Marvin J. Berkman, R.I.P.

I took this still of Marv playing guitar while we shot a short video of him performing kiddie songs for his grandchildren.

I took this still of Marv playing guitar while we shot a short video of him performing kiddie songs for his grandchildren. We coaxed him into playing a few tunes for the adults in the audience, and you can see that video by clicking the link below.

Our friend and neighbor Marvin J. Berkman died on Monday. I suppose that he had been sick since before we moved in next door, but somehow he never seemed ill, until suddenly he was. And once I had gotten to know him a little, the thought that he might be mortal never occurred to me.

In his 80s — his 80s! — Marv was in two or three bands, practicing and performing regularly on guitar; taking a writing class; driving all over town in his decrepit Volvo (and occasionally to other towns); scouring the thrift stores for useful items; grocery shopping and cooking; helping a friend keep her Manitou Springs house from sliding off its hillside; holding a position of some authority at the church he and his sweetheart Judy attended; doing some casual woodworking . . . I was 30 years younger than the man, and I got tired just watching him.

Listening to him was something else altogether. That was never tiresome. Marv was a self-described saloon musician, a gig he took up as a teen-ager in Chicago, and the stories he could (and did) tell. He played for gangsters, swells and Studs Terkel, among others; served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Aleutian Islands during World War II; worked in jewelry and optometry; and somewhere picked up jackleg carpentry.

The other students in his writing class apparently considered him exotic, as did his fellow congregants at the Methodist church he and Judy attended (Marv was a Jew). He was a storyteller who would talk to cats if no bipeds were handy, among them our Turkish, who likes Marv and Judy’s yard better than our own. And if he occasionally repeated a tale, well, so do I. His were worth listening to more than once.

We shared a driveway and a garage, and other things as well. If Marv was braising some corned beef, a chunk would find its way across the driveway to our house. If I was simmering a pot of chili con carne, a bowl would wind up on Marv’s table. Herself helped Marv wrestle with his balky Windows laptop, and I shoveled their walks come winter; he helped us navigate the health-care maze. Living as he did with diabetes and cancer, he’d had plenty of experience in that arena.

But cancer has even more time on the job, and it gradually began to get the upper hand. Judy did her best for him, but Marv came to need more care than she could provide, and he finally agreed to enter a nursing home.

That lasted about seven hours — as is often the case, the place was a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare — and after hollering for help Marv was transferred first to Memorial Hospital’s oncology unit, then to Pikes Peak Hospice, where he had once volunteered a couple days a week, providing the soundtrack for many a final episode as a hall-strolling troubadour.

It was a fine, large room, and he was among friends there. The staff remembered Marv fondly, dropping by in ones and twos to pay their respects; a quick chat, a hug, a kiss, and then tears in the hallway. “You never let them see you cry,” said one. “But if you don’t cry, there’s something the matter. With you.” Another told Judy that it was an honor to be allowed to care for Marv during his last days. A third was stunned to learn that Marv had returned not to play, but to die.

We weren’t there when Marv finally passed on. I took my cue from Marv’s reaction upon awakening from a doze to seeing a half-dozen of us, friends and family, camped out in his hospice room, eyeing him like buzzards in a tree. “Oh, no,” he muttered. The old saloon musician didn’t want an audience for his final performance.

• Links:

A short video of Marv playing guitar.

One of Marv’s stories.

26 Responses to “Marvin J. Berkman, R.I.P.”

  1. chris Says:

    Wow. Marv wrote a great story there. Sorry I never got to know him.

  2. bromasi Says:

    I just lost a friend and riding pardner to the big C and I know how it feels to lose someone you have known for 30 years.
    Hears to my buddy Rodger Bymaster

  3. Joey Says:

    Wow. Quite the story; quite the musician, from a fellow guitarist. I never met the guy, but I wish I had… my condolences, O’G.

  4. Doug G. Says:

    Sorry about the loss of your friend, Pat. He really lived a remarkable life, and was a great guitar player to boot.

  5. Peter W. Polack Says:

    I hope they had you write Marv’s obituary. That, and the videos are the greatest memoriam anyone could have given him and his dear Judy.

  6. T.J. Mora Says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful friend. I’m sure he’s looking down on you with good wishes. I raise a pint in his honor.

  7. B Watts Says:

    Damn fine words about a damn fine man. I’d be proud to have a neighbor like that. RIP

  8. Sharon Says:

    Wonderful story on an amazing person. I hope I am able to find at least half a great life, full of passion and adventure when I am older. What an inspiration.

  9. chris Says:

    Finally got a chance to check out the video. Who knew a genre called the “Depression Blues” could be so much fun?

  10. Patrick O'Grady Says:

    Marv was one of a kind, for sure. His memorial service yesterday was standing room only, and we had the video playing on a loop via a MacBook parked at the doorway. Marv’s son, also a pro picker, joined one of his dad’s bandmates in performing “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out).” Afterward a bunch of us gathered at Judy’s place for more music, wine, food, a look through some old photos of the maestro and lots of tale-telling. Seems like Marv’s guitars are finding new homes with friends and relatives who appreciate them, and so they’ll keep on making music. That’s a kind of immortality, isn’t it?

  11. Dan Berkman Says:

    I’m Marv’s nephew. Just wanted to say thanks for posting the video, story and article. He was a bit of a mysterious figure to me as a kid.
    We did spend some great time together later over the years when he would come to our area to visit my dad(Anatol). I’m a guitarist as well, (I’ve only been playing for 40 years),and always felt like a novice when watching him play. Of course I wish I could have learned more from him musically. I did learn quite a lot from him about other things. What it was like growing up during the depression, stories of him and his 2 brothers fighting with each other and taking care of each other. Stories about my grandparents, music, and the west side, the war. He often greeted me as “Sport”. Even though I was over 40 yrs old with 3 kids. I still feel like a novice “Sport” when I look at this video.
    I think we bonded the best when my father was close to death and I was playing some songs for him in the hospital. Marv came in and we exchanged a few tunes for my dad. He started to play one tune from their childhood and had to stop. It was too tough. We spoke about my grandma and grandpa and how much he missed them, and a few anecdotes about the old days.
    Anyway, he will be sorely missed. However, there’s a great reunion going on right now and the “Brothers B” are the 3 three guys over there laying down the snappy tunes.

  12. pete Says:

    Great story on Marv, Patrick. We should all feel lucky to know people of this calibre in our lives.

  13. Swell Says:

    Wonderful stories, all. He could really write, that story took me along, broke my heart, and then said “Here it is” and handed it back richer in only a few paragraphs. Thanks Patrick.

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  15. Mary Walter Says:

    Wow Patrick, what a tribute! Watching your video is a reminder to do what we love. Marv exempilfied this with his words and music. Keep your words coming.

  16. Dave Pickering AKA Last Gear Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing a part of your friend with us. Too often we fail to appreciate what is close to us until it’s too late and it’s gone. RIP Marv.

  17. Avery Says:

    I recall an afternoon sitting on the back patio (at the Dog Haus) drinking rose, when Marv stopped by to talk. I remember him in a white undershirt (with sleeves), and shorts – it must’ve been a warmer day. It was my only encounter with him, but received updates on his condition now and again. I remember thinking he was eccentric, but also warm and obviously full of the most enriched life experience. Cheers to Marv.

  18. Stich Says:

    For all the people we come across who it would be no loss if we hadn’t, it is rare and a great reminder of all that we miss, to find one who it was unfortunate to not have known.

  19. Libby Says:

    As the praise on a book jacket might say: “I laughed. I cried.”
    Thanks for sharing your tribute to Marv and the wonderful gift of friendship you both enjoyed. The video was terrific and the story of Ramon and Marv and the gifts they received from each other was also very poignant.

  20. Mr. P Says:

    Sorry to hear of this loss. Marvin sounds like a terrific person and grat friend. BTW – Dashiell Hammett spent WWII in the Aleutians. I wonder if they knew each other.

  21. khal spencer Says:

    Good video and good story from Marv. Yeah. The Greatest Generation. Those of us old enough to have spent time with them know that.

    Thanks, O’G.

  22. bob berkman Says:

    im marvs nephew,son of anatol,dan’s brother bob. im deeply touch by your tribute to my uncle marv!i would like to add additional info on our family.i played guitar,lead trumpet in my youth and put it aside for my love of raceing motorcycles,etc,blacksheep or rebel in short.the berkman family grew up on music,good conversations,love and respect for each a kid to my adult years,my father and his brothers norman and marv have played music from old eroupean,russian,blues to jazz they played it all!when one of the brothers,[uncles or my dad]would bring up a song of the past,and not sure what key,or tempo it was played,one of them would say it went like this… and i heard yeah,yeah,thats it and they played like they have played that song before… 100 times b4!this was our life! family,get togethers,my mothers great dinners,strong coffee,and apple pie,everyone was welcome!when my uncle marv would come over, he always brought his didnt matter because we had several instuments in the house, including a piano for uncle norm.the berkman house rocked big time and thats the short of it!as i roll out on a cold,rainy night in chgo on my softail to sing a song at some distant bar to bring a smile to someones face,im my fathers son,nephew to norm and marv.your tribute was not only to my uncle marv but to my family.god bless you!

  23. gloria stitz Says:

    oooh, fine fine story
    and so touching
    the berkman bro’s input, gratitude etc.
    Your writing ROOLZ
    Patrick O.

  24. Bill Lich Says:

    Hello Patrick.

    I just got a call from Marv’s Judy giving me the news. Googled for an obit and got you.
    Our family had the pleasure of being Marv’s across the street neighbors before he moved to Colo.
    What an amazing man! I’m actually sitting at one of his optician’s desks as I type this. I think about Marv and Judy every time I use their hand-me-down “antique” wagon to haul stuff from the car to the house.

    We had a time. Whether block parties or just watching the kids playing, Marv and Judy helped make this place special. Our loss; your gain. Marvin was a marvel who always had an impish twinkle in his bearing. The first time he brought out his guitar, I was sold. When I ran into him at the Haymarket Monument, we were both a little shocked, but it made our subsequent talks all the more candid and informative.

    Thank you for continuing and encouraging Marv’s impish side. They might not make `em like Marv anymore, but he went out of his way to pass along the joy of life, friendship and music to those he felt were receptive. I consider myself lucky to have had the time we had together.

    Please give Judy a big hug from her neighbors back in Forest Park.

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