Three Rivers matriarch dies at age 93

By Reggie Ellis

During the politically correct 1990s, the term housewife gave way to domestic engineer to more accurately portray the multitude of different jobs that women do in addition to taking care of their children at home. But decades before that term was even invented, Bernardine Wollenman was setting the standard for a domestic engineer.

Wollenman died at the age of 93 on May 23 at her home in Three Rivers and left a lasting legacy in the picturesque community of the wealthy, artistic and outdoor enthusiasts. Born Bernardine Susan Bettendorf on Feb. 21, 1913 in Chicago, Ill., &#8220Bernie” grew up in Anaheim, and graduated from Anaheim High School in 1931.

She married John Alfred Wollenman, her high school sweetheart, in 1933. They lived in Lancaster and Fullerton, Calif. until 1947 when the followed the citrus orchard migration from Orange County north to Tulare County. Jim began farming citrus and operating a packinghouse in Exeter. They had an adobe home built on Sierra Drive on the east side of Three Rivers with bricks made locally by Jim Livingston, where they would live for the rest of their lives. The couple had two children, Jimmie and Barbara. Jimmie was born with cerebral palsy, so Bernie stayed at home to care for him her whole life.

&#8220She might have been a stay-at-home mom, but she accomplished so much and kept so many hobbies it was amazing,” said her daughter, Barbara Delgado. &#8220There wasn't much she couldn't do.”

Ever the hostess, Bernie dove into the social scene of Three Rivers where she utilized her seemingly limitless talents in cake decorating, tole painting, candle making and needlework. Bernie's lush backyard garden facing the Kaweah River created a perfect setting for summer soirees and informal get-togethers. She loved to &#8220kick up her heels” during the wonderful parties and dances they held on their river view patio. Bernie got involved with almost every charitable and non-profit organization in town including The Woman's Club, High Sierra Traditional Jazz Club, The Garden Club, and the Senior League. Because of their love for traveling, the Wollenmans helped form the Three Rivers Travel Club, a group of couples who would plan large trips together. She and John especially loved trips aboard the Mississippi River steamboats.

Bernie also became involved with the Three Rivers Lady Lions when John became a member of the Lions Club. She eventually served as president and spearheaded one of the most important projects in Three Rivers history.

In 1955, Lady Lions President Bernie Wollenman appointed a three-person committee consisting of herself, Ollie Craig and Patsy Britten to look into forming a community ambulance company. In 1956, Bernie wrote a letter to the state Franchise Tax Board applying for tax-exempt status to form a non-profit ambulance service. Officially named the Three Rivers Ambulance Service, they began taking calls in October 1956. Bernie served as secretary on the board and her husband, John, was one of the first volunteer drivers trained in first aide and CPR. They celebrated the opening with punch and coffee at a community picnic.

&#8220She always had a smile on her face,” said Sandy Owens, a volunteer with the ambulance company since 1974, Bernie's last year on the board. &#8220She was very important [for the ambulance service].”

In 2001, the Lions Club recognized Bernie as its Outstanding Citizen of the Year for her many years of community service. Four years later, her grandson, John Hanggi, won for his 18 years of service as a volunteer firemen and 15 years of service as a volunteer EMT for the ambulance service Bernie helped create.

Jim and Bernie were also one of a few Catholic families in Three Rivers who drove down the foothills to church in Woodlake or Exeter every Sunday morning. Bernie was one of the women who led the way to build a Catholic church in Three Rivers. St.

&#8220Mom raised money with bake sales, turkey dinners and heart-shaped cakes for Valentine's Day,” said Barber Delgado, Bernie's daughter. &#8220People may laugh about bake sales now, but they were a big deal and raised a lot of money then.”

Claire's Mission opened in 1963 with Father Gregory Wooler leading the congregation. Besides raising a church, her children, exotic birds and a beautiful garden, Delgado said her mother's other love was music. She played the church organ for many years and also played the organ for friends and family at home.

&#8220She would sit and start humming a song,” Jimmie said. &#8220Her favorite was jazz.” Bernie was a longtime member of the High Sierra Traditional Jazz Club.

Her memorial service was held at the church she helped build more than 43 years ago. It was an appropriate ending for the stay-at-home mother of two who domestically engineered Three Rivers to be what it is today.

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