Jim Bersie fondly remembers his time in Washington, D.C. when he worked as a legislative assistant for then-Congressman Gerald Ford. The photo at right shows Bersie working on Ford’s campaign.
DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. (OCTOBER 2014) — Providence of Downers Grove resident Jim Bersie has some advice for the upcoming election. It’s short and it’s simple, but he believes in it very strongly: everyone should get out and vote.
“I think politics are important, and people need to get involved, or they’ll miss things about our country,”Bersie said. “I tell people, ‘I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Stop complaining and get involved in the political process. Run for ofﬁce or volunteer for the person you choose. And, most importantly, vote!’”
Bersie has taken his own advice: he has worked in politics, volunteered for candidates, and always, always votes.
“I voted as soon as I was old enough and haven’t missed a vote since,”he said.
Now, he has an absentee ballot sent to him by the DuPage County Election Commission automatically for each election. And he’s not the only one at Providence of Downers Grove who receives an absentee ballot —in fact, Percy Bhagat, the Life Enrichment Director, gets the ballots for all the long-term residents at Providence.
“I’m all set to go for next month’s election,”she said. “Residents like to vote, and it’s important for them to do so —it’s their right.”
Politics have always been of interest to Bersie. Many years ago, when he was just out of college, Bersie got an up-close look at what it’s like to be part of the political process—he served as a staff member for then-U.S. Congressman Gerald Ford.
After three years at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, Bersie ﬁnished his education at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. —a move that would prove to shape his career in a way he didn’t expect.
At the time, he wanted to be a journalist: he had studied at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and planned to be a copy boy for The New York Times. But all those plans changed with just one question: on the final exam day of his political science class at Calvin, Bersie’s professor asked if he’d be interested in joining Ford’s staff. At the time, Ford was the Representative for Michigan’s Fifth Congressional District, which included the Grand Rapids area.
Bersie immediately sat down and wrote out his application — a list of everything he’d done for the Republican Party. He was contacted that night, and ﬂew out to Washington, D.C., for the interview. His ﬁrst day as a legislative assistant was Feb. 1, 1961, just after Kennedy was inaugurated. He was 23 years old.
“It was an exciting time to be in Washington,”Bersie said.
He was part of a small staff, and served as a constituent case worker, supervisor of interns, and driver for Ford and his family, among other jobs. He wrote legislation for bills on the House Consent and Private Calendars, Congressional Record remarks, and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing abstracts.
“I learned a lot about how government operates,”he said.
Every Friday, Bersie made 14,000 copies of Ford’s weekly newsletter, which was mailed to constituents in Michigan. It was in the middle of that task on Nov. 22, 1963, that Bersie ﬁrst got the news: Kennedy had been shot. He rushed to tell Ford, pulling him into the VA Committee room, where several people were listening to a radio. When Bersie went back to his work, he first took a blank sheet of newsletter paper and wrote the details of the events of that afternoon.
“Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, it was very upsetting,”Bersie said.
Soon after, Ford was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the Warren Commission —which was ofﬁcially called The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, and got its unofﬁcial name from its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren —to investigate the assassination. Ford later wrote a book called “Portrait of the Assassin,” of which Bersie has a personally signed copy.
Ford was elected House Minority Leader in 1965, while Bersie worked for him, which netted the Representative and his staff a much nicer ofﬁce —including a desk for Bersie with a view that looked across the National Mall to the Washington Monument. “Ford was climbing the ladder,”Bersie said. “He was more and more well known.”
Bersie’s political career, however, didn’t last as long as Ford’s. In 1966, he saw there was no room for him to move up in Ford’s staff; and, as he likes to say with a smile, “I didn’t think Ford was going anywhere!”One day, after nearly six years on the job, he walked into the Congressman’s ofﬁce and said, “Mr. Ford, I feel I should resign.”He decided to go into business, and on Dec. 31, 1966, he left Ford’s ofﬁce.
Bersie eventually combined business with the writing he always enjoyed, first doing public relations and later technical writing. He wrote speeches—one of them a Freedoms Foundation Award winner — for CEOs at different Fortune 50 corporations, and enjoyed coaching executives in public speaking. He was offered the job of PR Director for the Public Relations Society of America in New York City. He lived in Virginia and New Jersey, but moved back to Grand Rapids in 1989. Finally, he returned “home”—he was born in Evanston —when he came to Chicagoland in 1997. He retired, on disability, at age 64, and he moved into Providence Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Downers Grove earlier this year.
To this day, Bersie is happy to tell stories about his time in Washington: how, rushing to get Mr. Ford back to the House floor for a vote, he drove the Congressman in the Corvette at about 130 miles an hour down a restricted-access highway (until Ford said, matter-of-factly, “Jim, we’re not in that much of a hurry!”); how he didn’t need ID to get into the Capitol, because staff there knew who he was; how he had security clearance as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee staff; and, most important to Bersie, about how Gerald Ford was truly a man of integrity. He tells of the time when Ford’s daughter Susan christened an aircraft carrier named for her father, noting that his three best qualities were integrity, integrity, integrity. Bersie agreed. “I knew Ford was a ﬁne man,”he said. “He never said anything that wasn’t true.”
Bersie had been out of Washington for eight years by the time Ford succeeded Nixon in 1974. He sent a letter of congratulations to the new President upon his inauguration. Nevertheless, Bersie remained active after leaving Washington, D.C.; he never stopped following local and national candidates.
“I still follow politics, oh yes,”he said.
He and his wife, Gwyneth, volunteered for Peter Roskam’s 2006 campaign when Roskam first ran for the office of U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 6th Congressional District (which includes part of Downers Grove). They wrote letters, went to appearances, knocked on doors and handed out ﬂiers. Roskam recently spoke at Saratoga Grove, and he remembered Bersie. It was March 18, 2014, the day of the Republican primary, in which Roskam ran unopposed. He will be running against Michael Mason (who was unopposed in the Democratic primary), in the Nov. 4 general election.
And of course, that’s another vote that Bersie wouldn’t miss.