WEST PALM BEACH — In the words of a longtime colleagueHarreen Bertisch was proof that people are inherently good.
A giant in the legal community of Palm Beach County, Bertisch dedicated her career to making the judicial system equitable and accessible as the director of development for the Legal Aid Society.
Though the bulk of her work was done behind the scenes, the Palm Beach Gardens resident’s sudden death last week, and outpouring of grief that followed, has shone a light on the career of a woman known best for her unrelenting kindness.
“She was the kind of person who could restore your faith in humanity,” said Mariano Garcia, former president and current trustee for Legal Aid.
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With hugs and grins, Harreen Bertisch raised millions to help those in need
Bertisch, 76, died Oct. 12 in a crash in downtown West Palm Beach. A train struck her SUV as she crossed the Florida East Coast Railway tracks at Fern Street, city police said. Funeral services were held at 2 pm Thursday at Temple Israel on Flagler Drive.
Her death leaves a gaping hole at the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit where she and her husband, Robert, have spent decades working to provide free legal services to disadvantaged communities across Palm Beach County.
“They’re going to have to fill that role,” Garcia said. “But they’re not going to be able to fill her shoes.”
Bertisch helped raise more than $20 million during her 30-year career at Legal Aid. She could often be spotted with a toothy grin, a hug and a “Hi, honey!” at different fundraising events throughout the year.
The largest of all was the Pro Bono Recognition Evening, an annual event Bertisch helped grow from a fledgling fundraiser to an all-out gala that colleagues say draws in close to $300,000 every year.
That’s where Shelley Garcia met Bertisch in 2001. The night’s theme was “Hot Latin Nights,” she said, and who else but Bertisch could talk a group of lawyers and judges into performing a choreographed salsa in the middle of the room?
You could never say “no” to Bertisch, Garcia said.
It wasn’t because she twisted your arm, either, added Michelle Suskauer, president of Legal Aid. Bertisch had a knack for getting people on her side and in their checkbooks, or in the kitchen for a bake sale, or on the dance floor for a night. She was magnetic.
“When someone really believes in the vision, they can make you believe in the vision, too,” said Amy Devore, who is on Legal Aid’s board of directors. “Harreen believed in the vision. She was passionate about it.”
Children that Harreen Bertisch met as campers became her friends for life
She had a lifelong goal to help the less fortunate, friends said, but an extra-tender place in her heart for children. Bertisch led reading initiatives and day camps, remaining in the lives of the children she met there long into their adulthood.
“She taught me how to drive when I was 13,” said Abigail Beebe, who met Bertisch as a 9-year-old at Camp Shalom. “She was at every milestone I can remember. College graduation, law school graduation, wedding, engagement, babies. All of it.”
Bertisch was “the light in every room,” Beebe said.
She got to see Bertisch as she was outside of work: a mother of two, a grandmother, a gardener, a traveler and a beach bum. A “little bit of a hippie,” too, she said, with her loose-fitting clothes and long blonde hair.
It was thick like a horse’s mane, added Jackie Oliveira, who met Bertisch when they were children growing up in Brooklyn, New York. That, paired with her big smile and “crazy kind of laugh” earned her the nickname “Kook” in the Oliveira household.
“I envy people who can smile like that,” Oliveira said.
Her expression would fall into one of deep concentration when she began listening, which she almost always was — to fundraising ideas or to updates about a person’s grandchildren or spouse. She treated each like treasure, friends said.
“She took a sincere interest. It wasn’t just a passing ‘Hi,’ ” Mariano Garcia said. “She would look you in the eye and make sure that you were doing OK.”
In the days since her death, few who knew her are. Shelley Garcia, Mariano’s wife, couldn’t speak on the phone about her without breaking down. Amy Devore can’t pull into the parking lot of Legal Aid’s headquarters without picturing Bertisch there, piling baked goods into a shopping cart for the night’s auction.
“People are broken about it,” Devore said. “I hope she knew how much they loved her.”
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Harreen Bertisch, victim of train crash, helped Legal Aid serve needy
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