Rose Mary Bernstein, 86, passed away March 2, 2018 at her home in Santa Rosa, California after a long illness. She was born September 20, 1931 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Valentine and Stella (Lea) Decker.
She was a woman of extraordinary determination who succeeded in life by doing what people told her she could not do.
An only child born during the Depression to parents who were both blind since infancy, Rose Mary’s early life was not easy, but happy and filled with many cousins from a large extended family. When her father's business of selling brooms made by the Lighthouse for the Blind could find no men to drive the delivery truck because they were all off fighting WWII, her mother was surprised to find Rose Mary having driven the truck home, with a license from the Louisiana motor vehicle office, even though she would not in fact be old enough to properly obtain that license until well after the war ended.
In high school, she was an enthusiastic French horn player in the band as well as an athlete. She complained for decades that her class year was the first in Louisiana to require twelve grades rather than just eleven. When Rose Mary was finishing high school, she was told by her counselor to prepare for the workforce as a secretary, nurse, or teacher. None of these appealed to her. She needed to prepare to support herself, so her father obtained a scholarship for her to Soulé Business School for secretarial study. After completion of the six-month course, she went out into the work world, where she eventually ended up at a local office of General Electric. She quickly realized, in her words, that she was twice as intelligent as the men who surrounded her while making half as much, so she resolved to become an electrical engineer herself.
She convinced Tulane University to admit her to its electrical engineering program, despite her high school not having offered appropriate preparation. When she told family that she would be an engineer, they asked her what she would be doing on a train. She was one the first few people in her extended family to attend college. For most of this time she was the only woman in the entire engineering school. While in college, she had summer jobs at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California, where she started work in 1957 after graduation. During the height of the Cold War, she worked on instrumentation for missiles. She quickly rose to manage a group of other engineers. While she would not have described herself as a rocket scientist, she was literally a missile engineer. She accomplished this in a male-dominated professional world that is difficult to conjure up nowadays, with her upbringing and education in the Deep South of the Depression and WWII, to blind parents with not much education. She was actively involved in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), promoting the profession at a time when so many women and girls were discouraged from pursuing STEM careers.
It was at Douglas that she met the love of her life, Charles Harold "Charlie" Bernstein. Like her, he was also an immigrant to Los Angeles from elsewhere in the country, although in his case it was from an immigrant Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. He was with a small startup vendor that had promised Douglas an important part, but had yet to deliver. On an early trip to this company, she thought that the quiet man in the corner (Charlie) was the accountant, but she later related that he was the only one who knew anything. After several missed deadlines, Charlie, who had taken over responsibility for delivery of the part, told her it would be ready early on a Saturday morning and to accept it then. Grudgingly, she agreed. At that meeting he confessed that he did not have the part ready, but asked her out to breakfast instead. About a year later, they were married on January 23, 1960.
She thought it most important to intimately supervise the upbringing of her children, and so was mostly at home to raise them, but she was active in many organizations, including founding Americans for the Rights of Citizens and running her own business for a while. As the family grew, they moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles, owning several houses there. She led a Girl Scout Troop for many years—an exemplary story from this time is when she needed to design a "challenge" for her scouts: she gave them a hypothetical scenario where, as a young working woman, each of them needed to fill out the annual federal income tax form properly. Multiple mothers of the scouts complained that they themselves couldn't possibly complete such a task, which only further strengthened Rose Mary’s resolve to make sure that their daughters would not suffer a similar helpless fate. She was also a fixture in Southern California Republican politics and managed a political campaign. She sought strenuously to impart unto her children a detail-oriented, methodical approach to solving life's problems.
She and Charlie decided to retire to Sonoma County, California, but before they could fully complete the move, he became disabled due to heart disease. She was a tireless caretaker and doctors seriously remarked that she should write a book on how to care for a heart patient. Rose Mary and Charlie were devoted to each other until death separated them in 1997 when Charlie passed away. A few years later, Rose Mary completed the move to the home she loved in Santa Rosa, by a creek that reminded her of Louisiana. Once moved to her final home, she was active locally at the senior center and traveled extensively, including trips to the Middle East and a Concorde-QE2 trip to England. Her grandchildren brought her much joy.
In her last years, she found devoted caring and friendship in Mere, who enabled her to fulfill her strong desire to live in her own home with dignity and grace to the end. The family is forever grateful.
She is survived by three children: David and his partner Robert Gargan, Danielle and her husband Donald Rossi and their children Decker and Donovan, and Davin and his wife Angela and their children Charles, Gemma, and Zelie.
Memorial donations made to the Alzheimer's Association (alz.org) in the memory of Rose Mary Bernstein will be appreciated by the family. Other organization she valued and supported in life include the Sisters of the Presentation, Santa Rosa’s Senior Center, Lighthouse Louisiana, and Sonoma County Parks.
Visitation is on Friday, March 16, from 4pm to 8pm at Eggen & Lance Chapel, 1540 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. A Funeral Mass to celebrate her life will be held on Saturday, March 17, at 11am at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 1244 St. Francis Rd., Santa Rosa, to be followed by interment at Santa Rosa Memorial Park, 1900 Franklin Ave., Santa Rosa and then a gathering at her home.