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A Life: Joseph W. Bergin, 1924-2015; ‘He Was Always Wanting to Do for Others’

Monday, August 10, 2015
New London — Negotiating a real estate contract at age 90 sounds impressive.

Pair that with driving golf balls on Sunday afternoons at Eastman Golf Links and volunteering for six hours a week at New London Hospital, and it highlights some of the activities of Joe Bergin, a World War II veteran who did anything but fade into the shadows in his final year.

Bergin, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, was known to some as “Mr. Hilltop,” a fitting title in more ways than one.

Not only was he a resident of Hilltop Place, a condominium community in New London, but Bergin sold a Hilltop condo on July 7, just three weeks before he died.

Bergin, an associate broker for CG Shepherd Realty, died at his home on July 30 at age 90.

DeeAnn Shepherd, of CG Shepherd Realty, said Bergin attended all of the showings, helped negotiate the contract on behalf of the sellers, and attended the home inspection and appraisal. Though he wasn’t able to attend the closing because he fell ill, he saw the transaction all the way through, Shepherd said.

“They couldn’t have been more happy with him,” Shepherd said of the sellers. “As were all of his clients.”

Bergin worked for the Grantham-based real estate office for the past eight years, his second stint with CG Shepherd Realty. He specialized in selling Hilltop properties and homes and condos in Eastman, an area he knew well as he owned two residences there before moving to New London.

“He had conviction; he did things the way he thought they needed to be done and was unbending that way,” Shepherd said. “But at the same token, he was very generous and would offer help to anyone.”

Bergin, a Boston native, saw Eastman as an appropriate permanent move in the late 1980s, his daughter, Sheila Goss, said in an interview last week.

The lake, tennis courts, trail system and most importantly to him and his late-wife — a championship 18-hole golf course — made the move to Grantham especially appealing.

Bergin and his wife, Isabel, of 65 years, purchased a condo in Eastman in the early 1980s, and would frequent the area when time allowed them to stray from their real estate business in Needham, Mass.

The Eastman condo satisfied the couples’ needs for about five years, but being the golfers they were, Bergin and his wife built a home on the course and moved to the Granite State full time.

“He was a low-handicap golfer,” said his friend Kay Smith, who also lives in the Eastman community. “He was a very good golfer — to the end.”

At his funeral service last week, Smith recalled many Sunday afternoons spent with the Bergins on the course.

“He was very caring; he was very loving and a good friend to many,” Smith said. “He was always wanting to do for others.”

Those qualities were evident throughout Bergin’s life, but were prominent in his later years when he started his 6-year career volunteering at New London Hospital.

Many people at the hospital grew fond of Bergin, who spent hours a week delivering mail and greeting patients and visitors from the front desk.

“I think it is a privilege to be a small part of a fine hospital and the dedicated people who work here,” Bergin told a writer for the newsletter Friends of New London Hospital in 2011.

At the front desk, Bergin would often sit with staff member Rick Stewart. The two started on the same day in 2009, Stewart in a full-time capacity and Bergin as a volunteer. Though the two were nervous, Stewert said, their friendship took off.

They’d often tell stories, Bergin’s sometimes centering around his time serving in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in North Africa, Italy, Belgium, France, and Germany. Bergin, who received a Purple Heart after he was hit by shrapnel during a battle in Belgium, would often downplay his accomplishments, Stewart said.

Not only did Bergin receive U.S. military awards, in 2010 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for his service in the liberation of France.

“I have never met a more humble man,” Stewart said. “He would always say ‘that’s just what we did,’ or ‘I really didn’t deserve this.’ ”

“ ‘Yes, you did, Joe,’ ” Stewart would respond.

Yuri Beckers, of Denmark, a long-distance friend of Bergin’s who is writing a book about the 9th Infantry Division, said Bergin enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served until 1945.

“After being wounded, he was taken off the line, to return again,” Beckers wrote. “Joe remembers vividly crossing the famous Bridge of Remagen right before it collapsed.”

In an interview last week, Beckers said he never met Bergin in person, but said the two exchanged emails and sent gifts and cards in the mail.

“Joe was an incredibly kind person, who dearly loved his wife,” Beckers said.

Kindness was a quality that came to the minds of many who spoke about Bergin following his service last week; he was a man who enjoyed performing random selfless acts.

One of his specialties involved handing out nickle-sized embroidered red roses with green stems. He would often keep two or three of the roses in his wallet and give them to select individuals as good luck charms, his daughter said.

“He would always remember the people he would give roses to,” Goss said, noting that exactly who her father took over the family tradition from remains a mystery, as well as just how many roses he had given out over his lifetime. “It was just something he’d do as a gesture of friendliness or appreciation.”

Another Bergin trademark involved three things: a photograph, a piece of wood and some manual labor.

Bergin would trim a photograph, mount it to the piece of wood and then shape the wood to match the picture’s cut, creating a “silhouette” figure.

“Like a chess piece,” Stewart, from New London Hospital, described. “He grabbed a picture of me walking my daughter down the isle and he did it.

“I didn’t even know he grabbed it,” Stewart said.

After the war, Bergin attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and graduated with degrees in business/accounting and German. The same year he graduated, 1949, he married his wife. The couple had three children, Sheila, Patrick and Dennis.

Post college, he served as a special agent in the FBI for about three years before returning to Boston to run the family business, Bergin Liquors.

Goss recalled her father working long hours, though she said that never affected his ability to be a family man.

“He would still go out and play catch with us in the yard; he’d take us to the golf course,” she said.

Goss recalled family ski vacations to Mount Sunapee and Temple Mountain in New Hampshire and Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont.

In his free time, Bergin enjoyed setting up model railroads “with cream of the crop” railcars and sharing them with people of all ages.

“There were helicopters that flew, smoke, buildings that lit up,” Goss said of the elaborate setup that traveled from Massachusetts to New Hampshire with the permanent move.

Although the liquor store ran strong for decades, it dissolved when urban redevelopment took over in the early 1970s.

Bergin then embarked on his real estate career alongside his wife under the name of Akers and Burnham Real Estate in Needham, Mass.

The couple worked in real estate in Massachusetts for at least a decade, eventually buying and later selling the company to move to New Hampshire to follow in the same career path.

“He was a well respected man in the community,” said Nancy Collins, manager of volunteer services at New London Hospital. “He was very dedicated to what he did and he absolutely loved volunteering.

“This man was a true gentleman. He was the type of person, when you walked into a room, he would stand,” Collins said. “And there aren’t many of those around anymore.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at or 603-727-3248.

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