Jack Bertolino, ’51, ended up at Heidelberg because of a craving for blueberry pie a la mode. He had stopped at a diner in his hometown of Fair Lawn, N.J., for his favorite dessert when he was approached by two Heidelberg alums.
“They knew me from playing local high school football,” Jack said. “They said I should go to Heidelberg because it was a good school and I could play football. They’re the ones who talked me into coming.”
He was a freshman at Fairleigh Dickerson University at the time, down the road from his hometown, but after that conversation over blueberry pie, Jack transferred to Heidelberg and bought a one-way train ticket from New Jersey to Ohio. The day he arrived, he spent hours meeting new people.
“From that day forward, I loved Heidelberg,” he said.
Ruth Zimmerman, ’51, was also encouraged to check out Heidelberg. No one in her family had gone to college and she never thought she’d be the one to change that. She was convinced by her high school teachers to enroll.
“They saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” Ruth said. “The instant I stepped on campus, I felt a part of a community.”
Ruth became an English major with an education minor. She was the president of the Euglossian Society, a member of the Wig and Mask drama club and the education club, and played basketball.
“I just loved it, the Heidelberg ‘hi’ and all,” she said. “It was the total immersion in a society that was accepting.”
At that time, all new students had to join a Greek society, but while Ruth found a home with the Eugs, Jack didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere.
“There were a few of us that wanted an organization of all different people and backgrounds,” he said. “We wanted a group that was a little more egalitarian.”
That feeling led Jack and friends to found Sigmataun, now Sigma Tau Nu. At the time, it was a very divisive decision, and not everyone on campus agreed with it, but Jack stood by his principles.
“When in doubt, do what’s right,” he said. “I learned that at Heidelberg.”
While their paths orbited each other during their first few years at Heidelberg, Jack and Ruth finally collided during their senior year.
Ruth worked in the France Hall dining room and Jack had a job on the France Hall cleaning crew, washing the floors and stairways.
“I was in the dining hall on my lunch break and I offered to help her carry the gallons of milk,” said Jack.
“I knew who he was, but had never talked to him,” Ruth said. “It wasn’t exactly a movie moment, but he was nice.”
Jack had had his eye on Ruth before their first encounter.
“I had seen her play basketball and knew I wanted to meet her,” he said.
While their initial meeting went well, it wasn’t until a surprise trip to Ruth’s hometown of Nevada, Ohio, over Thanksgiving break that the two become a couple.
Dating at Heidelberg was different back then, with gender-specific dorms, house mothers and an 8 p.m. curfew. But one thing has always remained the same: Heidelberg is a family.
“It was the sign of our times,” Ruth said. “We all didn’t have cars and TVs. We relied on people. We were constantly contacting people, meeting and being involved.”
Jack was an economics major who played football, but his involvement with Greek life had a profound influence over his career.
“That experience defined my life, and I learned a lot through those difficulties,” he said. “I was a natural organizer, and founding the Sigs gave me the opportunity to deal with what motivates people. It’s been my life’s work.”
After graduation, the two got married and moved east, where Jack worked as the director of field service for the New Jersey Education Association, negotiating deals for the state teacher’s union. Not an easy job, but one he was prepared for.
“My career was a mission,” he said. “I wanted a job where I could help others.”
Jack traveled all over the 600 districts in New Jersey, compromising, negotiating and fighting for what he believed would help teachers. That came with some long nights.
“You never get to spend enough time with your family with this kind of work,” Jack said. “But we made it together. I could not have done what I did if I didn’t have someone like Ruth.”
Ruth taught high school English and girls physical education. She took college classes at night, raised their two daughters and supported Jack through all his traveling.
Even though they graduated 66 years ago, both Jack and Ruth still feel very connected to Heidelberg.
“I only have positive memories of Heidelberg,” Ruth said. “Life depends on what your relationships are like with other people, and Heidelberg was a place where everyone knew everyone.”
The Bertolinos still remember influential names from their time: Roger Shinn, Merle Burke, Archie Thomas, Donald Kleckner, Paul Hoernemann and President Terry Wickham. They faithfully return to Heidelberg every five years for Alumni Weekend.
“We have good memories, and we’re proud that we can still make it back and see people again,” Ruth said. “Everything we did really affected our lives together.”
Their time at Heidelberg brought them together, defined their careers and developed the character that made them successful together. Sometimes all it takes is a nudge in the right direction for the future to take shape.
“Had I not stopped for that piece of pie,” said Jack, “I never would have found Heidelberg or Ruth.”
And Heidelberg would not have two more wonderful alums.