Supercentenarian Carl Berner of Middle Village was a beacon of light, and Queens civic leaders, neighbors, and friends were sorry to learn about his passing in his home on January 7, just 20 days shy of his 111th birthday.
And while his light may have dimmed in a physical sense, spiritually his light is stronger than ever. Berner will always be remembered as a great civic-minded resident and a role model to Queens. Even into his ripe age, he engaged his community by tidying up littered streets during his typical mile-long walks with a broom and a trash can. A bowl of oatmeal daily was his brain fuel and his walks served as a key to his longevity.
A native of Stuttgart, Germany, Berner was born on January 27, 1902. He was the second oldest verified American man and New York City’s oldest man, according to the Gerontology Research Group. In 1902, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47.
At a spring 2006 Juniper Park Civic Association town hall meeting, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was designated the group's 2005 Man of The Year for supporting the community’s opposition to the proposed Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, I had the privilege of hearing Berner speak at the podium about his volunteerism. I was proud to shake his hand.
Just a few years prior, at a 2004 civic meeting, the Department of Sanitation awarded Berner the “Partner in a Cleaner New York Certificate of Appreciation” for his lifetime of community service. In 2009, the civic presented him with a Volunteer of the Year Award.
In Germany, Berner was raised by his grandparents after his parents died from tuberculosis when he was young. He learned English at a German public school, and in addition to his native language, he knew French. In 1928, he immigrated to the United States aboard the German-designed SS Bremen.
In 1936, he fell in love and married Margaret (who passed away in 1987), and in 1943 they had their only child, a daughter named Emily. In 1938, they moved into a $5,190 single-family brick house on 81st Street in Middle Village. They quickly joined the Eliot Avenue Civic Association, which later became the Juniper Park Civic Association, which he helped found.
In his early American career, Berner became the Chrysler Building’s first night manager in 1930, where he worked for five years, six days a week for ten-hour shifts, supervising 75 cleaning workers and 20 porters. At 77 stories, it was at the time the world’s tallest building.
During the latter years of the Great Depression, Berner pursued the American Dream despite the harsh times. From his garage, he created a toy manufacturing business, which specialized in metal toys at first, followed by dolls and stuffed animals such as teddy bears.
For 16 hours a day, he took pride in handcrafting toys. When his creative endeavors appealed to the interests of large business owners, he began training the industry’s youngest manufacturers. His creations would later become collector’s items. Perhaps his sense of humor and youthful outlook was partially generated by the toys he designed to make countless children smile.
In October 2004 at the age of 102, Berner was interviewed by Newsday, relating the community’s needs of yesteryear to its current state.
"Back then, we were a new community and we had very few city services,” he said. “We even had to fight for streetlights and sewers. We were also a close-knit community then, and we still are today. That's why I'm still out there all the time, cleaning weeds and picking up trash by the railroad bridge on Caldwell Avenue and helping to maintain the Greenstreet areas, including the one named for me on 81st Street in Middle Village.
"Retirement can be boring, but not for me,” he continued. “I consider myself a humanitarian. I enjoy helping my neighbors, especially the elderly, with odd jobs around their homes. I usually walk to Juniper Valley Park, to Stop & Shop supermarket on Grand Avenue, or to Home Depot on Woodhaven Boulevard. I walk an average of five miles a day."
And Berner further reflected on his life during a March 2010 New York Times interview, and complained about overdevelopment and the fact that neighbors did not know one another in comparison to earlier decades.
“Carl Berner dedicated his life to making our community a better place,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. “He will be sorely missed. His legacy will live on in the countless number of people who were inspired by his dedication towards improving our neighborhoods.”
Steve Melnick, a 23-year Forest Hills resident and founder of the Queens Boulevard Restoration Group, feels greatly inspired by Berner. Melnick has a history of taking the initiative to improve Queens Boulevard and other stretches of Forest Hills and Rego Park by addressing safety measures, maintenance, and greening the neighborhood through plantings and tree giveaways.
After learning about Berner’s passing, Melnick viewed a vintage photo that depicted Berner perched atop the Art Deco stone eagle of the Chrysler Building, polishing its beak.
“I pass by the Chrysler building every day on my way to my office, but this afternoon, a group of six people surrounded me at Grand Central Station, as I explained the photo and Carl's life,” Melnick said. “Tourists and locals were in awe to learn about Carl and this iconic photo’s history. There’s nothing like it in New York City.”
In spring 2012, the Forest Park Civic Association of Queens was founded by Glendale resident Paul Gagliardotto, who is now 27.
“While I didn't know Carl Berner personally, his reputation around the Queens civic community was that of a legend,” he said. “We should all be so lucky to have the life he lived. Great wholehearted people like Carl was what built Middle Village to become one of the best neighborhoods in Queens. To help your neighbors and care for your community is something people take for granted, but he certainly inspired me to do more.”
Younger generations should recognize Carl Berner’s legacy, and walk in his footsteps to actively improve their communities. In his memory, let’s request a street to be co-named in his honor, as well as plant trees along the route he frequently cleaned. Rest In Peace, Carl Berner.