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Letters of Tribute to Henry Bergmann

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Henry Bergmann played in 28 tournaments from 1968 through 1973. He won 15 tournaments and placed second 8 times. Of these 23 finals he played in, I played in 19 of them, 10 with him and 9 against him.
Vince Lombardi said the quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his field of endeavor.  This saying has always reminded me of Henry.  He did his best to become the best he was capable of becoming. I feel that Henry always made this effort. He was special.
Henry played when there were no monetary benefits. Volleyball was his passion in life. He just loved to play volleyball. I have the same feelings about him as I do regarding Ben Hogan and Ted Williams. Like Ben Hogan, he had a silent concentration that intimidated opponents and an ability to hit a ball so squarely and with such power it was a rare work of art.
Ted Williams' goal in life was to be the best hitter that ever lived. When Henry hit a volleyball he was always striving for perfection.  He was a great jumper and had a great arm swing that was equal to anyone.  I think he created more excitement or anticipation when he was served than any other player.  Everyone was waiting to see him hit.  He totally amazed people.
Henry applied the pursuit of perfection to passing and setting.  When I played against him I knew that I couldn't miss a pass or a set because Henry wouldn't.
Over the years when it was windy or no one was at the beach I would practice setting and hitting by myself.  One day I went to East Beach to practice with Henry.  It was windy and he was doing the same thing.  He had drills for himself.  We spent two hours setting each other 8-10 foot back sets and chasing the balls.  I remember how hard he could hit 10 foot back sets in the court.  One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Coach Wooden was that you get in shape for a sport by practicing what you do when you play that sport.  This was Henry.
Over the last couple of weeks I have talked with Al Scates, Ron Lang, Greg and Jon Lee, and Rudy Suwara.  The common feeling I got was that Henry Bergmann could really play volleyball.  Scates said that Henry was one person he always remembered and that he was amazed at how good Henry could play.  Ron Lang said that Henry could pass, set, hit, and play for a long time. Anyone who knows Ron Lang knows this is a real compliment.  And Al Scates has seen a few volleyball players over the years.
I never really knew Henry aside from volleyball.  We lived apart and our only contact was through volleyball. He was quiet, humble and very sincere.  He was a very nice person and always treated me with great respect.  He was just very special both as a player and a person.  I loved playing with or against him.  I consider the 1968 Manhattan Beach Open the greatest tournament I ever played in.  I think Ron Lang, Larry Rundle and myself are very privileged and fortunate for the time that we played with and against Henry Bergmann.
Ron Von Hagen

My friend, Henry Bergmann

It is hard to know exactly what demons Henry battled the last 35 years.  Speculation may abound on why he chose to be apart from longtime friends, his beach volleyball lifestyle, and competitive successes.  I do know that he had a pure love for the game and yet was quite uncomfortable with the celebrity role that was thrust upon him. Fame and attention were never his motivation.  Clearly though whatever the circumstances were for his withdrawal they were compelling to him.
In his reclusive state he was always reservedly friendly though not inclined to very long visits (through and including our last meeting in June, 2008).
What I will always remember about Henry:

  • He was a person I respected from clear back to his Garfield School days. I’ll never forget Henry and friends showing up at Hendry’s Beach (aka The Pit) and standing up while riding waves on canvas surf mats while we thought we were cool riding on our knees. From that day forward everyone at The Pit forsook knee riding and began trying to stand up.
  • He invited me to East Beach to learn volleyball after I tore ankle ligaments playing basketball at SBCC.  As a side note I’m grateful to Bob VanWagner for helping me learn how to play.
  • He taught me how to properly train and included me in his off the court training sessions that were very specific (and unique) to volleyball. He taught me about fitness and diet for an athlete.
  • I’ll always remember his gracious, friendly and caring ways. How he would go out of his way to make people feel at ease. I never saw him do anything mean; he had no guile and certainly never a hidden agenda.
  • Long hikes and bike rides in the mountains and long and interesting conversations (Henry was a thinker) about many subjects.
  • He was a genuine friend.

Coach John Wooden has said that it is “entirely possible to be a warrior and a gentleman.”  This was Henry. He taught us all how to behave when competing.  He taught us how we ought to treat each other. He was and remains a good and gentle person.  He is one of the good guys. I wish for him peace and joy in the eternities…

Mike Wilton

Karch Kiraly’s tribute to Henry Bergmann

"My baptism in beach volleyball would not have been complete without learning about the greats who came before and blazed the original path.  Sitting highest for me in that pantheon of legends, the four aces of the deck, have always been Ron von Hagen, Ron Lang, Larry Rundle and Henry Bergmann.  

My clearest memory of Henry is at East Beach.  Most players would stop playing when the East Beach afternoon wind grew harsh, as it does regularly ... but not Henry.  He'd be the only player, with one lonely ball, who wanted to keep going - I remember him throwing the ball up to himself, then approaching and crushing it over the net, as fans loved to see him do during tournaments.  He'd run after it and do it again, working his way up and down East Beach, last court to first court, net by net.  My glimpses of his training taught me a lesson in the power of preparation and the power of acclimating to - and even learning to enjoy - the most difficult playing conditions.  

Why did he do this?  Is there something positive to be found here, in a year when two beach greats have taken their own lives?  Henry didn't do what he did for prize money ... there wasn't any, not a cent, in his time.  It wasn't for tv fame, or Olympic medals, there weren't any of those either.  I think he did it to master his craft, to test his skills against the rest, and maybe most importantly, to see how good a Henry Bergmann he could make himself into.  That might be the best lesson for any athlete - and off the court, for many of us - not to try to be better than so-and-so, but to just be the best YOU that you can be.  Thanks for the memories Henry."

Tribute to Henry Bergmann

One summer, too many  years ago now to say, I signed up to take a session of beach volley ball  lessons. I was surprised and somewhat intimidated when I showed up the first day and saw that one of the teachers was Henry Bergmann.  THE Henry Bergmann. I had been watching beach volley ball for a year or two because  my late husband Bill Conway (C-Way to most people) played almost every day and entered many tournaments. While he did well, Henry usually won.

  Those lessons with Henry and Mike Wilton were certainly something special, there was kindness but firmness as well.  The general routine was that most of the 2 hours was spent in learning a new skill and then drill on that and other skills.  At the end of the 2 hour class, about the last 10 minutes or so, we got the reward of playing a game. I think that most of the people in the class were there thinking they would just do more of the 8 to 10 on a side, throw the ball over the net kind of volley ball. Well, that definitely was NOT what Henry and Mike taught us. Henry's rule was that if you lost a game then you had to run backwards around the court 3 times. When lots of people objected to this as "punishment" and "unfair" I remember Henry being so surprised.  He said "Don't they want to get better? When you lose it means you have to work harder"  That is one thing I'll remember about Henry... he just didn't get that everyone else wouldn't want to do the work to be the best.

   Another memory I have of Henry was playing a card game called Cribbage.  It's a pretty old fashioned game I guess,  Not many people played it that I knew.  I learned it from my folks and it turned out that Henry had learned to play from his folks too.  Many days after class Henry and I and sometimes Ralph Minc would sit around and play Cribbage.  Henry and  Ralph won frequently but I won sometimes too.  I remember once when I beat Henry pretty soundly he just howled and laughed and said it was all luck anyway, no skill really.... That's the way I'm going to remember Henry, laughing at cards on a sunny day at East Beach.

   Maggie Conway

Tribute to Henry Bergmann

Henry Bergman was my all time favorite volleyball player.

As a young teen my first memories of the Manhattan Open are of this stoic and reclusive man. Henry had a mystique about him, he never spoke or showed any signs of emotion, yet his game was packed with incredible expression and his presence and focus were spellbinding. 

Henry was such a feared spiker he rarely saw a serve. I clearly remember the buzz of the crowd when Henry got those serves. It began when he passed the ball and escalated as he leaped high in the air, his body arching back and then thrusting forward like a closing bear trap.  His spikes exploding off the sand and bouncing high in the air as the crowd cheered and celebrated while Henry quietly walked back to the service line.  

I’ve never seen fans respond to a player like that before or since.

May he rest in peace
Kevin Cleary
Manhattan Beach

My experience with Henry Bergmann

When I first came to Santa Barbara, I worked at General Research Corporation.  We had two hour lunch hours and I usually played basketball or tennis at UCSB.  There was a large group of runners and several guys who used to go to the beach and play volleyball and drink an occasional beer.  At that time of my life, growing up in the Midwest, I thought volleyball was a game that girls played at gym class.

I went to the east coast for my company for a year in 1969, with several others from GRC, one of my fellow basketball players and another one of those “volleyball” players.  Having no basketball or tennis court to play on, the volleyball player, who happened to be a “B’ player on the beach, showed my friend John and me some of the skills of VB.  We spent many lunch hours sharpening our skills in the parking lot and the three of us entered an industrial league VB tournament, which we won, only because of the skills of the real beach player.

I came back to Santa Barbara with my new volleyball “skills” and love of the game and showed up at Goleta beach courts.  I was quickly thrown out by the players there because of my lack of basic VB skills.  I would run down to the Marine biology building, about a ½ mile away just to get into a game of 4-6 players on a side. I did this for months.

Then my wife Marty heard about these beach VB classes at East Beach and convinced me to go.  That is where we met Henry and Mike Wilton.  After several classes with Henry, I built up the courage to show up at Goleta Beach again.  To my surprise they did not throw me out and this started my 40 year love of playing beach volleyball.  So I am very grateful to Henry for his patience and teaching skills in preparing me to play with the guys at Goleta beach and when they died off I migrated to East Beach and inflicted myself on the Nooners where they tolerated me for years.  My goal is to keep playing beach VB until I am at least 70.

I have seen Henry play many tournaments on the beach, however one of my most fond memories of him is seeing him running his daily training runs at Goleta beach, and periodically he would come over to the courts and actually play with us.  It certainly wasn’t for his enjoyment—but we were really stoked.

Joe Blum



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