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Bernard Brommel, dead at 88, Northeastern Illinois prof funded 25 scholarships

Professor Bernard J. Brommel (right) outside the science building named in his honor at Northeastern Illinois University, with sons Bradley and Blair. | Provided photo

With his knack for investing and a work ethic forged by plowing fields and milking cows on a family farm, Bernard Brommel became the first $1 million donor to Northeastern Illinois University, where he had been a professor.

Thrifty habits — like always packing a lunch — helped. “He squirreled away every dollar he could,” said Carl Ratner, his partner of 22 years.

Mr. Brommel also had good instincts for stocks, according to Ratner: “Very early on, he said, ‘I don’t much like coffee, but these yuppies seem to like it, so I think I’ll put some money in Starbucks.’ ”

After retiring, he became the North Side school’s second-biggest donor. Ultimately, he gave more than $2.5 million to Northeastern, funding more than 25 scholarships, as well as faculty research stipends, a lecture series and a garden for its library.

In 2010, the school named its science building for him: Bernard J. Brommel Hall.

In addition to teaching family dynamics at Northeastern, he was a therapist and wrote books. “Bernie worked three jobs all his life,” his partner said.

He died Sept. 22 at 88 at his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Ratner is a professor of music at Western Michigan University. Mr. Brommel had a heart attack due to kidney failure, his partner said.

Professor Bernard J. Brommel was the first million-dollar donor to Northeastern Illinois University. | Provided photo
Professor Bernard J. Brommel was the first million-dollar donor to Northeastern Illinois University. | Provided photo

His donations made a big difference at Northeastern, where many students are the first in their families to go to college, said Richard Lindberg, author of “Northeastern Illinois University: the First 150 Years.”

Mr. Brommel studied how families interact and deal with conflict, roles and decision-making. His textbook “Family Communication: Cohesion and Change” has been reprinted about 10 times, Ratner said.

“The book was groundbreaking in that it did discuss different ethnic styles and also because it included non-traditional definitions of family, like LGBT families,” Ratner said.

The professor’s 1978 book “Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism” won an award for biography from the Society of Midland Authors.

The life of Mr. Brommel — who came out as gay in middle age after being married and having six children — was extended by drugs that fight AIDS. He was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986 and participated in clinical trials for some of the breakthrough medications, Ratner said.

His partner at the time, who was on a placebo in a trial, died of AIDS, according to Ratner. Mr. Brommel was treated with AZT and lived.

An early proponent of HIV testing and safe sex, he was one of the first 20 members of the Test Positive Aware Network. TPAN’s message wasn’t always well-received in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, with some labeling the group fear-mongers, he said in an interview with Windy City Times last year.

Growing up the oldest of nine children in St. Marys, Iowa, he was expected by his father to work on the farm, said his daughter Michaela.

But a high school teacher, Grace Laird, “inspired him to go on to college and told him he could be more than a pig farmer,” Michaela said. To the end of his life, “He had her picture in his studio.”

In 1951, he graduated from the University of Northern Iowa and taught high school, where he was a mentor to students like Ken Miller. After the death of his farmer dad when he was about 15, Miller had “constant worry” about drought and lambing season in addition to homework. Mr. Brommel encouraged him to achieve his dream of being a medical doctor. “He never forgot me, and I never forgot him,” said Miller, now retired.

Mr. Brommel also earned a master’s in education from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in communication from Indiana University. After serving on the faculty at Indiana State University and the University of North Dakota, he joined Northeastern, where he taught from 1971 to 1997.

While teaching at Northeastern, he earned a master’s in counseling at the school. He continued his workload as an instructor and began a private therapy practice.

He met Ratner through an LGBTQ square-dancing group, the Chi-Town Squares.

His daughter Michaela said, “He would end phone calls — or begin them — with, ‘Has anyone told you they loved you today?’ ”

On his deathbed, she repeated her father’s own words to him, asking: “Has anyone told you they loved you today?”

Mr. Brommel is also survived by his daughter Debra Foyo, sons Brian, Brent, Brad and Blair, sister Pat Eskra, brother Denny, 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His former wife Wilma Brommel died before him. A wake is planned from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday in St. Marys, Iowa, with his funeral at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Church in St. Marys.

He requested that Northeastern pennants be draped over his casket, along with his cap and gown.