Originally Published in The Washington Post
Kyle Swenson - April 6, 2021
“I consider myself the luckiest person in the world having him as a father,” son Stuart Bernsen said. “He was full of love for his family and his extended family and his friends. He was a wonderful and optimistic person.”
Sam Bernsen died of covid-19 on July 26.
His family emigrated from Eastern Europe in 1900, his son said. He was born in the Bronx on July 13, 1919. He was the youngest of seven children. “He was kind of raised by his sisters,” Stuart said.
Bernsen’s father was a tailor, and the family was poor. Growing up, Bernsen and the youths from the neighborhood took joy in the success of their hometown New York Yankees, then fielding a mythic squad anchored by sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig — Bernsen’s favorite player.
There was no way the children of immigrants scraping out a life in the city could afford tickets to the games, so Bernsen and his friends would climb to the roof of a building overlooking the outfield near Yankee Stadium and watch the games from there.
He wasn’t a dedicated student, Stuart said, until one day a teacher began reading aloud from Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” Before class, Bernsen had only casually flipped through the book. But hearing the words delivered a jolt. “It was so dramatic, the way the teacher read it, that he was overwhelmed and he went back and read it cover to cover. It changed his life,” Stuart said. “He then joined the high school newspaper as a reporter and rose to editor in chief.”
Bernsen’s professional life was a climb from the bottom to the top. After high school, he was working at a fruit stand when a friend encouraged him to take the federal civil service exam. He did, and ended up landing a position as a junior messenger with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
After serving four years in the Army during World War II, Bernsen — now married to Elizabeth Heritch, whom he had met in a shorthand class at City College of New York — returned to the federal government. A 1949 honors graduate of Brooklyn Law School, he began a circuitous path through the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, rising from immigrant inspector to chairman of a special inquiry board to chief of the adjudications branch in New York City.
In the late 1950s, Bernsen was transferred to Washington and his family — now including two sons, Stuart and Clifford — settled down in Montgomery County’s Kemp Mill area.
“We were lucky growing up because he always gave us time and attention,” Stuart said. “He was in a carpool with other co-workers from the immigration service who lived around Silver Spring. The carpool always arrived at 7:30 a.m. to pick him up, and no matter what he’d be home by 6:15 p.m. Then he would sit at the dining-room table watching TV, Perry Como or Red Skelton or Carol Burnett, and do more work on a writing pad in shorthand.”
Bernsen later served as the general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1974 to 1977.
“He knew the policies and the stories behind every regulation and operating instruction, as well as the history of all the immigration statutes from the 1924 Act on,” retired immigration judge Paul Wickham Schmidt, a friend and former colleague, wrote in an online remembrance, adding, “Sam had progressive views on using court decisions and common sense to make the immigration laws function better and easier to administer for everyone, at least in some small ways.”
After leaving government, Bernsen went into private practice and served as an adjunct professor of immigration law at the law schools of Catholic University and American University. After the death of his wife of 73 years, Bernsen spent the last years of his life at a Bethesda retirement community, where his family continued to visit, even as the coronavirus pandemic began gripping the country.
“We went to see him on July 13th, 2020, for his birthday,” Stuart said. “At that point, they were letting residents meet outside with family, and we brought him a chocolate birthday cake. Even though he had a mask on, you could tell he had a big smile on his face. You could see it in his eyes.”
Within days, Stuart learned that his father had tested positive with other residents for the coronavirus. He died about four days later.