Bertha Manuel, 1935-2020

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There are people you encounter in life that make an indelible impression on you, and they become integral to your existence. Bertha Manuel was that person for me and for many others. She and I shared our first summers in the Keystone kitchen. It was 1976, and I was 14 years old. My job was to be the dishwasher for the summer. Bertha was a new kitchen employee that had arrived from Jacksonville, Florida, for the summer. She was the breads and desserts cook.

My parents had both been school teachers in the Duval County Public School system before we moved to North Carolina full-time, and the cafeteria ladies had long been a source of summer camp kitchen help. Typically, we would have four join us each year. They had their own cabin, and in 1976, my father had built a brand new 3 bedroom apartment above the vehicle garage for the kitchen staff. Standing side by side for the summer built a strong bond between the two of us. Bertha was always there to help me sort silver, and that allowed for the most conversation. The work was 6 days a week, with a break from after breakfast Saturday to the same time on Sunday. It was all hands on deck for our big Sunday meal of fried chicken. I spent 2 summers in the kitchen, and the friendship we developed was one for the ages.

The kitchen staff used to arrive in Hendersonville, North Carolina, via the Greyhound bus. Bertha called that mode of transportation, “The Turtle.” Once I moved to Jacksonville, she started riding to camp with me. Her presence was a tremendous help to me once I was making the annual trip with three little children in the car. I would not have made it without her. The adventures we had from rest stops to restaurants! Ms. B’s favorite place to dine was in Columbia, South Carolina, and our entire trip had to be planned around lunch at Maurice’s. Once I moved to Brevard permanently, Ms. B enjoyed being chauffeured by one of our staff. Again, the friendships formed on these road trips ran very deep with both Barry and Joel.

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Bertha’s favorite thing to do on her day off was to go fishing in the canoeing lake. Bream was her favorite fish to catch, but she wouldn’t turn down other fish that were brought to her by her summer friends. Many of you also know that Ms. B was terrified of all snakes. She even left the camp kitchen when one of the maintenance crew decided to cook rattlesnake meat. If there was a snake around the dining hall, we had to keep it a secret or Bertha would not leave her house. We had an annual ritual of spreading mothballs around the back of the kitchen to ward off the snakes. One year, when Bertha arrived early, she was staying in Sleepy Hollow for a couple of weeks. When she finished in the kitchen, she would come down the Lodge porch steps to head back to her room. A small garter snake slid across the bottom step one evening, and I happened to be walking by at the time. Ms. B went straight up in the air. It took quite a while to get her settled down and talked back in to making the walk back to the kitchen the next morning.

Since Ms. B was originally from the lowlands of South Carolina and lived in Jacksonville so long, the mountains were a very special place for her. She loved riding around camp to see interesting bits of wildlife like when we had a beaver move into the swimming lake. She loved to see the changes in camp each year. We had to do a driving tour to catch her up on all of the new construction and other improvements. She took great pride in this place and what Keystone did for children.

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Over the years, two of Bertha’s children joined her at Keystone for summer jobs and some fun. Her younger daughter who is now a merchant marine learned to swim here. Our families connected, and as her son and I discussed today, we were lucky enough to share her for the past 44 years. When Ms. B would get to camp a week or so before we started cooking in the dining hall, I would always make dinner for her. I loved being able to care for her that way. We had such a great time talking about food and cooking. Over time, quite a few children, including my own, spent hours sleeping on her shoulder. My son usually sat with her as he ate the special plates she prepared for him. Sam wasn’t much on green when he was younger, and she would make him a special serving of chicken salad without celery.

Bertha was my rock, and I know many others feel the same way. I never doubted her total support of me, and there was nothing like her hugs. She stood beside me through every challenge I faced, particularly those of my past 36 years as director. There are quite a number of us who would occupy the chair next to hers across from the stove, and she would share her wisdom and her perspective. Nothing can replace that time with her. The depth of her kindness is unparalleled, and let us not forget the favorite foods she cooked for us!

Bertha’s picture, along with her oatmeal cookie recipe, hang in the Keystone Dining Hall. A full page in our 100th Anniversary book is dedicated to her and her contributions to life at camp. Over the door to the kitchen is a sign, “Bertha’s Grill.” Campers have come and gone these past 44 years, but everyone remembers “Ms. B,” and they always will! I remember one recent July session banquet where Ms. B came out to receive her toast from the Aides and every single camper lined up to give her a hug. We LOVED this lady so much, and we will miss her just as much.

From an Irish headstone:

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

We are all better because of knowing and loving Ms. B.

At this time funeral plans are pending and we will update you all as we know more.

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