Dancing through a centuryWoman shares life experiences from 1912-2012
By: Crystal Dey, Alexandria Echo Press
Bernice “Bea” Pfeffer glided across the floor in a flashy black sequined ensemble. Today her partner was dance instructor Dave Cooper. Other days it’s been her husband, Vern.
Bea’s been dancing for more than 80 of her 99 years. The Grand Arbor dance class was extended at Bea’s prompting, said daughter, Bonnie Schneider. “I told the front desk the women seem to like it,” Bea said.
Bonnie’s family was living in Alexandria when Bea came for a visit. Never being able to keep Bea far from a dance floor, an evening out at the VFW dance was planned. It was there she met Vern.
Bea and Vern were married in 1973 and presently reside together at Grand Arbor. The couple first lived in Belle River, where Vern grew up, and later moved to Alexandria to be closer to his oil delivery job.
Born in St. Paul, Bea was active in the music and dance scene in the 1930s. Her older sister, Florence, was a silent films pianist at the local theatre. Bea recalls going to see Rudolph Valentino – a “heartthrob” of the time – at the theatre for 10 cents a show.
She later met and married her first heartthrob, Eddy Greig, in 1933. The two were married almost 40 years before he died.
Bea’s family wasn’t shy on pianists. She played piano by ear, as did her sister, Eleanor.
“We used to have a ball dancing around the house,” she said.
Bea’s father, Axel Bergstrom, was a furniture maker and interior designer – called a paperhanger at the time – in the Twin Cities.
In her heyday, Bea hob-knobbed with Florence and the fellas from Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies in Como Park. She remembers seeing Eddie Shipstad, Roy Shipstad and Oscar Johnson jumping beer barrels in the park. Ice Follies was a touring ice troupe founded in 1937.
Bea’s favorite era for dance was the 1930s. The Charleston was all the rage at the time. “I was pretty good,” she confessed.
Dances only cost a dollar to attend and since Bea was older than her friends, she would purchase tickets for them all – but once she got to the club her age was questioned because she was so short. Her mother once had to accompany her to a job interview to attest to her being 16 years old.
In 1928, Bea started her first job at American Multigraph, a printing press, in St. Paul. She did so well her predecessor Mr. Sword, the man who hired her, was dismissed.
“He said it’s not your fault Bernice; you catch on quick,” she said.
The position entailed working with ritzy hotels on advertising and with magazines and letters. Bea said she really felt like something else being able to strut into all those places with a sense of purpose as a teenager.
Bea also worked at Montgomery Wards where she and the other girls would wear roller skates to pick up orders quicker.
Over the past century, Bea has witnessed a lot of changes. She remembers her grandmother aghast at the house being “taken apart” when electricity was installed to replace gas mantles and seeing ice blocks dropped at the house for the icebox. Her phone number as a teen was simply 5826.
Cars were cranked over, there were no ignition keys or buttons to start them, Bernice said. Fire “trucks” and ambulances were pulled by horse when she was 7-years-old in St. Paul. “Great big white horses, I’ll never forget,” she said. “They looked wild.”
Every Sunday she would get all dolled up and hop on the streetcar with her grandmother to attend church.
Bea’s grandmother, Josephine Williams, was voted best-dressed woman in Trondheim, Norway before the family moved to America. Perhaps it’s in Bea’s genes to continue the trend.
“She’s always been a real snazzy dresser,” Bonnie said. “Never a hair out of place.”
Bonnie said Bea will be dressed to the nines for a day of shopping – which Bea has more stamina for at 99-years-old than her daughter. On March 10, Bea will be celebrating her 100th birthday at Grand Arbor. “I never thought I’d live this long,” she said.
In addition to a passion for dancing, Bea has won numerous awards for knitting and crocheting. She loves dining out and getting her hair and nails done.
Bea doesn’t know if Grand Arbor is going to continue the ballroom dance classes with Cooper but hopes they will. “He’s a good teacher,” she said.
Usually the class draws a crowd of about 15 people, mostly women, but a few men sometimes join. If the class doesn’t continue, she said, there’s always the theater, swimming pool, church, beauty salon, bingo or crocheting to keep her busy.
What’s the secret to staying young and living long? Bea paused and said to Bonnie, “Should I tell her?”
Staying busy and keeping active was her answer. Bea enjoys daily crossword puzzles – she prefers the ones with celebrity gossip – to keep her mind sharp.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Bea said. “I didn’t miss anything.”