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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hernacki

Whom Do You Admire?



Woman wearing earphones, jogging by a river with a bridge in the background in early morning light.

Some years ago, I wrote an article with this same title. The message was: think about someone you admire, then list the qualities that person has which you find so admirable. Those are probably the qualities you would most like to see in yourself.


It was a good message, so I decided to write about it again. But I needed a good example to illustrate it. This week, in a sad way, I got my example.


The person I most admire is my late sister-in-law, Wilma Berlin, who died April 14 at the age of 87. If there is anyone on earth who has reasons to be negative, angry, or resentful, it was Wilma. Yet throughout her life, Wilma was positive, upbeat, optimistic, non-judgmental, and accepting of everyone and everything that came her way. Greatly abbreviated, here’s her story.


Born Wieslawa Kozler on a farm in Poland in 1936, Wilma had her childhood stolen from her by World War II. As a six-year-old, rather than playing with her friends, she was huddled in makeshift bomb shelters with her family, praying the bombs would not fall on them. 


Her father was taken by the German army to dig foxholes on the Russian front. Her mother struggled to run the family farm until 1943, when the family was taken to a prison camp in Germany. Little Wilma was not allowed to go to school until the war ended. When it did end, they found out their beloved farm had been taken over by the Communists, so they had to look elsewhere to live.


In 1949, the family of seven was sponsored by an American farmer to work his crops. Thirteen-year-old Wilma picked cotton in the Texas heat alongside her parents and siblings until her father, Stanley, found work in Detroit.


Life in Detroit was hard for a teenager who did not know the language and who had missed most of her education. She was naturally smart, but struggled in school, and dropped out after the ninth grade to work in a butcher shop. The family desperately needed income.


When she was 20, her parents feared she would become “an old maid.” They pressured her to marry a man she barely knew, a Marine sergeant named Richard Berlin. Richard handled his family the same way he handled his troops. He gave the orders; everyone, including Wilma, obeyed — or else. For over 50 years, she lived with this difficult man, raised four healthy, happy children, kept an immaculate house, and grew to become the most popular, most loved person in her neighborhood.


I met Wilma when I started dating her sister Wanda in 1962. So I knew her for over 60 years. In all that time, I never once heard her lament that she could not enjoy her childhood, or that her father got drunk and abused her, or that her husband was difficult. In fact, I never heard Wilma complain about anything or criticize anyone. She always found something positive to say, or she said nothing.


Reflecting on Wilma’s life reminded me that the qualities I admired in her are two things I have to work on to be a better person: 

 • Keeping a positive attitude, no matter how bad life gets. 

 • Not criticizing or judging people, no matter how they treat me. 


It occurs to me these are qualities all of us should strive for. If Wilma could live this way despite all the pain, loss and sadness she suffered through, why can’t we?


 

Phun Phacts  Exercise physiologists classify skills as “open” or “closed.” An open environment is one that is constantly changing and is being controlled partly by someone else, like a ping pong game. The brain has to constantly adapt.   A closed environment is stable and predictable, like running on a treadmill. By combining open and closed, like choosing the “random” option on your treadmill, you make your exercise time worth a lot more with almost no more effort.





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