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SCSU President’s Accordion Play Brings Unexpected Response From Dying Mother

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NEW HAVEN – Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino decided in 2019 to return to accordion lessons so he could play for his aging parents, but wasn’t sure how deep that decision would become in later years. days of his mother.

At his father’s suggestion, Bertolino, a former New Jersey accordion champion, gave an impromptu performance about a year ago in his family’s living room in New Jersey, while his mother, Eileen, lay halfway -conscious and “not very clear-headed”, in the last stages of pancreatic cancer.

When Bertolino started playing “Flight of the Angels” – the whole family present, including her husband, father, sister and nephews – Eileen Bertolino started clapping her hand on the railing of the bed, a opened her eyes, then sat down and smiled broadly.

“We were all, ‘here she is. It was a powerful and wonderful moment – it was a gift, ”said Bertolino, noting that this was really the last time his mother interacted with one of the family members. “It was a combination of joy and sadness, but still in disbelief as to how the music managed to generate a response.”

After the brief awakening, Eileen Bertolino fell asleep again and died about a week later, on February 17.

His widower, President Bertolino’s father, also named Joe Bertolino, loves that he has a video of this moment to watch – and he does.

“It’s a great feeling – it’s like seeing her alive,” said elder Joe Bertolino. “It’s beautiful – sad, but beautiful.”

Papa Joe Bertolino, himself a seasoned musician, who played the trumpet in his band for twenty years, said he knew the “magic” of music and that is why he suggested to his son to play for Eileen Bertolino, because he knew he had his accordion with him. .

Young Joe Bertolino said his mother’s reaction to music “brought us peace in the family”.

“Who would have thought?” his resumption of classes would lead to such importance, he said. “Music was found at the end of my mother’s life to provide a joyful and healing experience for all of us.”

Young Bertolino said he played “Flight of the Angels”, because that was what he was coincidentally working on in his lessons, but it turned out to be appropriate, as his dying mother was a person of faith. deep – and certainly an angel now.

He said mum grew up in poverty, losing her dad at age 11. Eileen Bertolino had five brothers, two of whom had intellectual disabilities and became a kind of second mother.

She was the only one of her siblings to go to college, but first became a nurse.

“She has taken care of a lot of people,” including her mother, who died a few years ago at the age of 99, and her disabled brothers. Mom Eileen also took tireless care of her daughter who had a “terrible” car accident in the 1980s, but recovered, said young Joe Bertolino.

“She has always been a woman of incredible faith,” he said. “She was a charming, kind and caring woman.”

President Bertolino said she had instilled three main values, “in that order” – faith, family, education. Elder Joe Bertolino called his wife “the rock” of the family and credited her with superb parenting.

Bertolino was a champion accordion player in his youth, starting at age 10 and inspired to play by his maternal grandfather, Gene Wisniewski, who memorably performed during the holidays. Wisniewski was married to his maternal grandmother, Marguerite – the one who had become a young widow. While he can certainly play polkas, Joe Bertolino prefers classic pieces, he said.

Bertolino played competitively until college and said he was the only accordionist at the University of Scranton. Then life, education, career put the accordion on hiatus for decades

He decided to return to gambling in 2019 and take classes so that he could play for his parents as they got older because they had invested a lot of time and money in this part of his life, he said. declared. There were classes twice a week, recitals, competitions and young Joe Bertolino said that in 1979 his parents bought him an accordion for $ 4000 even though they were ordinary people in the class. factory Girl. He still plays this instrument.

“They were excited (about the accordion) because I was excited,” said Bertolino, noting that the accordion “opened doors” for him in life.

When SCSU President Bertolino decided to resume lessons, he found master teacher Mary Tokarski, with whom he continues to take virtual lessons.

“Joe is a very sensitive person,” said Tokarski, who has played the accordion all over the world. “He brings a lot of himself to the music. Tokarski said that because the accordion is held against the body, it has a “quality sound coming from the heart and” we become one with the instrument.

Tokarski is not at all surprised that the music had this profound effect on Eileen Bertolino because the music “connects with the soul” and “demands a response from the body”.

Tokarski said she performed in many nursing homes and people who hadn’t spoken for years often started singing.

“Music touches everyone’s soul,” she said. “Music is an absolutely amazing thing.”

At the request of his staff, President Bertolino performed “Flight of the Angels” in his annual video address to the SCSU community, generally sharing that he performed the song for his mother shortly before her death. .

“Considering everything we’ve all been through (with the pandemic), I wanted to make it personal, I wanted to make it meaningful, joyful,” young Joe Bertolino said of his annual post. “I thought that by playing and sharing my story, it was a way not only to say thank you” but also to send the message “This was a time where we had to focus on humanity. , about community and these important connections… I hope people will find joy, peace and beauty in the message.

His video post, his performance, garnered a lot of attention and Joe Bertolino heard from people all over the country, and even accepted the invitation to perform in the New Haven Symphony Pops holiday concert. He hopes to join a music ensemble at SCSU, which will allow him to rehearse alongside the students.

“There is no going back any more,” he said. “I think mom would be proud.”