Joe Bergman is instantly welcoming, with a warm smile and easy manner. He’s disarming.
And he’s tall. You can’t miss that. Six feet 9 inches tall. His hands are commensurately big; when he shakes your own, they’ve been good and shaken. You look at his feet and wonder where he buys shoes that large, size 15. (On the web, at Zappos.com, as it turns out).
Virtually anyone who has worked in the medical community in Keene, and scores of patients, know Dr. Bergman as the psychiatrist who for 24 years ran Cheshire Medical Center’s mental health unit until he retired in 2015.
Although Bergman has spent most of his life in the field of psychiatry, an interview with him quickly veers into quite different subjects — the town where he was raised, and basketball, which figures significantly into his story, as is not too hard to imagine given his height.
“I had a Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn childhood,” he says, born and raised in the small city of Clinton, Iowa, which is just about the size of Keene. “We lived a block and a half from the Mississippi River; when it flooded, we could fish in it from our backyard.”
Bergman recalls ranging free with his friends throughout town, coming home for dinner to his mother, who’d already know where he’d been because her friends had sighted him earlier that day. He and his pals even occasionally hopped the slow-moving freight trains at rail yards a half block from his home, taking free rides to downtown Clinton. That’s the way it was for children in those days.
His father worked at the Alcoa aluminum plant in Davenport, about 40 miles south of Clinton, and his mother was a homemaker who took occasional part-time jobs when needed to supplement the family’s income. Bergman’s a middle child of five.
As with many who settled in Iowa, Bergman is of German extraction, his grandfather one of seven brothers who arrived in the United States from that country.
“I was 6-foot-5 in 7th grade,” he says. Naturally, the basketball coach at his school was interested in recruiting him.
“I wanted none of that,” he says, and initially resisted the coach’s overtures.
“I was so uncoordinated that I could run down the court and trip on the paint on the floor,” he jokes.
But with the urging of his father and the coach, a man named Gene McDonald, Bergman joined the elementary school’s basketball team. It was a life-changing decision.
McDonald continued as Bergman’s “surrogate” coach while Bergman played on the high school team, carefully nurturing and mentoring him as a player. McDonald even set up a half-court basketball area in his own driveway, where Bergman and other neighborhood players refined their skills.
“I worked at it,” Bergman says. His life became basketball; he practiced not only with the team, but also by himself, placing tape on the court floor and shooting endless baskets from those positions. He toiled away at what are called “big man” and “little man” drills, perfecting his rebounding, free-throw shooting and ball-handling.
The efforts certainly paid off, as he was named an All-American high school player. By the time he was a senior, he had received scholarship offers from 150 colleges and universities, including from powerhouses like Kentucky and North Carolina. John Wooden, the legendary coach from UCLA — arguably the greatest basketball coach ever — wanted Bergman to play for him.
Eventually, Bergman signed with his home-state team at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, a decision he regrets. “Ralph Miller was the coach, and he was terrible in my opinion; I couldn’t do well under him,” he says, despite the fact that Miller went on to become a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Finally, I said, ‘That’s it’ and transferred to Creighton University halfway through my sophomore year,” he says. However, while still at the University of Iowa, Bergman by happenstance literally came across something that would initiate his interest in psychology and childhood development. On campus, there was an old war-time Quonset hut that housed a program for children with disabilities. He stopped in and ended up a volunteer there.
At Creighton, a Jesuit university in Omaha, Neb., he excelled at basketball and graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in psychology.
The San Francisco Warriors selected Bergman in Round 7 of the 1970 NBA Draft, although he never ended up playing for them. The following year, he was traded to the Cincinnati Royals, then coached by the Hall-of-Famer former Boston Celtic Bob Cousy.
Bergman played only the preseason for the Royals, and felt he was misplaced by Cousy, who he says insisted he play in the center spot, when Bergman believed he should have been playing forward. “At 6-foot-9 and only 215 pounds, what was I going to do against the big boys?” he says, meaning the heavier, 7-foot players who were just starting to dominate the game. Among them was Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was 7-foot-2 and at the time playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Bergman quit professional basketball. The Royals bought him out of his contract, and he and his wife, Beth, whom he’d met at Creighton, began to make plans for their future. They both enrolled at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, his wife studying for a master’s degree in Montessori education while he pursued a master’s in psychology.
Although his professional basketball career was brief, he says his upbringing in the sport played a key role in forming his character.
“It taught me how to be a team player, how to take direction, how to stand up for myself. It gave me confidence, and it taught me how to be fearless.”
But he isn’t finished. “It helped me in psychiatry; it taught me that hard work pays off, and that if you want something, do what it takes to achieve it.”
While in graduate school, he also secured a job at Longview State Hospital, in Cincinnati, for people with mental illnesses. It was there that he was first exposed to some of the most critical cases and relates his description of the unit for the criminally insane — a large, open ward where residents lived and slept. Security officers escorted the nurses to and from their station, a protected Plexiglass office from which they dispensed drugs.
While in the master’s program at Xavier, Bergman rethought his career path; he questioned why he’d earn a master’s and then a doctorate degree in psychology, when he could apply to medical school and eventually become a psychiatrist, with the ability to prescribe medications. “I wanted to be in control of the whole process,” he says.
He didn’t finish his master’s program and applied to a number of medical schools, eventually entering the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico, where he earned his medical degree in 1980. “You could not speak English at the school,” he notes. “Everything had to be in Spanish.” Consequently, he became fluent in the language, although admits he’s become somewhat rusty.
While on summer breaks, Bergman returned to the United States and secured jobs working with doctors in different specialties at hospitals in Chicago and Cincinnati, supplementing what he was learning in Mexico.
After graduation, Bergman began to interview for medical residencies in the U.S. Among those that he applied to was at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, which at the time had the highest-ranked psychiatric department in the country, he says. He knew it was a long-shot and was surprised when they called him in for an interview. He won a coveted spot in the program.
He spent five years at Johns Hopkins, where he says he worked among some of the best psychiatrists and psychiatric researchers in the country, who exposed him to many of the most complex cases psychiatry can offer. Among them were Fred Berlin and John Money, both pioneering researchers on sexual disorders, child sexual abuse and pedophilia.
After leaving Hopkins, Bergman secured a position at Taylor Manor, outside Baltimore, a psychiatric hospital now known as Sheppard-Pratt at Ellicott City.
While Baltimore was a fertile place to practice psychiatry, Bergman says it wasn’t the best place to raise children, and by then, he and his wife had a son, Noah. Long commutes in traffic and sketchy, crime-ridden neighborhoods spurred them to seek a new home.
“I was looking for a place where a 10-year-old boy could range a bit freer, as I had in my hometown; I wanted him to have the childhood I had,” he says. Bergman interviewed at hospitals in New England and finally decided Keene had the attributes he and his wife were seeking — a safe, small community. In 1991, he became medical director of the Keene hospital’s mental health unit, better known in the local lexicon as “Four South” in a shorthand reference to its location in the hospital building.
It was a good fit, he says.
“My forte is my ability to connect with the patient. I wasn’t going to be a ‘head-nodder,’ ” he says, referring to a psychiatrist who simply “nods and repeats, ‘I see, I see,’ writes down some notes and that’s it. ... The patient always came first.”
Longtime friend Peter Rooney of Keene says Bergman has superb people skills.
“Something that I always think about Joe when I first met him was that he was kind of imposing; I’m tall myself, and he towered over me. Soon, I found that he is a gentle giant and a warm, friendly, compassionate person, a great friend, a great husband and a great father,” Rooney says. “And he plays a wicked game of pool.”
A year after Bergman retired, Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene announced the closing of its inpatient psychiatric department, “Four South,” effective July 1, 2016. According to a news release issued at the time, the closing was the result of an inability to recruit permanent psychiatrists to treat patients and manage the inpatient facility. A national shortage of psychiatrists has “negatively impacted these efforts,” the release said.
The following year, the hospital instituted what it calls the Behavioral Health Team, which offers psychiatric consultation services to primary care providers at Cheshire Medical Center, children under the age of 18 and those who show up in the emergency room. Psychiatrist Judith Olson is the medical director of the program.
In this new phase of his life, Bergman says, he and his wife enjoy traveling, and he’s a voracious reader — “and not of medical journals,” he adds. He also hangs out with friends and enjoys a newfound talent for cooking. He also watches basketball on television, naturally.
He returns to Clinton from time to time to visit family, with another planned trip there this summer.
“I feel so comfortable there,” he says.