Tommy Bertram, long-time business owner, dies at 85

Posted December 29, 2020 at 2:21 pm

Tom Bertram.psd

[Editor’s note: Once again, the year 2020 has claimed another Albany and Clinton County iconic figure, with the passing last week of long-time businessman Tommy Bertram. As has become a custom, the Clinton County News reached out to local attorney and historian David Cross for a look at his life.]

Tommy Bertram

By David M. Cross

To really understand Tommy Bertram and his outlook on life, you have to know about “The Accident.”

In January 1961, Tommy was working in Russellville, Kentucky, when he was seriously injured in an industrial accident. A large piece of equipment fell on and crushed his right arm. He was in a coma for three days and it was first thought he might not even survive.

Tommy remained in a Nashville hospital for weeks, and he never regained much use of that arm. A man who had grown up mowing yards, playing basketball, and enjoying the outdoors in the shadow of his father, would never be able to do many of the things he had loved to do as a young man.

Tommy would look back on it years later and believe that The Accident was a great blessing. For, as Tommy put it, “The Lord made me be born left-handed”.

Tommy died last week at the family home in Albany, at age 85. He was a true pillar of our community, but a man who was always low-key and low profile. However, Tommy and his wife of over sixty years, Marguerite, did as much for the people of this town as anyone. They just never sought the credit or recognition that they deserved.

Tommy loved Albany as much as anyone, but he wasn’t born here. His mother and father, Ethel “Georgia” and Oral Bertram, were Wayne Countians. He moved to Clinton County with his parents in 1945 when he was nine years old. That was the year his father became the Fish and Wildlife Officer for the county, soon after the impoundment of Dale Hollow Lake.

Tommy grew up mowing yards (a classified ad in The New Era, the local newspaper of its day, stated that he had a “new electric mower”), playing ball, and loving to go with his father to places like Boys Island on Dale Hollow Lake. He would tag along when Oral was guiding folks like Governor Lawrence Wetherby on Dale Hollow fishing trips. He always said Albany was a wonderful place to grow up.

Tommy became a pretty good basketball player for CCHS, and also wrote the Sports column for the “CCHS News” in the local newspaper. He was a pretty good writer, but never bragged on himself. He did mention to his Sunday School class years later about once making a shot from mid-court in the gym at Center (Ky.), High School in Metcalfe County. He said it was just luck.

He began courting Marguerite Dyer while in high school, and after he graduated from Eastern Kentucky State College, and she from Berea College, they were married in 1958. In 1959 the first of their three daughters, Laura (now Dr. Laura Heironymous, a nationally renowned expert on diabetes) was born. She was soon followed by Carol (now Carol Peddicord, M.D.), and later Nell (Boils), who recently retired from an outstanding career as teacher and librarian in the Wayne County schools. Tommy was always a great family man, and always proud of all of his girls–and justifiably so.

After The Accident, and with Marguerite on the verge of giving birth to their second child, Tommy knew he had to change directions in his life and find a line of work which would allow him to primarily use only his one good arm.

After being discharged from the Army in 1960, he had hoped to teach school, but that didn’t come to fruition. With the encouragement of family members, he started pharmacy school. Marguerite had a Chemistry Degree from Berea and she decided to become a pharmacist as well, and they both started at the UK College of Pharmacy.

In 1963, the young couple, along with their two oldest daughters, moved south to the Howard School of Pharmacy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, to finish school, where they both graduated in 1964.

Mrs. Leah Dyer called Tommy and asked him to come back home and help “Big Jim”, son of the founder. Big Jim also encouraged Tommy to come back home and indicated to him there would likely be an opportunity to buy into the business in the future.

Tommy and Marguerite, after having lived in Cookeville for a couple of years, moved back to Albany in 1966. They both became employed at Dyer Drug Company, established in 1916 by Marguerite’s great-uncle, James F. “Jim” Dyer.

Tommy and Marguerite soon moved into her grandfather Dyer’s old house on Water (now Lovelace) Street, just below the home of her parents, Bob and Mary Wynn Dyer. A few years later, they bought the lot next door and built the house where they lived together for forty-six years.

After the death of Mrs. Leah Dyer in 1967, the promised opportunity to buy into the business did occur, and Tommy and Marguerite became equal partners in the drug store.

In the early 1970s, Dyer Drug bought the adjacent Jenkins & Darwin building, tore out the soda fountain (they decided later that might have been a mistake–Tommy missed the days of Mr. Dennis drawing a Cherry Smash) and remodeled the store.

Tommy and Marguerite co-owned the store until 1998 when they sold out to the third generation, “Little Jim” Dyer. At that time, Tommy retired as a pharmacist, but he sure didn’t quit doing things. You would see him driving around town in his most prized possession, a World War II era Army Willys jeep he had inherited from his father. He was always busy doing something.

When Tommy and Marguerite came back home in 1966, they became very active in the community. His first priority was becoming active in the First Baptist Church, where he became a Deacon, Sunday School Teacher, Church Moderator, and helped guide the church through various projects of expansion and outreach. Tommy was both cautious and progressive. When disagreements might occur, Tommy was the glue that held things together, always taking the Lord’s side.

Tommy also served as President of the Fish and Game Club which held an annual fish fry at the Roadside Park, one of the biggest local events of the year. Tommy’s mother would make the hush puppies.

He was, for many years, a member of the local Hospital Board, and helped guide the hospital through expansions and difficult times. He was so proud of the local hospital and so appreciative of the Medical Center’s purchase of the facility a few years ago.

Tommy Bertram was low-key, and every conversation that you had with him was generally more about you than him. He always seemed genuinely interested in what was going on in your life. He was always an encourager, and motivated so many young people by simply expressing to them that he believed in their capabilities.

He never sought any credit for anything, and gave the Lord credit for everything good in his life, and where many people want to do the right thing, Tommy was always doing the right thing. To him it came naturally.

But advice wasn’t the only thing Tommy gave away. He did countless other good deeds in the church and community, devoting time as well as treasure, many times anonymously. Tommy’s favorite song was “Pass It On”, and by his actions he did so, and by his life he encouraged others to do the same.

Last week, in the midst of a pandemic, on Christmas Eve, in a freezing mist, Tommy Bertram was laid to rest in the Albany Cemetery.

Nearly a hundred people showed up for the short graveside service, in one final paying of respects to the man who had done so much, and meant so much to his church, his family, and the people of his community.

As it was aptly put by someone at the gravesite, “We may well have buried the best man in Albany today”.

No objection was made.