An Evening with Bernice and Fritz

Before moving to California in 1990 to work as a licensed psychologist, I taught full-time at a small, private college in Iowa. Among the classes was Adult Development and Aging, and some of the prolific research of Bernice L. Neugarten required reading.   She was an American psychologist (Feb. 11, 1916 – July 22, 2001) whose skepticism of overly simplified theories of aging and myths about later life, such as midlife crises and empty nest traumatic events, prompted her pioneering research in the field of gerontology. 

Bernice Neugarten was a remarkable person. At the University of Chicago, she was the:

  • Youngest undergraduate at age 16; earned a BA, MA, and Ph.D. and taught for 30 years.
  • The first person to teach Adult Development and Aging, a course that became the model for other universities.
  • The first person in the world to earn tenure in the field of Human Development.
  • Rothschild Distinguished Scholar at the Center of Aging, Health, and Social Policy.

She was also:

  • Invited to develop the Ph.D. program in Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University after she retired from the University of Chicago. 
  • President of the American Gerontology Society.
  • Author of more than 150 journal articles and co-author and editor of 8 books.
  • The first person to research styles of grandparenting.

To recognize her distinguished career and long-standing contributions to the use of psychology in the public interest, she received the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychology in 1996 from the American Psychological Association. 

In the mid-1980s, I attended a Conference on Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams at the University of Chicago, where she taught. I wondered if she could be contacted and available to talk on the phone and, if possible, sign my copy of one of her books. Her name wasn’t listed in the University Directory. However, it was listed in the local phone book at that time.   I took a chance and called. A man with an apparent German accent answered. I explained that I was an Assistant Professor of Psychology attending a Conference at the University of Chicago, hoping to speak to Dr. Bernice Neugarten. He said: “Yes, she’s here…hold on, I’ll go get her.” I was pleasantly surprised.

She introduced herself as Bernice Neugarten, letting me know she recognized me as a colleague. I explained that I was teaching Adult Development and Aging, admired her work, had a copy of her book, and wondered if she would consider signing it if I could meet with her. She said: “Of course…I would be glad to meet you tomorrow evening around seven at the apartment….” For a moment, I was shocked and wondered if I had heard her correctly. I said: “Yes, I’ll take a taxi….”  She replied: “The neighborhood isn’t very safe at night…we live just a few blocks from campus…my husband Fritz will drive over and pick you up and drive you back to campus….”  Now, I was utterly stunned.

At 7 pm the following evening, Fritz was by his car outside the Residence Building where the Conference participants were staying. He appeared to be in his 70s, and although I called him “Mr. Neugarten,” he said to call him “Fritz.” With a smile, he opened the passenger door for me and said he’d be my “chauffeur for the evening!” During the less than 10-minute drive to their apartment, we talked pleasantly about living in Chicago and his community volunteer work.

Upon arriving at their apartment, Bernice greeted me with a welcoming smile and handshake. Petite and wearing a colorful, elegant, floor-length brocade robe, she led me into the living room while Fritz went to another room. It was a somewhat formal room, yet appeared well-lived, made comfortable and inviting with books, photographs, soft lighting, and warm, autumn-toned fabric of the curtains, carpeting, and upholstered furniture. We sat in oversized, separate chairs, facing each other. Our conversation centered around her teaching and research. Bernice spoke with the well-deserved authority of an educator, scholar, and psychologist. However, she talked to me as an equal, looked attentively, and asked about my teaching. She was personable, approachable, accommodating, unpretentious, and engaging. As Bernice spoke, the word matriarch entered my mind, meaning a highly respected older woman. I was also reminded of my Italian grandmother during my adolescence in New York, sitting next to her and listening to her stories and words of wisdom.  

Not wanting to overstay my visit, I transitioned our conversation to my copy of her book, which she gladly signed. As we walked to the front door, I thanked her for allowing me to visit her at her home. Fritz then drove me back to the campus. Although I told him he needed not to open the car door for me, he insisted on doing so. I told him I enjoyed meeting him and thanked him for his kindness and for making my visit possible. 

In the following days, I reflected on the visit. I was immensely inspired by Bernice’s dedication to education and research, yet I felt somewhat unsettled, as though something or someone had gently bumped into me. As though something was about to change, not knowing what that was. It wasn’t until several months later that I realized the full force of the impact of what “that” was. I decided to resign from my tenured teaching position, leave Iowa and its brutally cold winters, move to California, where family and friends were, and transition to the private practice of clinical psychology.

There was a certain synchrony to the timing of this visit. Dr. Neugarten’s research dispelled the negative myth of a midlife crisis and what I had been experiencing for some time. I was mildly dissatisfied with my work, disliked winter weather, felt stuck,  and questioned my life choices. The word crisis is from the Greek word for a turning point. The visit with Bernice and Fritz coincided with my apparent early midlife crisis and increased my awareness of it, resulting in a turning point toward California.

I’ve been able to talk about this experience while teaching various classes and making presentations to community organizations. Each time, it’s like revisiting Bernice and Fritz. I’m deeply grateful for their kindness, generosity, and hospitality. The experience was a highlight of my teaching career and significantly impacted my personal and professional life. Some memories become cherished as time moves on. This is one of those memories.

Margo Napoletano, Ph.D., RPT-S, is a retired Pediatric Psychologist, Registered Play Therapist and Supervisor, former Adjunct Faculty at CSPP (now Alliant International University), and Instructor in the Play Therapy Certificate Program at UCSD’s Extension Division.