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Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

Gene Berthelsen 1937 — 2011

I am posting this obit sent to me by a former employer and good friend, John Berthelsen, whose brother died on April 12.

John is a good friend, and he wrote his brother’s obituary. I found the writing in it to be touching, frank and candid. I think it’s beneficial to read it and take some reflection of the people in our lives we have lost.

Gene Berthelsen, the soul of a jazz musician encased in the body of a bureaucrat, died on April 10 as a result of complications from multiple myeloma. He was 73.  He requested no services.

Mr. Berthelsen was raised on a farm near the bucolic Siskiyou county hamlet of Etna, a twin so identical that the boys’ mother was unable to tell them apart.  After removing their wrist bracelets to bathe them shortly after they were brought home, she simply assigned one the name Jean, as he was baptized, and the other John.

In what seemed to be a reprise of the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man, an enterprising music teacher who could well have been the model for Prof. Harold Hill sold Mr. Berthelsen’s poverty-stricken farming family on expensive musical instruments and the idea that he and his brother could be musicians.

His brother got a trumpet. Jean got an E-flat alto horn, which looked like a mini baritone horn and was played by nobody. (Decades later, his wife bought him another alto horn but he discovered that although he loved the tone, since it was tuned in the key of E it was impossible to transcribe jazz music onto it, no matter how he tried.)

When his brother gave up the trumpet for baseball at the age of 13, Gene — his new name because he got tired of being taken for a girl — took it over. He ultimately switched to the cornet and played it for the next 60 years, completely to his profit.  He began playing in bands while still in high school and earned his way through college playing in local bands.

After switching his major to English and graduating from San Francisco State University, Mr. Berthelsen did a short stint with Shell Oil in San Francisco and then eventually joined the California State Department of Transportation. He spent 40 years in state service, working up to become the department’s spokesman during two Republican administrations, although he was nonpartisan. Later he edited a series of magazines for the department and worked in other positions.

His primary love was traditional jazz although he loved writing as well. He wrote theatre and drama reviews for the now-defunct Sacramento Union as well as editing the “And All that Jazz”

newsletter for the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society. He became a powerhouse in the Jazz Society and served as publicity editor of the Jazz Jubilee program for 25 years. The society hosts one of the biggest traditional jazz festivals in the United States, attracting not only so-called trad jazz bands but blues bands and big bands as well. He was named Emperor of the festival parade and, after retiring from state service in 2003, became the society’s executive director.

He led the Cats ‘N Jammer Jazz Band, a five-piece combo, for three decades, playing gigs throughout Northern California and several western states, becoming one of the region’s best-known jazz musicians. He also played jobs as far away as Mexico and was proud of having sat in with bands in Copenhagen, Denmark, Hong Kong and other cities.

In 1998, Mr Berthelsen was treated for an early stage of prostate cancer.  After treatment, the cancer went into remission until 2005, when it returned as multiple myeloma. In a rare and compassionate act for a modern-day American health insurance plan, his doctors at Kaiser Health, discovering he was a twin with identical DNA, flew Mr Berthelsen’s brother from Hong Kong to donate hematopoetic stem cells, which, after Mr Berthelsen was given total body irradiation and injected with a cocktail of nearly lethal chemicals to kill his own cancer-ridden bone marrow, were ultimately injected into him.

The treatment bought Mr Berthelsen another five years.  However, the cancer returned in 2010, in such force that eventually, suffering from a variety of painful ailments, he asked that treatment be discontinued and that he go into hospice care.  He died shortly after.

Mr Berthelsen, who was married twice, is survived by his wife, Donna Springer, a son, Justin of San Francisco and a daughter, Maren of New York, as well as grandchildren Verity and Zoe. He is also survived by his brother, John, of Hong Kong.

Mr Berthelsen requested that he be cremated and that his ashes be scattered over Mount Shasta, the alpine peak about 50 miles from where he was born in 1937. Remembrances may be made to MMRF (Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation) or the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society.

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Filed under: Influence

One Response

  1. Jack Van Scyoc says:

    I was Gene’s roommate during my sophomore year at Chico State College. Gene introduced me to the music of Stan Kenton on the day I moved in with him. We both played in the orchestra at Chico State, and we both shared a love for a wonderful women named Pam.
    I am sorry that I never got to one of your concerts in Sacramento. We really had some great times. Sorry you checked out so soon.
    Jackson Van Scyoc

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