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Bergson gives students glimpse behind the curtain

A friendship formed more than three decades ago provides journalism students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior a peek behind police lines and political power.

For about 20 years, Herb Bergson — former Superior police officer and mayor of both Duluth and Superior — has been speaking to Mike Simonson’s classes.

“People have to understand in our business what cops go through, what politicians go through,” said Simonson, an award-winning reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. Sometimes Bergson tells stories that are hard to hear.

“I watch my students turn all shades of pale,” Simonson said.

When Bergson stopped by the Holden Fine Arts building early last month, he also touched on the dangers of trying to self-medicate with alcohol. He dropped by Simonson’s class four days after his release from jail after being convicted of his third operating while intoxicated offense. He told students his decision to get behind the wheel after drinking beer and vodka was “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.” It put him behind bars with the worst of the worst, Bergson said, and he was denied a chance to call his family. They found out about the arrest through news stories.

Bergson came to the class 18 days sober with a message. When a prescription drug wasn’t helping him deal with anxiety attacks, he switched to beer.

“I was stupid, I took the easy way out,” he told the students, stressing it’s important to treat the cause of the problem instead of turning to alcohol.

Much of the class period was devoted to Bergson’s path through law enforcement and politics. He spoke of an uncle who inspired him to become a cop, despite the fact that Bergson was born with a club foot.

He told of arresting a 75-year-old man caught stealing a loaf of bread. The store manager wouldn’t settle for just a warning. The man was booked and released.

“One hour later, he hung himself with a belt,” Bergson said. “I hope that store manager can live with himself.”

After years on the force, Bergson threw his hat into the political ring. He wanted to run for the sheriff’s office, but a UWS political science teacher advised him to get his name out there by running for mayor or city council in 1987, and try for sheriff the next year.

“I ran for mayor against the powerful Bruce Hagen machine,” Bergson said. “I did not expect to win.” But he did, by 129 votes. He was re-elected to a second term with 76 percent of vote.

“People were kind to me,” Bergson said.

He then returned to the police department for nine years before the political itch hit again. He served on the Duluth City Council from 2001 until he was elected mayor in 2003. His first fight wasn’t over retiree health care. It was about the 10 Commandments monument outside City Hall. He spoke of his battle for gay rights and campaign against homelessness. The office catapulted Bergson into the big leagues — he met Bill Clinton, Joan Jett, Jesse Jackson and Eddie Albert. He sold rides on the Aerial Lift Bridge and lunch on the roof of city hall with the mayor. Serving as Duluth mayor from 2004-2008, he said, was “an e-ticket at Disney World, I tell you.”

The presentation offered students a chance to see what’s involved in political decision-making, said UWS professor Khalil “Haji” Dokhanchi, who attended with some of his political science students. Hearing the stories did change student perceptions.

“At first I had my whole mindset of ‘Oh, he’s just a drunk,’ and I didn’t have the stories behind it,” said sophomore Kaylee Kiggins of Gordon.

“You don’t realize that people in power are real people,” said sophomore Cortney Sears.

Simonson and Bergson met in a 1980 cop class at UWS.

“As a reporter, I thought it was important to learn police techniques,” Simonson said. He was already a radio reporter. Bergson was working as a cop. Simonson even set Bergson up on a date with a girl in the class. The two have maintained a friendship, despite the fact that found themselves on opposite ends of news stories.

Douglas County has a sheriff’s election this fall. But Bergson, who now lives in Waunakee, said he is not interested in holding office again. His aspirations now are to become a teacher and share his story with college students.