Family Man, City Leader
By Maryanne Moon Boyen
Photo: Tony Bergin and family
The elements seemed to know that Tony Bergin had died. Torrents of water had wept from the skies on the day of his wake when over a thousand people stood in two-hour lines to pay their respects to his wife and six children.
On the chilly morning of his funeral, an October sun made a vain attempt to usher in some light to mourners inside of St. Margaret Church through celestial stained glass windows.
Tony Bergin, himself, would have been surprised at the pageantry of his own funeral. Ten Catholic priests in cream and gold-tinged robes celebrated the Mass together. That’s not seen too often today. The six black, shiny limousines needed to transport the hundred or so loved ones took up an entire block on Willow Street in front of the church. A kilted bagpiper expressed a shared deep sadness, felt but never adequately mouthed. Perhaps the symbol of a Celt at today’s funerals is the modern manifestation of the Irish banshee of Erin’s folk tales, crying and crying a primal lament, no longer portending death, but announcing it to the world, the way church bells used to, the way cell phones never can.
The service ran late. Tony is of the Bergin family, Waterbury’s version of the Kennedy clan. Between Tony’s dad and his brother, Mike, a Bergin has held the mayor’s office for over ten terms since the 1950s.
Tony’s wife, Maureen, is a Moore. Her physician father, Edwin, delivered more than one generation of Waterbury babies. Tony was the second youngest in a family of nine children; Maureen was in the middle of a family of eight kids.
Today, the extended families of the Bergin and Moore tribes number a couple of hundred. That is a big crowd to move from the Bergin Funeral Home on East Main Street to the corner church on Willow Street.
Clans the size of small cities are not the norm in contemporary American culture today. They are a thing of the past in most places, even in Waterbury. Yet some remain and flourish. They are tiny versions of the larger society, capable of absorbing sickness and success, staying together through a common code of behavior and lives of shared ritual.
The Moores and Bergins and their cousins by the dozens all walked down the marble center aisle, like a slow-moving river. Still, being part of a large crowd never exempts any individual from private struggle. Young Ryan Bergin, not quite sixteen years-old, illustrated that. Though in a church filled with crowds, there was a still scene when it seemed that Ryan, Tony’s only son, was on his own. Tall and confident, in a dark suit with his back to the altar, he wheeled his dad’s coffin down the aisle, followed by his mother and five sisters, who were in a huddle, weeping. Even in grief, girls travel in packs. The choir master sang, “Here I am, Lord,” but he might as well have sung, “Here he is, Lord” for, in those moments, the lone son handed his beloved dad over to their God.
Tony Bergin had walked with a crutch because he contracted polio when he was a toddler. Two of his older brothers, Pat and Mike, said that he ran around the house on Woodlawn Terrace like a terror until he got sick, then spent a year in St. Mary’s Hospital. Upon his return home, his handicap was not highlighted by his parents, Edward and Mary Bergin.
“He was treated just like any other child,” said Mike, whose name is really Edward D. Jr., the former seven-term mayor.
“He was not going to have any special anything,” said Pat, the oldest sibling.
As an adult, when asked about his weaker leg, Tony simply told people that he injured it hang-gliding in Monte Carlo. It saved having to launch into a polio discussion for the millionth time.
Part of the medical treatment at the time for polio was to purposely break the affected leg so that it would not be drastically shorter than the healthy leg. On his own, Tony Bergin broke his leg so many times that his polio leg was longer than his other one.
Once, he broke it while on a toboggan with Louis Olore, when they were kids, slip-sliding near Buckingham Street. Then, in the hospital, Tony started wheelchair races and rigged the hanging triangle to change the channels on the television.
“He was indestructible,” said Pat.
Tony attended Driggs School and Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, as all the Bergin children did. He had his heart set on attending the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, for his bachelors degree, so he headed west.
His brothers remember his sacred golf cart, the vehicle that enabled him to buzz all over campus. He remained a devout Notre Dame fan all of his life. A few weeks ago, at a fundraiser for the Waterbury Day Nursery, he brought out his Blackberry to keep track of the Notre Dame game. Since the fundraiser was interactive theater, the actors worked him into their skit. He remained loyal to the Fighting Irish until his last breath.
Tony Bergin died on October 22, at home, of a heart attack after watching a Notre Dame game.
He attended law school in Washington, D.C. at Catholic University. He loved Washington, D.C. and took the kids there this past summer with his wife. As fate would have it, he recently fit in a few trips that had been promised for a while. He and Maureen went to Alaska and he and Ryan went fishing in Canada.
“He was all about family,” said his wife, Maureen, a week after his death. It still hurts too much for Maureen to talk about Tony. The two were married in St. Margaret Church in 1987. They had their babies baptized there to the left of the main altar. The Bergin children are: Colleen, 17, Ryan, 15, Maureen, 14, Maggie, 12, Keely, 10 and Briann, 8.
Tradition was very important to Tony. Edward D. Bergin, his dad, used to have a Fourth of July party, so Tony and Maureen continued that tradition. Tony and his sister, Ellen, were working on a family film project together. They were converting the old 8 mm film onto compact discs to preserve the family films.
Tony loved the history of Waterbury, especially the manufacturing legacy. He liked the annual Invention Convention that the Visitors Bureau holds every year. When he was a young college student working in a factory for the summer, he created a brass Notre Dame belt buckle, which he sold at school, until some upper-up lectured him about copyrights. (Perhaps that’s why he became an attorney.) One of those belt buckles was near him at the wake, along with a Notre Dame hat and a Red Sox cap.
“He was a gadget guy,” said Pat Bergin. “Any gadget that came out, he had to have it.”
“What a really good man,” said Tony D’Amelio, at his wake. D’Amelio is a Republican state representative. It took almost two hours to wait in line at the Bergin Funeral Home after going up the stairs, around the bend, into and out of a large room, down the stairs and around to the family. There were Republicans and Democrats. When Edward D. Bergin, Jr. or “Mike” was mayor for all those terms, Tony was assistant corporation counsel. Like Bobby Kennedy was to his big brother Jack, Tony was to his big brother Mike. He was his trusted political advisior. The man always watching Mike’s back. Tony was responsible for brokering the deal that eventually turned into the Brass Mill Center. It was Mike’s vison and Tony sorted through the details. Tony was in private law practice before and after political life with his brother.
When Kelly Cronin, executive director of Waterbury Youth Services, saw all the throngs of people waiting in line to say goodbye to Tony Bergin on the night of the wake, she remarked, “This is the tribute to him.”
And it was.