartown school teacher, prepared pancakes for the guests.

True to her habit of fighting from the front lines, Ms. Bergstrom stepped into Tisbury politics in 1972 - leading the board of health during an era that brought a sewer system to the downtown area, free influenza vaccines and cleanup of the Tisbury landfill. Ms. Bergstrom's friend Arlene Bodge, a retired nurse and minister, remembers the former Navy nurse loading her station wagon with flu vaccines she'd secured through a grant from the state and setting up a portable nursing station near the former West Tisbury town hall. They lined up kids and adults alike to brace them for the winter of 1973 with a flu vaccine. Ms. Bergstom, whose fingers were already crippled with arthritis, took down patient information, while Ms. Bodge, decked in her white nurse's uniform, gave the shots.

Ms. Bergstrom reluctantly stepped down from her post on the board of health for an eight-year period to work as Tisbury's executive secretary. A disciplined and principled public servant, Ms. Bergstrom managed to fit 60 hours worth of work into her 40-hour week. Ms. Bergstom strolled down through the offices of town hall, making suggestions to other town hall staff that, in her no-nonsense tone, sounded more like orders than recommendations. In these moments, say folks who knew her well, it was better to comply than question.

"It's just better to do it than to cross her," said Marcia Cini, a close friend of Ms. Bergstrom.

It was during her town hall tenure that she encountered Carol Lashnits, a young assistant to the Tisbury planning board. Their conversations about housing for the Island's elderly became a crusade of sorts - leading to the creation of a nonprofit organization that has housed more than 300 elderly and disabled Islanders since 1981. Ms. Bergstrom, Ms. Lashnits and the late Margaret Love - a dynamic trio spanning three generations - led Island Elderly Housing, a group that has secured millions of dollars in grants for elderly housing on the Vineyard. Until her death this week, Ms. Bergstrom served as chairman of the board but worked like a full-time staff member.

"Berg and Margaret had so much faith. If you thought about every micromanaging detail, you'd never get started. Instead, we just thought about how to make peoples' lives better," Ms. Lashnits said this week.

To sit on a committee with Ms. Bergstrom, nearly always fierce and blunt, was an experience unto itself.

"Berg was always forceful and in charge, regardless of whether she was in charge or not. She said exactly what was on her mind, which made it a pleasure to serve with her," said John Early, a longtime member of the IEH board.

Ms. Bergstrom's departure comes at a bittersweet moment for Island Elderly Housing. Just last year, she donated her $1 million Wing Road property to the agency for the creation of low-income elderly housing. The project - christened Aidylberg in memory of her and Ms. Palmer's bed-and-breakfast venture - will appear before the Martha's Vineyard Commission in July. Ten units, in two barnlike structures, will be erected on the two acres behind her home.

Last month, Ms. Bergstrom rallied for one last battle - pushing hard for approval of a Hillside Village III building that was stalled in front of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. In a tongue-in-cheek response to an outpouring of neighborhood protest regarding the building, Ms. Bergstrom matter-of-factly announced during the MVC public hearing that she should rename Aidylberg "In My Backyard."

This was Ms. Bergstrom's signature - an edgy humor that pushed the envelope. But because she matched her convictions with action, Ms. Bergstrom managed to convert her opponents more often than alienate them.

Ms. Bergstrom's other legacy lives in the $300,000 renovation of Trinity United Methodist Church of the Camp Ground. As chairman of the church board of trustees, she also appointed herself clerk of the works for the major restoration project a few years ago.

"Berg had a determination to get all things done properly. She was over there day after day. She never got over being a supervisor or a boss. I don't know how to say that with love, but that's all we felt for her. She had a great rapport with the carpenters, but boy, did they fear her," said Albion Hart, Ms. Bergstrom's vice-chairman on the board of trustees.

Her tough exterior - with white hair slicked straight back and the blue seersucker blazer she reserved for nice occasions - often gave way to a soft heart. She read every piece of mail solicitation word for word - making her way onto enough political and nonprofit group mailing lists that she needed two post office boxes.

"She got mail from everyone - from Kerry and Clinton to funds for Native American children. They knew she was a softie. She couldn't not put a check in their return envelopes," Ms. Lashnits said, noting that until the day she died, Ms. Bergstrom remembered to mark the graduation of all her friends' and IEH staff members' children with a check.

It's these small gestures of unsolicited kindness that friends say they'll remember. Every Christmas, Ms. Bergstrom and Ms. Palmer delivered shoe boxes full of craft supplies to the children of friends. Ms. Bodge remembers gifts of tools when she tried to landscape the former Webb Campground she owned. Every return trip from off-Island, Ms. Bergstrom would bring a trunk full of potatoes for the soup suppers at the Old Whaling Church. She and Ms. Palmer prepared meals every Sunday for a table full of elderly women.

Ms. Bergstrom is predeceased by her partner of 40 years, Lydia Palmer; her parents Eric and Elisabeth Bergstrom. She had two brothers, Edward and Frederic Bergstrom. She is survived by several nieces and nephews, including Elizabeth Stoker of Morris, Conn., Daniel Bergstrom and Kurt Bergstrom of Southington, Conn., Frederic Bergstrom Jr. of Middletown, Conn., and Stephen Bergstrom of Westerly, R.I.

Funeral services are being held today at 10 a.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church. Interment will follow at the Oak Grove Cemetery. Friends are then invited to a reception at the Hillside Village community room following the ceremony.

Memorial gifts may be made to Island Elderly Housing, Trinity United Methodist Church or a charity of choice.