Dr. Monroe & Sarah Bertsch
Philadelphia. Memphis. Manila. Syria. Montrose. The Bertsch family's remarkable journey touched the lives of people around the globe through their medicine, music, and faith.
Albert Monroe Bertsch Jr., son of Albert Monroe Bertsch and Florence Pelouze Bertsch, was born in Philadelphia on November 22, 1917. Monroe, as Sarah calls him, graduated from West Philadelphia High School and Lincoln Prepatory School, then went on to earn a Bachelor of Science from Wheaton College. Medical school was his dream, and in 1944 he graduated from Jefferson Medical College with honors.
Sarah Bertsch was born February 10, 1924 in Philadelphia, to parents Adele and Isaac Sheaffer, and spent her childhood years at 4705 Cedar Avenue. Adele's parents came from Stratford-on-Avon, England, having fallen in love with life in the United States while on their honeymoon. Isaac Sr., a Mennonite originally from Lancaster County, had left the farm as a young man and moved to Philadelphia, where he started his own butter and egg business. Adele's mother and father were both musicians-piano and violin- and all eight of their children played instruments. Sarah gained a brother, Isaac, in September of 1925.
Sarah began studying piano at age 5; her teacher was next-door neighbor Mary Kimball, and between her mother and Mrs. Kimball, Sarah's practice of lessons was not neglected.
She attended a private kindergarten where she learned reading, writing and math, and then at age 6, skipping First and Second grades, she moved into third grade at the local elementary school. Sarah began taking private piano lessons at the nearby West Philadelphia's Sternberg School of Music, where she studied for 10 years until age 16. At 13, Sarah and another student played a two piano recital at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
In June, 1940 at the age of 16, Sarah graduated from the Commercial Course at West Philadelphia High School and switched from piano to organ lessons. Sarah sang in the a cappella choir in high school, and the choir director heard that she played piano. One early morning, as his regular pianist was sick, he called Sarah and asked if she would fill in and play at the school assembly, and so she did. From then on, Sarah was his accompanist. He was also the high school organist, and when Sarah graduated he offered to teach her the organ for $.50 a lesson. Sarah loved organ music, and enthusiastically accepted his offer. The sound of the pipe organ fascinated and intrigued her. She would frequently go listen to the John Wannamaker organ in downtown Philadelphia. Sarah began early-on to regard the organ as the "king of instruments" because "you can do so much with it."
At age 17, and "scared to death", she became organist at Westminster Presbyterian Church at 58th and Chester Ave., a position she earned on recommendation from her organ teacher. Then, on a young persons retreat, Sarah and Monroe met and began to date.
Monroe completed an internship at Phildelphia General Hospital in 1944 and had been drafted in the US Army while in medical school. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944, and was serving as an orthopedic surgeon stationed in Carlisle, PA.
During those years, Sarah was also working as a secretary at the Esterbrook Pen Company, Camden, NJ. In her high school commercial course, Sarah was the fastest stenographer, shorthand and typist of the class, and a visting Esterbrook recruiter hired her on the recommendation of her course teacher. In 1943, Sarah left Esterbrook to become a church secretary at Calvin Presbyterian Church at 60th and Master St.
Sarah's regular daily schedule from 1943 to 1945 consisted of commuting by trolley car in the morning between home to Westminster Church, where she would practice organ for an hour, then on to Calvin Presbyterian Church for work, then back to Westminster for another practice session, and finally back home. At this time, Sarah was studying organ with Dr. Alexander McCurdy, head of the organ departments at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the Westminster Choir School in Princeton, NJ.
On Sarah's birthday, February 10, 1945, and against the backdrop of WWII, she and Monroe became engaged to be married. Monroe came home from his base in Carlisle, gave Sarah a ring, and went on to his new, short assignment at Swannanoa, NC, and from there to Kennedy Memorial Hospital, Memphis, TN. On July 13th, Monroe called Sarah to tell her that he would be escorting a patient to Valley Forge; could they get married while he was home?
Within a week, Sarah gave notice to the churches, sent out invitations, arranged for bridesmaids, and she and Monroe had a large wedding on July 20, 1945 at the 4th Presbyterian Church. Afterwards, they immediately left for Memphis, where Monroe was stationed until 1946. While Monroe was busy at the hospital, the chaplain discovered Sarah could play the organ, and she became the organist/choir director of the Army Chapel for the duration. When Monroe was to be deployed to Manila the Commanding General called him in to say farewell and also rib him that his wife Sarah might be missed more than Monroe.
Sarah and Monroe returned to Philadelphia to visit their families at in Spring of 1946, before Monroe sailed for the Philippines and eventually to Okinawa. Sarah remained in Philadelphia to await the birth of their daughter, Sarah Elisabeth, who arrived on July 30, 1946. That November, Monroe returned from the Philippines, was honorably discharged from the Army, and returned to Philadelphia to meet his daughter for the first time. She was four months old.
Sarah and Monroe were then commissioned by the Presbyterian Church USA to be foreign missionaries. Initially designated to go to Iran, they were in the midst of packing when they were suddenly reassigned to a hospital in Syria which was in dire need of a doctor. They sailed on a US Army troop ship in 1947; Sarah and her six-month old daughter bunked in a compartment with four other women while Monroe was accomodated below, "in a hole", with 27 other men. They arrived in Beirut, and then traveled up the coast to Tripoli, where they lived in El Mina. Studying the Arabic language became the order of the day, and Monroe was busy part-time in the mission hospital. Finally, in September, the small Bertsch family set out for their assigned hospital in Syria, at Deir-ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, where Monroe was named Medical and Surgical Director of the Presbyterian Church USA Mission Hospital, Health Services and Nursing School.
The hospital and the houses on the compound at Deir-ez-Zor had been built by former missionaries from New Jersey, but the hospital needed a lot of work and restoration after its' occupation by the British Army during WWII. There were just 11 patients to start, but under Dr. Bertsch the hospital grew to become one of Syria's more important teaching facilites and health care provider. Sarah, providing the bookkeeping services, liked it in the desert; finding it comfortable and appealing. Two children, Virginia and Albert were born in Tripoli at the mission hospital.
Of musical interest at this time, Sarah had an upright piano shipped over from the states, and she also played a small, pedal-pump organ for church services at Deir-ez-Zor.
The family, now with three children, returned to the states on furlough in 1951, after four years abroad. They resided in a missionary apartment in Ventnor, NJ. Monroe received surgical specialist training at the University of Pennsylvania, and the family moved to Philadelphia and stayed a year with Monroe's mother. Sadly, while the family was in Syria, Monroe's father passed away from colon cancer in 1949 at the age of 58, and Sarah's father died at the age of 78 from pneumonia following surgery in 1947.
Sarah, Monroe and the three children returned to Deir-ez-Zor in 1952. They found the hospital to be in good shape, a second doctor was now on staff, but the station wagon they had left behind was ruined from its many hard journeys all across the desert for mobile medical clinics. Monroe procured a Pontiac, which they all liked very much (Sarah had taught him to drive). A second son, Jimmy, came along, and was delivered by his Daddy at Deir-ez-Zor in 1954.
The family remained on mission until 1956, when they returned to Ventnor, NJ. They intended to return to Deir-ez-Zor, but the Syrian/Egyptian conflict prevented it. In the States, Monroe needed further acceditation (his practice in Syria was not acceptable as such), and he took up a three year surgical residency at the Veterans Hospital in Louisville, KY. Son David, now Dr. David Bertsch, was born in Louisville in August, 1959. Afterwards, as they still could not return to the Near-East, Monroe resigned from the Prebyterian Mission USA and responded to an appeal for a surgeon in Montrose, PA.
In his youth, Monroe had attended the Montrose Bible Conference and so he had some familiarity with the town. Both Sarah and Monroe also liked the location because they wanted to now live closer to their mothers in Philadelphia.
On July 4, 1960, the Bertsch family was met in Montrose by Doctors Bennett, Kerr and Grace, and a friend, Reginald Tucker. The Bertsch's took up residence at 54 Lake Ave. One day Monroe, Dr. Bennett, and Reginald drove to Philadelphia, packed up some furniture, incuding beds, from both Sarah and Monroe's parents, and returned to Montrose, thereby furnishing their home. The children began school, and in September, 1960, the family joined the First Presbyterian Church in Montrose when Reverend Gregson was the pastor. In August, 1961, the family moved down the street to 20 Lake Ave. The home was built in 1850, and while it required a lot of work and restoration (which is still ongoing) the family loved it's size, space, "bigness", they called it.
Sarah began to subsitute on piano and organ at the church. In 1962, when Rev. Gregson died suddenly, she played for his funeral. In 1963, Edie Taylor resigned from her organist position, and Sarah accepted the job. She was privileged to play for wonderful choir directors- Maybelle Golis, Sue Ritz, Edith Taylor, Patti Souder, and Todd Robinson-thrilled to accompany "The Messiah, Elijah, Faure's 'Requiem', Brahm's 'Requiem'", and various community choral events. In response to requests, Sarah has also played at other churches, events, and special events-as she still does. Her weekly organ program broacast on WPEL, which began in 1964, continues today, and she was a Co-Editor of Alfred Smith's hymnal "Living Hymns."
Dr. Bertsch practiced for 38 years at Montrose General Hospital, now Endless Mountains Health System. He was the surgeon-in-chief there, as well as being on staff at Tyler Memorial in Tunkhannock and Barnes-Kasson in New Milford. He was certified by the American Board of Surgery and was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. He was a member of several professional societies, including the Susquehanna County Medical Society, the PA Medical Society, and the American Medical Association. Dr. Bertsch was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma, the National Physics Honor Society, and the National Medical Honor Society, Alpha Omega Alpha. He was very proud to have been a charter member of the Christian Medical Society. He also served at the state and local levels of the American Cancer Society for 30 years, and was a chapter director. Monroe retired in 1997, 53 years after graduating from medical school. Monroe also was President, Vice President, and a director of the Montrose Bible Conference, President of the Board of the Susquehanna Historical Society and Free Library Association, was a member of Rotary and worked with the Susquehanna County Literacy Council.
Dr. Bertsch passed away October 6, 2005, at the hospital where he'd spent so much of his career. He was survived by Sarah, their daughters Sarah Bertsch-Johnson and Viriginia (Bertsch) Quackenbush, sons Albert M., James M., and Dr. David Bertsch, as well as several grandchildren, family, and friends.