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Heart of the Clark Center has left us

A Central Coast leading light went dark Wednesday morning when Bernie Kautz — arguably the heart, soul and guiding spirit of Arroyo Grande’s Clark Center — died unexpectedly at a San Luis Obispo hospital. The dynamo was 75 years young.

I never met Bernie; my territory tends toward San Luis and the North Coast of the county. But I knew of her nonetheless because of the arc and depth of her influence on others — an amazingly life-affirming influence that was unfailingly positive.

Vital statistics: Born Bernadine Albin on Jan. 10, 1936, in Comanche, Texas; she grew up in the Central Valley town of Delano, where her father was a farmer and, later, owner of a butane gas business; her mother taught school; she was educated at Bakersfield Junior College and UCSB; married husband Ron almost 55 years ago, and, from all accounts, it was one of life’s great love stories.

“Ron was always behind the scenes as a phenomenal partner,” says Peter Keith, former mayor of Grover Beach, who worked closely with Bernie in getting the Clark Center up and successfully running.

“Mom and Dad both instilled a strong sense of family and community,” Karin Berndt said of her mother in a 2002 interview. “We always ate dinner together,” she added. “We discussed everyone’s day. We felt like our opinions counted and we had worth. And we always had a sense of love, support and community involvement.”

Prior to Ron’s retirement as a personnel analyst for Los Angeles County and their move to Arroyo Grande in 1992, Bernie and Ron lived in Orange County, where they were youth ministers, scoutmasters for disabled kids and active in the American Field Service, opening their home to foreign students.

She honed her skills as a volunteer and fundraiser at that time by getting involved in projects as diverse as senior transportation services and helping educate and entertain foreign visitors through 50 consulate offices in the Los Angeles area. That job took her to Washington, D.C., several times a year for training with the State Department and other agencies.

“She has been a cornerstone of volunteerism for as long as we’ve been married,” Ron said.

That was evident when they retired to Arroyo Grande and Bernie jumped right into community activities by recruiting volunteers for the Strawberry Festival and organizing the Peddler’s Faire in the Village.

But it was the dream of Mary Lee and Clifford Clark of having a performing arts center in Arroyo Grande that captured her energy. She led numerous fundraising campaigns as the head of the Ladies Guild while building membership.

“Her approach to fundraising,” Ron said, “was to stop asking for money and offer people the chance to be part of something.”

Another approach, according to a needlepoint sampler given to her by fundraising friends was: “When sweetness fails and tears don’t work — bitch.”

Members of the center’s fundraising foundation realized they had a dervish on their hands as the head of the guild and asked if she’d take over the lead for the foundation’s efforts. The numbers show that of the $9 million raised for the center, $5.5 million came under her watch.

As former Mayor Keith notes, “If the Clarks were the angels for the center, Bernie was its godmother.”

Much as their home had been a place where their three daughters played musical instruments, sang and were educated in the values of community, Bernie said in a 2003 interview after being named Arroyo Grande’s Citizen of the Year: “I guess part of what got me interested in helping with the Clark Center was that I wanted young people to have a nice place to perform.” She subsequently organized an outreach program where children are bused to the center, where they’re treated to theater and musical productions.

But it was tough sledding during the 10 years of fundraising before the center opened its doors in 2002. Various community leaders such as Judge Stephen Cool acknowledged that the center “wouldn’t have come together without Bernie.”

In more recent years, Bernie has been producing the foundation-supported Central Coast Follies, a fundraiser that brings in around $30,000 each year to benefit Parkinson’s disease research.

Mary Meserve-Miller, a veteran producer and director of area theater productions, said of Bernie: “Many people have their role models. Actors may look up to Meryl Streep, or ballplayers like Joe Dimaggio. She was my hero; she was in a class by herself.”

In addition to husband Ron, Bernie is survived by daughters Karin Berndt, Kelley Wandelear, Kimberly Banks, and seven grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending but, without question, will be held at her beloved Clark Center.

I never met Bernie Kautz, but wish I had. She lived a life well examined, deserving of a standing ovation.

Bravo, Bernie. Bravo!

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.