Longtime local businessman and civic leader A.J. "Bernie" Bernardi, who died Friday in a Merced hospital, is remembered as a man who treasured his friendships, the community and its organizations.
Funeral arrangements are pending for the 90-year-old Bernardi, who came to Merced in 1938 from South Dos Palos, where he was born.
"He was a fun guy," longtime friend John Minetti said. "He liked people, and he liked to do things first-class. He was a very good cook. If he did something, he wanted it to be elegant. He had many, many friends."
Bernardi opened Bernie's Liquor Store in 1947 in the 200 block of West 17th Street, now known as Main Street. The store moved to 2322 G St. in the 1960s, and he sold the business in 1987.
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Bernardi also operated a delicatessen and opened Michael's Restaurant and Bernie's Wine Shop downtown. His commercial ventures also included a catering service and liquor stores on Yosemite Park Way and in Atwater.
"He was just a warm-hearted person, a generous guy," Don Stewart said. Stewart came to Merced from San Francisco in 1948 and Bernardi helped introduce him to other local residents and businessmen.
"He was a heck of an institution around here," Stewart said. "He had tremendous enthusiasm in everything he did. I enjoyed his company; he was always a lot of fun."
Bernardi was an original member of the Merced Booster Club and the Mercy Hospital Foundation board. He served as a director and president of the Merced County Fair Board, appointed by three different governors.
A member of the Italo-American Lodge, Kiwanis Club, Exchange Club and Merced Elks Lodge No. 1240, he served on the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He belonged to St. Patrick's Parish of the Catholic Church.
Bernardi's nephew, Almo J. Lorenzi, said Bernardi was more like a big brother than an uncle.
"He had a terrific life," Lorenzi said. "He loved to entertain and cook for people. He would cook at the drop of a hat. Down deep he was a very giving person, always there to help people. He very much cared for the city of Merced."
Lorenzi recalled when his uncle opened the liquor store, there were few such establishments in Merced. The secret of his success was that he gave credit, offered free check-cashing, delivery service and free ice.
Dr. Dan Ikemiyashiro of Merced knew Bernardi for 13 years and said he would be remembered for the parties, lunches and dinners he put together for his many friends.
"He was a master of cooking and made gallons of pasta sauce. It was a pleasure to be invited to his house," Ikemiyashiro said.
Bernardi instituted "Bernie's Pot of Gold," an annual fundraising dinner which benefited many local charities over the years, Lorenzi said.
Bernardi graduated from Dos Palos High School in 1937 after excelling in varsity sports. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force, where he was stationed on Johnson Island.
The state Assembly and state Senate authored resolutions last October honoring Bernardi on his 90th birthday.
Bernardi is survived by his wife, Louise; three daughters, Nanette Rahilly of Merced, Christine Tully of Madera and Leslie Phillips of Fresno; a sister, Anna Mae Hodges of Santa Cruz, and four grandchildren.
Lorenzi said arrangements are under the direction of Stratford Evans Merced Funeral Chapel, and a memorial service would be scheduled.