The recent deaths of friends a reminder we’re losing part of what made Atlanta special
Too many of my contemporaries are dying, years too young.
Debra Halpern Bernes, my high school classmate, passed away last week after fighting cancer for two years. The synagogue was full of family, friends and associates who marveled at how she had been able to keep an infectious upbeat attitude despite her pain.
For those of us who attended Grady High School 40 years ago, it was another one of those unpleasant reunions. After the service, a group of us gathered to outside the Ahavath Achim Synagogue for hugs and even a group photo. Another one of our classmates had left us.
One of the last times we had gathered was in May, 2007 when one of our most notorious classmates — Yolanda King — had passed away, again way too young. That time we gathered at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church for a multi-hour service that touched on all the varied aspects of her life.
Again a sadness, a reconfirmation that the good die young.
Debbie and Yolanda were part of that special combustion that was underway in the late 1960s and early 1970s — when Atlanta was learning to live with integration of its public schools, and deep friendships were being formed that bridged the races, religions and cliques.
Debbie was a cheerleader with a buoyant personality and one of the most popular girls in school. Yolanda gravitated to the arts and theater. I worked on the high school newspaper and was a political activist hoping to change the world.
The diversity at Grady didn’t stop there. The common ground of our campus was not always harmonious or celebrated, but many of us emerged out of that experience knowing that we had shared a special bond that would last for decades.
Debbie and I had not stayed in close touch until 2004 when she was running for a seat on the Georgia Court of Appeals.
For a variety of reasons, Debbie ended up having to run in three different elections for that same seat in a matter of months — and each time she participated in the debates put on by the Atlanta Press Club and broadcast by Georgia Public Broadcasting.
One of the most amazing moments for me was when one of her opponents, I believe it was Mike Sheffield, began praising Debbie Bernes for being a wonderful person and a competent prosecutor. He sounded as someone who was endorsing Bernes rather than running against her.
Over the years, Debbie and I would run into each other — most often at the Commerce Club, one of our favorite luncheon places. Two years ago, Debbie was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, and yet she kept going to work and keeping her life as normal as possible.
Whenever I saw her, she would smile and say she was fighting as hard as she could to stay alive. Somehow, given her tremendous determination and uplifting attitude, I kept feeling that she would find a way to beat her cancer.
On Sunday, July 18, her husband Gary called Judge Robert Benham, former chief justice for the Georgia Supreme Court, and told him that Debbie wanted to talk to him. Debbie asked if he would speak at her service. She did not sound as someone who would die only two days later.
At the service, Benham also remembered when Debbie told him she had cancer, she quickly deflected the conversation and asked how he was doing.
As I was leaving the synagogue, I ran into Barbara Babbit Kaufman. She told me how her parents and Debbie’s parents had been best friends for decades and how she and Debbie had been roommates in college.
Oddly enough, I had run into Kaufman at another recent funeral — that of Ralph McGill Jr., son of legendary journalist Ralph McGill Sr., and the husband of our close friend Mary Welch.
Kaufman explained that day that she just couldn’t stay through the service.
Just a few weeks before, Kaufman had lost her husband — Richard Kaufman — to cancer, which had only been diagnosed less than two months before he died. He was only 55.
“You just do what you have to do in life,” Kaufman said in a phone conversation this Sunday. “Life goes on and life is for the living.”
Kaufman said that her mother-in-law, whom she described as “amazing,” has inspired her to stay strong. Several times, Kaufman said she finds comfort in remembering “there is a time to mourn, and there is a time to dance.”
Coincidentally, Debbie and Richard Kaufman are buried almost next to each other, which also gives Barbara comfort.
While I barely knew Richard, Barbara described him as someone who connected with every one — poor, rich, black, white….
In many ways, that also described Debbie. Both of them had captured the best traits of an open Atlanta.
Inevitably that brought me back to the death of Ralph McGill Jr., 65, followed three weeks later by the death of his son, Ralph McGill III, who was only 42.
Both were the namesakes of one of the greatest leaders in Atlanta’s history — Ralph McGill Sr. — a newspaper editor who was able to help guide our city and our state through some of its most difficult days as we shifted from the Old South towards the New South.
Attending both of those funerals, back-to-back, made me all too aware of what we’ve lost. Can we as a city still lead a region and a state through the discord of our modern times?
Unfortunately, the recent deaths of Yolanda King, Debra Bernes, Richard Kaufman and two generations of McGill, will make it all the harder.