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Moments in Time: Bobbie Bernet
Bobbie Bernet (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - For Monroe's Bobbie Bernet, life is all about the people you meet and the connections you make along the way. From a second-grade pen pal to an "AFS sister" from high school, she's held on to those who matter to her despite the miles between them. And often she's making the trek to connect with them and nurture those relationships.

Bernet grew up in Monroe with her father, a Monroe native and attorney, and her mother, who hailed from New York. The family traveled often to see her mother's family and would also take in many museums, a fit with her father's interest in history.

She was in second grade and in Girl Scouts when her mother, the troop leader, set the girls up with pen pals. As a Brownie, Bernet began writing to a girl in Scotland; it was an experience Bernet credits with first getting her thinking about other cultures. Today, the two pen pals have kept in touch for more than 50 years and the Scottish girl has grown to become one of Bernet's longest friends.

When Bernet was in fifth grade, a teacher from Peru lived with her family for six weeks and taught at Monroe for a short time. That too nurtured Bernet's interest in other places in the world. The entire family stayed close to her and would visit.

In high school, Bernet became involved with AFS intercultural programs as a student and the summer after her junior year, she spent 10 weeks in Malaysia. A student from Sri Lanka then came back to live at her home for a year. The girls made quick friends. Bernet refers to her as her "AFS sister" and the two have remained very close through the years.

Bernet graduated from Monroe High School in 1967 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the summer of 1969, between college years, she worked as a lifeguard at a day camp in Boston when she saw an ad in a magazine for a music festival that sounded intriguing. She ordered a ticket, found a ride and went with a friend for the weekend. She was amazed when half a million people showed up for the Woodstock Music Festival. They lost their ride home in the crowd, but were able to easily hitchhike back to Boston to get back to work on Monday. It was an experience she wouldn't forget.

"It was an amazing weekend of music, to put it mildly," she said.

Jobs were plentiful at that time and Bernet said she wasn't in a hurry to jump into the work force. When she graduated with her history degree in 1971, she instead decided to join the Peace Corps and headed to Brazil from 1971-74, taking on a community development project. The Peace Corps had been a dream of hers, and she found the experience to be one of her greatest adventures.

She lived in Salvador, a poor neighborhood on the coast of Brazil, where she worked with a small community center. She would return in 2012 and find the center as an elementary school with paid staff, paved streets and permanent electricity, which gave her great joy.

Bernet said her time working in Brazil strengthened her value of community and helped develop her own version of how to help in Monroe later on.

Her husband, Hans, had lived in Germany, and the two found enjoyment in each other's stories.

"We both realized the value of roots and community," she said of her and Hans making a great pair. "It's wonderful to travel but also nice to come home and have that constant in life."

When she returned from the Peace Corps in 1974, she worked for newspapers in Stoughton and Jefferson as a reporter and photographer, and she and Hans were married.

The couple moved to Sheboygan, where Bernet worked at the Adult Learning Center for Lakeshore Technical Institute in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War. There were several Vietnamese and Hmong refugees, and Bernet served as a counselor. She loved the position and became involved with the AFS chapter while there.

The plan, however, was to always come back to Monroe, where Hans had purchased land and the two dreamed of building a home. When they returned, Bernet landed a job at the post office as a mail carrier and then worked in management. The career lasted 22 years; her last 10 years were spent as the Juda Postmaster, a job she enjoyed greatly.

"I like getting mail and communicating with people - especially from my early pen pal days," she said, noting that the job was perfect for her.

Bernet said she was happy to be back in Monroe where her children had two sets of grandparents and plenty of family and longtime friends.

"We have really enjoyed being back in Monroe," she said. "There are lots of opportunities to meet new people and we're always finding new things and new connections."

She kept their involvement with AFS in Green County too, and in 1997, Bernet hosted an exchange student from Malaysia.

She and Hans decided to retire in 2011, and they quickly took advantage of their free time with travel and community involvement, two very important things to both of them.

For more than 12 years, Bernet tutored with the literacy council and adults learning English. She has been a member of the Monroe Kiwanis Club for about 30 years; has been very active in the Monroe Arts Center (MAC) and is currently on the foundation board; co-chaired the MAC holiday silent auction; serves on the Green County YMCA Foundation Board; serves on the board of the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin; and was the first president of the Monroe Fund Board.

Being a part of so much seems to be second nature, and Bernet said she enjoys the people.

"It's all about the relationships," she said. "That's where I get my energy."

She and Hans are also members of the Bel Canto Singers, a group they helped spearhead in the 1970s. She says although she does much of the organizing, scheduling and publicity, Hans was the inspiration behind the group. They are also members of the Monroe Swiss Singers and the choir at Union Presbyterian Church.

Most recently, Bernet has taken up an African drumming class at their church, offered from a local teacher, and recently performed at the MAC for its annual Showcase of Talent. Bernet also enjoys biking, hiking, visiting national parks and, along with Hans, has helped lead trips to Switzerland for the past few years through Turner Hall.

"The people are what makes travel so interesting," she said.

After their last trip to Switzerland, the couple went to Italy. While in Rome, an AFS student met them and showed them around. The connections and strong friendships she's made and have kept makes their travels especially amazing, she said.

In her free time, Bernet enjoys reading, time at the YMCA, cooking, yoga and is part of a discussion group at the library - but travel is still at the forefront. The couple is planning a trip later this year to Sri Lanka with her AFS sister and her husband.

A dream of theirs came true when their son and daughter joined them in Switzerland for two weeks to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

"The connections with people and the opportunity to meet people who have some different customs and to realize that each of us is not the center of the universe is wonderful," she said. "It's an adventure to be in another culture and to live in another culture.

"But a lot is just the fun and enjoyment of learning new things."