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Against All Odds: The Autobiography & Life of Mai

“Bernardo’s road in life not always easy, but she finds a way to shine”

Born in 1949 in Buchanan, the area where Paris Landing State Park now stands, Mai Bernardo is one of four children born to the late Henry Lee Webb and Irma Mae (Bradley) Webb.

Her father was a brick layer who also worked as a cook for the sheriff at the original hotel at the park.

She experienced death at a young age with losing a brother during her youth. She had two sisters: Mattie Franklin of Paducah and Hilda Webb of Cape Girardeau, Mo.

“I was a tom boy. We enjoyed swinging on grapevines, rode cardboard boxes down hillsides and played in the woods all the time. There were blackberries everywhere and we ate them,” she said.

“We would build our own wagon, mounted our own swings in trees and rolled tires and had tire races. We played all day long when we were not picking cotton.”

Bernardo took advantaged of many learning opportunities as necessary all her life.

“I like learning. I was reading at age four and was able to start school early because I was such a good reader,” she said.

Her family moved to the Puryear area before she started school in an old two-room schoolhouse. The family moved to southern Illinois in 1956 when her father was offered a job running a friend’s farm.

Losing Her Mother

Bernardo was only 11 years old when her mother died. Afterward, she and her siblings were taken in by a family where she said they were mistreated. She was able to send letters to her father through friends at school.

“The lady undertaker who did my mother’s service kept up with us. One day she showed up at that house with the police and she took us home with her. She and her husband (the late Ruby and Charles Jackson) became our foster parents. They had funeral homes in the areas of Carbondale, Metropolis and Harrisburg, Illinois.”

Innocent Adolescence

Bernardo went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale following high school, where she was a member of the university choir. She attended with a double major in sociology and psychology, completing several hours of course work, but was unable to complete her degree.

“I went to work for Bell and Howell (Education Group) doing correspondence courses until it was closed by DeVry (Institutes). I also worked in the telecommunications center for FTD in Chicago,” she said.

In 1978 she married Thomas Bernardo, who was a law student at DePaul University. She had five daughters and one son.

Her family also includes 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Looking Back…

She returned southward to Paducah when her children started school. Her first re-entry into school was when she attended Western Kentucky Vocational-Technical Center where she took a retail sales course. She later took her electrical training at the Institute of Electronic Technology (IET) where she graduated as the only woman and African American amongst her cohort.

While living in Paducah, she served as a Girl Scout leader of a Junior troop for three years. “There was no one else who would lead that age group, so I and a couple of other mothers did it,” she said.

One thing Bernardo would change if she could go back in time is staying closer to the values and morals her parents taught her when she was young.

“I began to move away from those during the period of my college years,” she said. “I wish I had remembered and done their teachings more.”

“Young people should stick to their guns at college, especially if they are far away from home. Don’t be swayed by others,” she said.

Her foster mother was heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Bernardo was “very much a part of” integration of schools, she recalled.

“When we left Tennessee in 1956, schools were not integrated, but when we got to Illinois they were. Coming back to Kentucky about ten years later, segregation was ending.

“I never really thought much about integration. I guess I’ve never really seen a person’s color but seen what’s in their heart.”

Life After Retirement

Little did Mai know that when she retired from a 20-year job with TVA that she would become her own boss just a few months later in another business venture. Mai was recruited from (IET) in February 1989 to join TVA’S transmission power supply engineering unit at their Shawnee Fossil plant. After a 10-year tenure, she relocated to the power maintenance group at the New Johnsonville Fossil Plant in Tennessee, following major organizational restructuring within TVA. It was here that she was on 24- hour call for whatever emergency power outages that occurred.

“I worked with power for ten years,” she said, adding that many of the calculations she had to perform, had to be very precise.

“When I retired, I was the oldest woman at the plant and possibly anywhere in TVA. It was an interesting job, but when they began hiring new people that were the ages of my grandchildren, I knew it was time to go,” she laughed.

She retired from TVA on her birthday in March 2009 and began to restructure her life without her daily employment. During her years working for others, she had not paid much attention to exercising and eating. In efforts to making healthier lifestyle choices, she joined Curves for Women in 2000, following the successful high school graduation of her youngest child.

Almost a decade later, in August 2009, she and other members learned that the business was planning to close its doors, unless another franchise owner could take it over. Several of the friends she enjoyed exercising with – many of whom were still working – encouraged Mai to take on the responsibility of running the business.

After much thought and careful consideration, she agreed and became the owner of the local business on September 1, 2009, only 6 months following retirement. She spent 5 days a week, operating as both the owner and trainer, helping women of all ages develop and maintain a regular fitness routine.

The Early Years

Mai’s earlier life wasn’t very financially accommodating. When she lived in Paducah, prior to her employment with TVA, she attended night classes at the Institute of Electronic Technology where she applied all of her energy and

focus to the successful completion of her degree. A major life decision that yielded great reward.

“I lived on two hundred seventy-four dollars a month with three small children for two years while I worked on completing my degree. It was tough, but we somehow got by. I set my priorities and I knew I could get a better job if I finished school.”

She said in her younger years, young people had to take responsibility for their actions.

“We also had to set both short-term and long-term goals,” she said.

“Many young people don’t seem to give much thought to the long- term goals or setting priorities anymore. So many are spoiled and seem to think the older they get the more you should do for them.”

The Pleasurable Things

Mai led a busy life, but not without taking out the time for the things in which she enjoyed. Amongst these were reading and understanding the Word, as well as, visiting other churches, (as she loved to meet people) never meeting a stranger. She enjoyed doing outside activities like yard work, planting huge gardens, and fishing with friends. However, her spirituality played a big role in life. She loved to work with the youth and provide community service, especially for the disadvantaged. Not only did she lead both the youth and adult choir director within her member church, but she also; tutored the school aged children, served on the kitchen committee, taught Bible study for both the youth and adults. She would often use her own vehicle, money, and other resources to ensure no one was left behind, feeling all alone.

A native to Henry County she was glad to have the opportunity to move back to her childhood home that she enjoyed prior to her mother’s untimely death. She adored the beautiful countryside landscape and the serene environment it exuberated.

“The friendliness of the people is like nothing, I’ve seen anywhere else,” she noted.

Mai had a natural connection to others both strangers and friends, always seeming to lift the mood of anyone she sensed was down in spirit. Often using laughter by way of a humorous story, usually true, to induce laughter.

Words Of Wisdom

Her words of advice for anyone to live a happier, healthier life include:

“Pray each day; get a spiritual life if you don’t already have one; exercise; eat right; apply the Golden Rule; learn to laugh at yourself and at situations; and BE HAPPY!”

Those who knew her knows she did all those things.


Broach, A. (2012, May 12). Bernardo’s road in life not always easy, but she finds a way to shine. Paris Post Intelligencer, pp. 4–4.