A party fit for a warrior
Kevin Van der Merwe knew his wife, Stephanie Bernritter, had a knack for getting her students to express themselves. But he didn’t know the extent until last Friday, just two days after she passed away, when West High students dedicated the entire day to her memory. The high schoolers presented a 20-minute video at an assembly, then released balloons on the football field in her honor. They thanked her for helping them appreciate life and finding their voice.
"She treated us as equals, not as routine," remembers Chris Byrd, one of Bernritter’s students. "She always gave me just a little more nerve to stand up and read [my poetry] aloud." Many called her a "warrior," an epithet that seemed to come to most everyone’s lips who met her.
Bernritter, a longtime Park City resident, lost her 10-year battle with leukemia last Wednesday, Nov. 28, after an infection in her abdomen sent her back to the hospital. She was 39.
Up until the last few days of her life, Bernritter, surrounded by friends and family, continued her rehabilitation, performing leg lifts for strength. "She relapsed four times, but she didn’t think she would die of the disease," says Van der Merwe. "Most people would have given up, but her attitude was angry. She didn’t want it and lived her life like, ‘I am not a victim. I didn’t invite this into my body.’"
Two weeks ago, Bernritter had completed a fourth round of chemotherapy at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The night before she was released, Park City friends threw her a hat party in her room. Kevin Valaika, owner of Main Street’s Asian restaurant, Shabu, brought the food. "She looked gorgeous," he remembers. "Everything was normal."
Valaika says he met Bernritter in 1991 and that she worked at his restaurant for the first few years after it opened. "We met when we were young people in a ski town, having fun … she was like me: 39 going on 22," he says. "At the party, we were wearing hats and scarves and then she had the idea that we should parade around the fourth floor of the cancer institute and people were coming out of their rooms and joining us."
The hat gala was thrown by Bernritter’s longtime friend Pamela Alford who had moved into the Huntsman Center during the last round of chemotherapy. Alford says she decorated her friend’s room with fans, umbrellas and boas. "We called it the ‘Healthy Hilton," Alford says. "I got her this blond hussy wig — hair she could never grow. It was the vaudevillian room."
Alford says she found the strength to be "a bulldog," speaking for Bernritter when she no longer had the physical strength speak up for herself. Van der Merwe says Alford’s presence was critical. "I couldn’t have done it without her," he confesses. "She was the one there asking the hard questions no one else wanted to ask."
Alford says that she thought of Bernritter as a sister.
"We met in 1992. We were neighbors and since we were both from Washington state, we had ‘coffee-offs,’ where we’d recommend new coffees to each other — back then there weren’t any coffee shops in town," she says. "She was always really loud and vibrant and always had this perfect-10 body — even during chemo … everyone who knew her was touched by her."
Alford says Bernritter would begin each school year by instructing her creative writing classes to jump up on tables and scream. "I always told her she’d spend more time in the principal’s office as a teacher than as a student," Alford recalls. "She liked being boisterous … my dad always looked forward to her coming over because he knew he could turn his hearing aid down."
Bernritter was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997 while visiting South Africa, her husband’s home country, shortly after she was married. Since then, Alford says she has thrown three fundraisers for her friend to help pay for cancer treatments and is currently preparing to throw yet another final gathering in her honor Sunday, Dec. 9, in the Sun Peak Recreation Center at 3 p.m. She expects this one to draw the biggest crowd — more than 500, she says — with family from Switzerland and friends from San Diego, Calif.
"She wanted us to dance and tell stories — she always liked to party and shake her butt," she says. "So it’s going to be a big hoedown with feather boas and cheers. We’re calling it a celebration of her life."
Celebration for Stephanie Bernritter
What: a party in honor of Parkite Stephanie Bernritter’s life including food from restauranteur Bill White and reggae music
Where: Sun Peak Recreation Center, 1950 Bear Hollow Drive, Park City
When: From 3 to 7 p.m.
Donations: Make a donation to the Stephanie Bernritter Cancer Fund at Wells Fargo Bank, account number 1456406550.
For more information: visit http://www.stephaniebernritter.com — the Web site includes the opportunity to post a comment in an online memory book.
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