“I am blessed. Big time,”
said Bernie Ham when commenting about his life. From experiencing the Battle of the Bulge to attending graduate school with Pat Boone, from studying with Metropolitan Opera great Jerome Hines to surviving non-Hodgkins lymphoma,
Ham is grateful for every experience.
Born in 1926 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Ham grew up in a house filled with love, music, and laughter. “My dad had a Model T Ford, but I loved to ride my bike everywhere,” Ham said. “That was back in the time when there were still streetcars all over the place. In fact, when I was about 12-years-old the Model T stalled on a streetcar line and my side of the car was hit. We were OK, but I’ll never forget it…I played four sports in high school—basketball, baseball, football, and I was a pole vaulter.”
During his high school senior year, Ham was drafted by the Army just before the end of World War II. “I was sent from Richmond on a black out train to Fort Meade in Maryland. Then I was sent to Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. After basic training I landed in France, but not before German U-Boats had fired on our ship,” Ham said. His ultimate destination was the 7th Army Infantry, which was part of General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. “It was a very scary time for me. I was only 18-years-old and my sergeant told our squad that we were replacements for his soldiers that had been wiped out the night before.” This experience near the end of the Battle of the Bulge was Ham’s only major conflict during WWII. Fortunately, the War was winding down at this point and the Germans were surrendering to the Americans rather than the Russians, for fear of certain death. “The Germans knew that the Americans would let them take showers and give them new clothes, and we would feed them.”
Ham contracted Hepatitis during this time and despite early treatment from Army medics, his symptoms continued to worsen after he’d been put on light duty. “I was in this old German house and I found a baby crib to lie down in. I stayed there for about three or four days before anyone found me and saw how sick I was. They flew me to a hospital near Paris where I stayed for two months. The War had ended by that point, so I was able to get well.” Once Ham was released from the hospital he spent some time in Paris. It wasn’t quite the “city of lights” that it is today, but it was still an adventure for Ham. “There were many military in the city at that time and I was preparing to salute an officer that was walking toward me. Low and behold it was my brother! Because of the War, I hadn’t heard from him in about four years, so it was wonderful to spend some time with him. He’d been called back to go to Japan, but ended up not having to go,” recalled Ham. They celebrated their reunion at a Paris café with a bottle of wine that his brother confiscated after the winery he was near in Germany had been bombed. Prior to returning to the United States in 1945, Ham was assigned to guard P.O.W.s in Germany—ones that were awaiting trial at Nurenburg, including Reichstag President and a leading member of the Nazi Party Hermann Göring.
Shortly after returning to the States in 1945, Ham enrolled at East Carolina through the G.I. Bill. “Some friends of mine from high school were attending East Carolina and after I’d made a couple of visits, I enrolled. I intended to major in business, but I failed the first business course I took, so I figured I’d better find another major,” Ham said. He quickly changed his major to music and pursued curriculum to be a band director.
Ham’s talent for singing was noticed in 6th grade by his music teacher, Ms. Brooks. “She wanted me to sing a solo in the Christmas program. I got on stage and couldn’t sing a note! I guess I had stage fright.” But he overcame that stage fright and went on to sing in many performances in high school, and even did solo shows at a local restaurant. (Ham also plays piano.) He carried this love of music to East Carolina and was a natural fit with The Collegians. He also played a little jazz in a trio with Henry Whitener ’56 and Ernie Black ’53, ’59, who were also members of The Collegians; was a member of Circle K Club; Phi Sigma Pi Fraternity; and played on the golf team. “Believe it or not, my team played against Arnold Palmer’s team when he was at Wake Forest. Our team lost to them, but we had a good time hanging out with Arnie and his teammates.”
After graduation, Ham was a band director in Plymouth, North Carolina for a few years. He then enrolled in New York City’s Columbia University to pursue a master’s in music. He sang with a number of choirs and played at piano bars while in graduate school. “I stayed in New York for a while after graduation, but then I got tired of the busy New York life and came home to Virginia. I got into teaching vocal music in the Virginia Beach School System and did that until I took a full-time job with the National Guard in 1960,” said Ham. He retired in 1980.
Ham continues to sing and has been a member of the Virginia Symphony Chorus for 40 years. He’s also been a baritone soloist at Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk for 51 years. Ham continues to sing with The Collegians during their annual reunion at ECU’s Homecoming and enjoys this opportunity to reconnect with old buddies. His greatest musical influence was Jerome Hines, who he studied with for three years. A renowned basso opera singer, Hines taught Ham the mechanics of singing, which Ham then taught his students. “There is much more to singing than just having a good voice. I would work with students on the mechanics like it was taught to me, beginning with the vowel sounds.”
Ham’s passion for music performance was fostered at East Carolina and ECU will benefit from his great appreciation through a bequest that establishes an endowment for voice majors in the School of Music. “Being part of the Leo Jenkins Society is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was decided upon over a round of golf and I’m so glad I did that. The camaraderie with fellow students and the relationships I built with professors [while at East Carolina] was priceless. I’m still in touch with my voice teacher Gladys White, who I visited over the recent Homecoming weekend. It’s those things that make ECU special to me,” said Ham. Big band music and classical repertoire are Ham’s favorite to perform. “I like to sing songs like “New York, New York,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and Handel’s Messiah,” said Ham. “Music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and as long as I can continue singing, it always will be.”