Advertisement
  1. Florida

Bernie Herman thought laughter could heal, so he went to clown school

Former lawyer embraced second career, then kept the jokes coming
After a career in law, Bernie Herman went to clown school in upstate New York. He brought Harpo with him to Florida. (Photo courtesy Beth Herman)
Published Apr. 29
Updated May 2

After another few weeks in physical rehab, Bernie Herman and one of his daughters went over his setlist.

In his 90s, he was mostly blind from macular degeneration and hard of hearing from being in his 90s. But he knew his jokes were good, and he knew his audience needed them.

Susan Lylis or Beth Herman sat behind their dad in his wheelchair, and when the time was right, they’d whisper a prompt.

“The little boy in the church…”

“The parrot who goes into the bar...”

Mr. Herman took it from there, and soon, the room filled with laughter. It worked every time. He knew people faced a lot of challenges there, in the assisted living facility, and later, in the nursing home, Lylis said.

So he came prepared.

Mr. Herman, of Clearwater, died at 95 of an infection.

You’ll find three of his jokes here. They’re best read with a New England accent in mind.

“The babies and the lantern…”

A woman went into labor late at night in a tiny Irish village without electricity. The doctor was fetched from town and got to work, asking the husband to kneel down and hold the lantern very close to his wife. The husband had been very nervous and had been drinking to calm his nerves.

In a few minutes, the first baby arrived.

"It's a boy!" the doctor exclaimed.

The husband started to jump for joy, withdrawing the lantern as he stood up to celebrate.

"Wait!" the doctor exclaimed. "Bring back the light. There seems to be another coming."

The husband returned and held the lantern where he had before. A second baby was born -- a girl. Again, the husband started to jump up to celebrate, whereby the doctor pulled him back down.

"I think there's one more," the doctor said. "Keep the lantern here."

The third baby was born, another boy.

Again, the husband rose, withdrawing the lantern, this time shaking his head in total disbelief.

“Doc,” he said finally. “Do you think the light’s attracting them?!”

Bernie Herman, front and center, was left out of the photo of his 16th birthday party, so the photographer awkwardly cropped him in. (Photo courtesy Beth Herman)

Mr. Herman grew up in New Bedford, Mass., and served in the Army. He married Florence Settlow, who lived 20 minutes away in Fall River, and moved to the mill town where her father owned a men’s clothing factory. Mr. Herman worked as a lawyer there. The couple had two daughters.

His practice revolved around the construction industry, so when the recession hit in the early 1970s, his client list shrunk.

“And he had to reinvent himself,” said Beth Herman, his eldest daughter.

The family moved to Cape Cod, where they’d vacationed for years. Herman remembers her dad would sometimes say that in his work, clients were never happy with the results. It seemed like it was always something. In his 50s, he studied the work of Norman Cousins, an author who popularized the idea that laughter is good medicine.

Mr. Herman agreed. So, in his late 60s, he went to clown school for a week. When he got back, his wife, who owned her own company and worked in tourism, helped him book his first gig.

Mr. Herman spent the next 20 years visiting hospitals, schools and nursing homes and holding seminars for medical professionals on the healing power of humor.

Bernie Herman played tennis, swam and played the trumpet, but he decided early on he didn’t want to travel or spend time on hobbies that took him away from his family. He became the envy of the women in the neighborhood and the bane of the men, whose wives often asked, ‘Why can’t you be more like Bernie?’ (Photo courtesy Susan Lylis)

“The plane and the parachute…”

A first-time military jumper stood nervously inside a plane, listening to instructions from the jump master about what was going to happen on his first jump.

"There's nothing to worry about," the jump master explained. "When you exit the plane, after a few minutes, just pull on the yellow tab to the left and your chute will open."

The student jumper remained nervous. "But what if it doesn't?" he asked.

"That's easy. Just pull on the red tab to the right. It's fail-proof. And, when you're on the ground, a truck will be waiting to bring you back to the base."

The student nodded and on cue, jumped out of the plane. In a few minutes, he pulled on the yellow tab. The chute didn't open. Trying not to panic, he quickly pulled on the red tab. The chute still failed to open.

“Oh, that’s just great,” he grumbled to himself. “And I’ll bet the truck won’t be there, either.”

Mr. Herman got laughs from all ages. (Photo courtesy Susan Lylis)

In 2009, Mr. Herman and his wife moved to Clearwater after years of snowbirding. Soon after, Mr. Herman and his sense of humor made headlines here.

A bank robber looking for a getaway car put a gun in Mr. Herman’s face and demanded his keys, according to a 2009 story in the Tampa Bay Times. Mr. Herman told the reporter that, for a moment, he thought of saying, “Would you take a credit card?”

From the Tampa Bay Times, March 20, 2009

Mr. Herman kept dispensing laughter even when he was the patient. In 2015, he tripped and broke his neck in two places, along with several ribs.

Doctors told his daughters to make end-of-life plans, but Mr. Herman fought his way back.

A year-and-a-half later, he fell and broke his neck a second time.

He finally stayed put in a wheelchair, but he never stopped telling jokes.

When they’d vacation as a family in Cape Cod, sometimes the tide would go out for miles around sunset. Beth Herman remembers one summer as a teenager when they sat watching from their balcony and her dad said, “ ‘Shhh, listen. You can almost hear the quiet.’ He was such a poet.” (Image courtesy Beth Herman)

“St. Peter…”

Two doctors pass away at the same time, whereupon they are greeted at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter. He asks the first doctor, "What kind of medicine did you practice and what did you do for others during your time on earth?"

The first doctor replies, "I was a renowned cardiologist and like to think I saved hundreds of lives."

St. Peter replies, "That's great. Come right in. Welcome to heaven."

He then asks the second doctor the same question, "What kind of medicine did you practice and what did you do for others during your time on earth?"

“Well,” the second doctor replies, “I also practiced medicine, but then I went to work as CEO for a large HMO.”

“Okay,” St. Peter says, “you can come in, but you can only stay three days.”

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Mr. Herman? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way her family will remember her. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

Read recent Epilogues:

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez shared the good word any way she could

Jim Igler was always near the water or under it, cleaning, teaching, helping

Don Barco was everybody’s best friend (or at least he made them feel that way)


ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  2. Flood-elevation requirements for permanent Florida Keys homes could mean local ‘tiny homes’ wind up with more square footage than most of the diminutive domiciles. Courtesy of Bayview Homes
    “We cannot keep building the way we always have and expect a different outcome in future disasters.”
  3. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Michael Patrick Nealey, 49, was arrested Monday morning and charged with killing Lucky Miller at a Hilton hotel.
  4. The Falcon 9 rocket sits on Kennedy Space Center's historic Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral on Thursday.[SpaceX via AP]
    The company deployed a second batch of 60 satellites for its Starlink communications constellation.
  5. Vacant land within the Italian Club Cemetery may the site of the lost College Hill Cemetery, listed in some 100 obituaries from 1896 through the 1930s. Tampa Bay Times
    Cubans and African-Americans were once buried on land that appears to be a vacant corner of the Italian Club Cemetery.
  6. Do you know what Pam Bondi is expected to focus on if she joins the White House communications team?
    How closely do you follow the Tampa Bay Times? Take our weekly quiz and find out.
  7. Two Disney employees and a former middle school assistant principal are among the 17 accused of possessing and sharing child porn. JOHN RAOUX  |  AP
    Polk County Sheriff’s Office charged more than 600 felony counts of child pornography possession to the 17.
  8. Shoppers walk into the Kmart in Kenneth City, which will close by the start of 2020. By February, Florida will only have four Kmarts left. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    What’s the future of Kmart and Sears in the Sunshine State after the latest round of closures?
  9. Reginald Ferguson, center, a resident of the Kenwood Inn in St. Petersburg, talks with Rachel Ilic, an environmental epidemiologist, left, and Fannie Vaughn, right, a nurse with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. The health team was encouraging residents to get vaccinated against hepatitis A, part of a larger effort to address an outbreak of the virus in Florida. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The effort started in Pinellas, where health department “foot teams” are knocking on doors in neighborhoods at higher risk for the virus.
  10. Archaeologist Terry Barbour excavates a bead-making site on Raleigh Island in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Barbour's team then used a drone with radar to map the entire village of 37 ring-shaped piles of oyster shells where ancient dwellers made beads out of shells. PHOTO COURTESY OF KENNETH E. SASSAMAN  |  Photo courtesy of Kenneth E. Sas
    Scientists stumbled on the site while assessing BP oil spill effects in 2010
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement