|Jane Barr, Heather Riley & Willie Berchau|
A green bench, reminiscent of those that lined the streets of St. Petersburg for 50 years in the 20th century, was dedicated to “Willie” Berchau at the Fountains in S. Pasadena in early July.
It was a synergistic event whose participants included a volunteer for a program that advocates for the elderly, a former mayor with a passion for green benches, a local wood craftsman, a reverend, and a number of caring friends who loved Willie.
The story began in 2011 when Jane Barr, a volunteer Florida Long Term Care Ombudsman was assigned to Willie,97 at the time, after he became a court-appointed ward of a professional guardian. Jane visited him at the Fountains where he lived and was puzzled.
“I can’t figure out why this man at 97 years old even had a guardian because he does everything for himself, he knows everything, he speaks four languages,” she recalls.
Willie was a Lutheran so Jane introduced him to her friends Heather and Jimmie Riley so they could all go to church together. Willie and Jimmie both had railroad careers and the they all hit if off. They and other acquain- tances visited Willie often and even hosted a 99th birthday party for him at their home in 2013.
Later that year his guardian had him placed in an Alzheimer facility despite evidence that it wasn’t warranted.
Jane, Heather and Jimmie were horrified. Willie’s pastor recalls visiting and said it was pathetic to see him there. They wrote countless unanswered letters to the judge and even the governor, then finally enlisted the help of State Senator Jeff Brandes who heard Willie’s story, visited him immediately and got a lawyer to help.
They also told their story to ABC Action News and after a piece aired about his plight, he was moved to a less restrictive area and after six months in the facility he was allowed to move back to the Fountains.
Meanwhile Fountains’ resident and former S. Pasadena Mayor Dick Holmes, had been working on a book about green benches and read a news article about a local craftsman Flash Williamson who was making them. Holmes called, they talked, became friends and Holmes started buying the iconic benches for the Fountains complex.
Williamson, who owns Green Benches & More in Clearwater, started building benches in 1983 at the request of a client who had one of the originals from the city. The customer wanted some made for his mobile home community in Dunedin and brought the bench to Clearwater. Williamson made a template, built the benches out of pressure treated pine, and that was that… or so he thought.
|Friends of Willie dedicated bench|
He built the benches and decided during the economic slowdown of 2008/9 to experiment to find other more resilient materials and settled on recycled plastic. He put one in front of his store where it gets hit with direct sunlight and it didn’t need maintenance, it didn’t even accumulate dirt, and he was reducing waste by recycling. “It was fantastic, so I thought why not emphasize the “green” in the green bench.”
This green bench, crafted by Flash Williamson of Green Bench & More in Clearwater, was purchased by Jane, Heather, Jimmie and Willie’s family. Friends gathered and dedicated it to former resident Willie Berchau in early July.
Fast forward to 2017 and Holmes is having plaques made for the benches to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their introduction to the city in 1917 –Jane, Heather, Jimmie and Willie’s family bought a bench and arranged to have it dedicated to Willie–and that is how a group of previously unassociated people ended up toasting to Willie and his bench by the pond in front of the Fountains. Willie passed away at 101 in 2015.
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A Green Bench for Willie