Memories of Aunty Marilyn
By Wendy Davidson
For those of you who don’t know, Marilyn Bernardo was my true Aunt – blood relative.
Aunty Marilyn was also my other Mother in all aspects of my life until she passed on May 14, 2020 at 94-1/2 years old.
Marilyn began working part time at WGBH in 1962 in the Fundraising Department under Helen Fox for $2.50 an hour after volunteering to help after the great ’61 fire. Helen was a very close friend to our family, and was my adopted Aunty Buddy.
WGBH was a part of our family since my childhood. On pledge nights we would gather around the TV waiting to catch a glimpse of Aunty Buddy and Aunty Marilyn. Spending time with them meant going to the Fundraising office and helping to open the envelopes so the pledges could be processed. My teenage right of passage was being old enough to be in the studio and answer the phones live on Pledge nights. Both Helen and Aunt Marilyn got our family to procure donations for the WGBH Auction.
Often times she would deliver donor Pledge gifts on her way home from work, even insisting that her boss, John Kerr, do the same if he would be driving by a donor’s home. The dual purpose of saving WGBH postage added personal touch to appreciation for the donor. She asked that of everyone in the fundraising office, especially of all her ‘GBH fundraising Daughters.
Aunt Marilyn’s influence on my life’s journey — encouraging me to work at WGBH — changed the course of my life. I never would have had a careerworking in NYC on Broadway, Network TV, Radio City Music Hall, and Madison Square Garden, among others, as an IATSE, Local One Stagehand.
“Honey” and her legacy will always be with us. Needless to say, I cherished her and will miss her very much.
Fond Memories of Fund Raising’s Den Mother
In the fundraising office, Marilyn Bernardo was Den Mother to a group of young men and women eager to make our mark, and Marilyn’s first lesson was the meaning of philanthropy. She’d often remind each of us, with finger pointed, that donors give their hard-earned money to us for programs they get just by turning the dial. We must make good use of their donations in everything we do.
I paraphrase her, but her commitment to stewarding our donors was paramount, particularly when it came to WGBH’s major donors. Please let me share a fond memory.
On Marilyn’s desk there sat two small metal files which contained her 3×5 cards on every major donor past and present. Whenever a large gift arrived (most were by check then), an office cry rang out, “MARILYN, you got a 3×5 for this donor?” She usually did, and the little cards held more information about our major donors long before anyone thought to store them on computers. In fact, when we converted to the industry’s first CRM system developed by us in 1980, those cards were a big bonus and a bummer – the latter because those little 3x5s held much more information than our new sophisticated system could hold. True.
One more, if I may, about one of the first stories Marilyn told Amy Meyers and I when we started in ’72. Our focus was opening mail and processing donations and the crucial task of verifying every donor’s name and address AND zip code. Tedious. She taught this lesson with a story about the big fire of ’61.
After the ’61 fire, Marilyn, Helen Fox, David Ives, and others rushed to the Mass Ave. mailroom to see if the “addressograph plates” had survived. Those were like army dog tags, each embossed with a donor’s name and address. They spent countless hours scrubbing and cleaning those plates to send out an emergency mailing to donors. You see, in 1961 (and today), direct mail is still the primary source of donations (like it or not)! Marilyn’s lesson to us was clear: “If you don’t have a donor’s name and address, you don’t have a donor.” It was stamped in our DNA.
Marilyn was a real pioneer in our industry setting up many donor file controls that, while automated today, are still standard, and her motherly advice didn’t stop at fundraising. She shared life’s lessons in every area – relationships, finances, careers, friendships. To an eager group of 20-something “girls” just starting careers, she truly was the Den Mother of WGBH’s Fundraising office for decades. I miss my other mother and friend, and am thankful to WGBH for bringing us together.