Lockup literature

Daughters honor parents with jail literacy fund

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Posted 11:32 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021

The Bernatovich daughters grew up with UW-La Crosse.

They biked across campus. They learned to swim in the campus pools. They all went to college there. And, they
heard many stories from their dad about campus colleagues and students.

So after retired English Professor Bernard “Ben” Bernatovich died in September 2019 a month and a half after his wife, Rita, the three daughters wanted to do something for the campus that impacted their family for so many years.

Daughter Jennifer Leclaire, ’86, a registered nurse, discovered the growing, award-winning Jail Literacy Program in the English Department. She appreciated its innovative impact.

Established in 2015, the program offers sessions on poetry, fiction, nonfiction and more for La Crosse County Jail inmates. It’s a program that’s gaining attention in the community and state-wide. The State Public Defender Board honored the program with its 2020 Eisenberg Award, citing its impact on criminal justice and the indigent defense community.

Daughter Jane Bernatovich says the program was a perfect fit to honor her mom, who was involved with a group that went to the Oxford federal prison to minister to inmates and her dad, an English professor on campus from 1968-99.

The three daughters set up the fund to honor their parents, Bernard and RitaBernatovich. Bernard retired from the UWL English Department in 1999. Rita died July 28, 2019; Bernard died Sept. 18, 2019.

“Sharing my dad’s love of English and language, and pairing it with my mom’s volunteer work in prisons in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the Residents Encounter Christ program, this seemed right,” Bernatovich says.

The daughters don’t recall their dad having a favorite book or author. Rather, Bernatovich says he had an eclectic collection including foreign language books, dictionaries and reference books — atlases, almanacs, movie reviews and more — including crossword puzzle books.

“He loved words and was always learning new things,” Bernatovich explains. “He taught 18th century English literature, but I don’t remember him talking about that at home. I remember in the years leading to his retirement, he was looking forward to reading and reading and reading.”

All three daughters, who currently live with their families in Madison and nearby Sun Prairie, have fond memories of campus and La Crosse.

“Campus to me was an extension of our neighborhood,” explains Leclaire. “We took swimming lessons at Wittich and Mitchell halls. We rode our bikes across campus.”

Sharing my dad’s love of English and language, and pairing it with my mom’s volunteer work in prisons in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the Residents Encounter Christ program, this seemed right..

Bernatovich says by living a few blocks from campus on 22nd Street, UWL was a big part of the family.

“I always thought it was cool that my dad walked to work because we lived so close,” she adds. “In the winter, he took pride in the fact that he didn’t have to be outside much while he walked. He would cut through Mitchell Hall and Cowley Hall on his way to North (now Wimberly) Hall.”

Daughter Laura Burke, ’83, was proud that her dad was a professor at UWL. She recalls him sharing his love for reading by taking them on frequent trips to the city libraries.

“All of us have liked to read since we were young,” Burke notes. “Mom and Dad liked to read and set an example for us.”

After Ben Bernatovich retired in 1999, he and Rita spent winter months in Mesa, Arizona. Eventually they bought a mobile home for year-round living. In 2005, they moved to Madison to live closer to their three daughters and their families.

Rita Bernatovich died July 28, 2019; Bernard Bernatovich died Sept. 18, 2019.

The Bernatovich family. Along with their parents: Laura Burke, ’83; Jennifer Leclaire, ’86; Jane Bernatovich, attended 1985-89.

The Bernard & Rita Bernatovich
UW-La Crosse Jail Literacy Program Fund

  • Provides support for UWL English Department’s Jail Literacy Program.
  • Honors Bernard “Ben” Bernatovich, UWL professor from 1968-99, and his wife, Rita.
  • Created in September 2020 by the Bernatovich daughters: Laura Burke, ’83; Jennifer Leclaire, ’86; Jane Bernatovich, attended 1985-89.