At 88, the "rock star" of Bucks County's Livengrin Foundation is leaving the stage.
Clyde Bertram, a beloved counselor at the residential addiction-treatment facility since 1995, says he's retiring "because I'm getting older and I'm wearing out."
It's a rare concession to age for Bertram. On the precipice of his 90s, the hardy Nova Scotia native still has his hearing, his hair and his humor. He even drives his '03 Chevy Malibu . . . at night.
Bertram was honored yesterday by more than 200 Livengrin alumni at a special breakfast. Though technically off the payroll, he's still family.
"Clyde is welcome to do whatever he wants here," says Diane Womer, 53, program manager for residential services. "There will always be a place for him here, as long as he's willing and able."
For many years, willing and able were mutually exclusive terms for Bertram.
An active alcoholic from his very first drink at 16, Bertram says his life was a mess until, at 26, his brother-in-law turned him on to a 12-step recovery program.
Bertram has been sober for 62 years. The legacy of alcohol, however, has never left him. Twice divorced, he is estranged from his five children as well as from his five siblings, he says.
Like Bertram, one of his sisters also became an alcoholic with her first drink, at 58, he says. "It ruined her life. We're all pretty sure she's dead. We haven't heard from her in years."
Quietly serene, Bertram takes it all in Zen-like stride. After surviving a horrific childhood, two heart-bypass surgeries, and a decade of active alcoholism, he has stopped asking "why?"
"There are questions in my life I will never have an answer for, and I don't need an answer," he muses. "I understand that my understanding is limited. I'm at peace with myself."
Bertram's gentle manner and wry sense of humor resonate with Livengrin's 70-plus residential patients as well as its 50 counselors (most of whom are in their 30s), according to program manager Womer.
"The patients' first impression is, 'Who is this old guy?' Before you know it, he has these kids eating out of the palm of his hand. It's an amazing thing. I asked him to leave me some of his magic dust."
Bertram likes to tell the story of how his first supervisor introduced Livengrin's new counselor, then 75, to patients. "He said, 'He's only 29 years old, but you can see what booze did to him.' "
Humor is a key to recovery, in Bertram's view. "We're so serious about our disease and what's happened to us, some of us haven't laughed for a hell of a long time. Laughter is medicine that you can't buy."
There was little laughter for Bertram as a youngster growing up outside Boston, after moving from Nova Scotia, in a tiny house with no running water. His father, a frequently unemployed carpenter, deserted the family when Bertram was 16. The son never saw him again.
Suddenly the man of the family, Bertram dropped out of eighth grade and worked on a horse-drawn ice truck for 75 cents a day. He endured constant physical and emotional abuse from his mother, he says.
"If she were alive today, she'd probably be in jail for the way she treated her children," he says. As for his father, "it took me 10 years to deal with him. How dare he leave us."
In his self-published 1995 memoir, 60 Years an Alcoholic, 50 Years Without a Drink, Bertram pays homage to his father.
Bertram wrote the book under his pseudonym, Freeman Carpenter. Choosing his father's trade as his surname "is my way of honoring him," he says. "I was able to forgive." Freeman is Bertram's middle name.
Counseling is Bertram's second career. He spent 15 years in the printing business, which brought him to Philadelphia. In '76, while recuperating from his first bypass, he began training through a state jobs program as an addictions counselor.
Two years later, he was working at several suburban halfway houses. In '93, he came to Livengrin as a part-time counselor, thanks to a clinical manager-friend from the recovery community.
Bertram doesn't play golf. He has no hobbies. For him, retirement will be a continuation of his current mission - offering solace and hope to the addicted.
"I'm not concerned about the drug of choice, whether it's alcohol or painkillers or whatever. I'm concerned about the human being who has the disease and what's going on in their mind and heart."
In the end, Bertram's experience backs it all.
"The higher up the mountain you are, the more vision you have," Livengrin spokesman Keith Mason says. "Clyde has been climbing a lot longer than other people."