Bertha Snyder Loar Westerberg, 1904-1998

 

Bertha Snyder Loar Westerberg

Bertha Snyder Loar Westerberg, c:1923



 

My research into Lloyd Loar spans three decades. During that time, and especially over the first ten years, I was relentless in attempting to uncover every speck of dust that lead to Loar. I traced school records, music resources, early magazines, military records, American Expeditionary Force service during WWI, passport records. college records, and everything else I could get my hands on. I am deeply appreciative to the many service agents in each organization who helped me with my research and linked me to the next step.

One key discovery was in learning about Lloyd’s second wife, Bertha Snyder.

Bertha Margaret Snyder was born in Burlington, Iowa. She attended Burlington Junior College, belonged to Alpha Omega, Delta Omicron, Glee Club, Y.W.C.A., Gold Lantern, Vespers Committee, and the Y.W.C.A Circus Committee. Bertha attended Northwestern University from 1928 to 1930 and then intermittently from 1931 to 1936.

Bertha was a student in Loar’s music theory class at Northwestern University. During her time at college, their relationship blossomed and after many years of knowing each other and finally dating, they were married in 1938, a marriage that was to last for 6 years until Lloyd’s death in 1943. As Lloyd pursued his career in musical instrument development, Bertha followed her dream to teach students in 5th and 6th grade.

Through my research, I discovered that Bertha was still alive, but uncovering her whereabouts was another story. Six years after Lloyd’s death, she married Ralph Westerberg who was, like Bertha, a school teacher. With more digging I found that she moved to California, and I then located her address. I wrote to her for a span of six months, but my letters were neither returned nor answered. Bertha had an unlisted phone but with the aid of a local official, I discovered she was again a widow and was able to confirm that she lived at the address I was sending letters to. I was considering a trip to California to meet Bertha personally but her lack of response made me think she would only refuse me at her front door. I didn’t know which way to turn.

Bertha & LloydBertha and Lloyd at Roger’s Park, Chicago, c:1939





 

Many months after being frustrated by the lack of Bertha’s response, my luthiery assistant, Nancy Hendler, was on her way to Disneyland in Anaheim California, so I made a deal with her that she couldn’t refuse. A few days after Nancy’s departure, I got an excited and bubbly call from her saying: “Guess what?” she screamed, “I met with Bertha. She is very sweet. She didn’t know who you were but she did invite me in for a fruit cup and we spoke for an hour. I told her all about what you were doing but she didn’t know how much she would be able to help you and she recently lost her husband [Ralph]. But, she will see you, here is her phone number.” My heart was pounding. I called Bertha the next day, we talked for half an hour, and I was on a flight bound for California the following morning.

In the years following, Bertha and I became very good friends and my wife and two sons had the chance to visit with her as well. She was quite lonely and lived in a pleasant well-kept house which was adorned with the furniture and possessions from her relationship with both Lloyd and Ralph. The upright piano in her living room was a selection she and Lloyd made, and she played it every day. Nearby was a wooden flat-drawer file cabinet that contained a vast selection of sheet music, including numerous pieces written in hand by Lloyd. These included pieces for duo and trio mandolin ensembles, mandolin and violin pieces, and more. Sitting among these treasures, and hearing her play his music and sing songs they sung together (she loved to sing) was the most mystical, enriching, and exciting experience I have ever had.

Bertha and Lloyd did not have children. She remembered Lloyd as a very sensitive and caring man who enjoyed life, enjoyed a good cigar, and loved music. He would often bring home instruments from Northwestern University and learned to play them over a period of a few months. Then he would bring that instrument back and return with another.

Our relationship grew over the years. Finding in me a kindred soul, we talked almost every day. My administrative assistants and wife understood the need to be supportive to this wonderful woman and often took the role of talking to her at length on the phone when I was either busy or not available.

On my many visits to Bertha’s home, I would bring a mandolin, or play Lloyd’s mandolin, as she would play the piano, and we would sing and share our music, and be warmed by playing together, or she would sing her songs of the past and allow me to venture into her most private place of dreams and memories.

In 1990, while I was on a business trip to Pennsylvania, I called Bertha and got no answer. Occasionally, she would drive to the local market but would return promptly since she had no local family to visit and only had one social friend. I called her back an hour later — no answer. I immediately called a her neighbor who I had come to know over the years. I held on while he ran next door, ran back, and then he reported that the doors were locked and he could see her car in the garage. He was going to get his key (to her house) and investigate further. I held on. Almost fifteen minutes later, he huffed and puffed into the phone that Bertha was inside, she had apparently fallen on her carpet and broken her hip, she couldn’t reach the phone so couldn’t call for help, and she was very dehydrated. He had called 911 from her phone and had to rush back.

I immediately left my Philadelphia meeting and caught a plane for Los Angeles ( had to plead to get them to change my return trip from San Jose to Los Angeles – but the agent finally relented). My son Mark was living in Santa Monica at the time working in the special effects business and he picked me up at the airport and we went to find Bertha at the hospital. She was undergoing hip surgery and we had to wait. During the hours after surgery she was very disoriented. We told her what happened and all she could remember was her difficulty and fear that she couldn’t reach the phone, especially with all her pain.

Her recovery in the hospital was almost two weeks and heightened by the fact they she was so dehydrated at the outset. The hospital staff didn’t feel she could continue without in-home care. I flew home, and drove back two days later to see what I could do to help arrange things. Sadly for Bertha, it was the last time she would see her home, for the medical care that was required necessitated that she be moved to a full care nursing home.

In the many months following, Bertha was saddened by not being in her home and she often spoke about not being able to play her piano. With the hope of putting a smile back on her face, I had her piano moved from her house to the nursing home, but she played it rarely. To keep her from being isolated, I installed a private phone for her so that she and I could be in constant contact, and I visited her more often than I did before. Clearly, this dramatic change in her life was a turning point for her mentally, and I began to notice that she was slowly becoming more distant. I was deeply hurt and saddened to see her there and watch her slip away and feel so helpless in the process.

Bertha had many wonderful possessions that lasted from her marriage with Lloyd. These included a beautiful blue-ish glass filigree sculpture, a decorative coffee table that she loved serving cups of fruit on – and when she did, she always remarked how she and Lloyd loved to sit around that table and have fruit – and that cabinet of Lloyd’s original hand-written music for piano, violin, violin & mandolin, and violin duet which Bertha had promised to me.

During this process, it became increasingly evident that someone had to be responsible for Bertha’s long-term care. I was doing what I could to see that her bills were paid (it was during this period that I discovered that she was paying Bekins for storage – but she forgot what was being stored!) Bertha wanted me to be her guardian but I lived 350 miles away and it wasn’t practical. And, my wife and I just weren’t sure how we could bear this burden and handle her affairs properly. Finally, working with some people from the State, it was decided that she be appointed a conservator who would assume legal care and management of her estate with me as an advisor. About three months later, while Bertha was in the nursing home, it was decided that we’d sell Bertha’s house and car. But without consulting with me (as she promised to do) the conservator and a neighbor, decided to gave away some of Bertha’s physical possessions, and readying the house, they threw out Loar’s hand-written sheet music believing it had no value. I was devastated and angered! Sadly, through their mindless, careless efforts, some of Lloyd’s most creative work is lost forever.

While Bertha was still quite active, I had the opportunity to bring friend and fellow luthier John Monetleone to her home and to the memory of Loar’s music and the place of their shared treasures — all of which now exists only in my mind as I hope it does in John’s.

Bertha and Roger at NAMMBertha and Roger get a chance to check out Gibson’s F5-L at the Winter NAMM convention, Los Angeles, 1985.



 

During the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM ) convention in 1985, I brought Bertha Loar to Anaheim, California to visit the Gibson display booth. There she took some time to inspect the great Gibson instruments that grew from Loar’s genius some 60 years prior, and she stopped for a moment to have her photo taken with me and a new F5-L mandolin.

This dear lady held the key to Lloyd’s cherished secrets. During the almost thirty years that I knew her, she would think of little snippets of information from time to time (which I would instantly record), all of which would help me document Loar’s life to be able to share with everyone, for all time sake. Yet, among the reality of her life and memories, and continuing through her relationship with her second husband, Ralph Westerberg, her love for Lloyd was undying; she clung onto Lloyd and continued to be the self-appointed guardian of his music, his instruments, and his ashes.

She continues to be missed!