Two cousins' connection fuels college theater support

BRADENTON -- Hildegard Belmer didn't know about the scholarship until after her cousin's death.

Belmer had grown up in Germany, and Bernice Pepke, a beloved professor and stage director in the State College of Florida's theater program had lived in the United States. But the two developed a close relationship and shared family memories.

Belmer had heard about Pepke's love for the theater community at the State College of Florida. Years before, she'd visited Bradenton and seen Pepke's rehearsal of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" behind the doors of the Neel Performing Arts Center. Her cousin's passion for her students and for the theater department made a lasting impression on her.

But Pepke had never mentioned a theater scholarship that her cousin had started in the name of her husband more than a decade before.

Still, instead of flowers, Belmer sent euros to the scholarship that now also carried Bernice's name.

And the next year, on the anniversary of Pepke's death, she sent a donation again.

It's hard, Belmer said, to lose somebody when you cannot really say goodbye. And yet, despite having no other ties to the small college in Florida, Belmer's relation

ship with her cousin made her feel connected to the theater department here.

Three years later, she is the college's only international benefactor, and the largest contributor to a scholarship that awards hundreds of dollars each year to an outstanding student in the college's theater department. But more importantly, Belmer says, she's started a consistent correspondence between her and the college that ensures her relationship to Florida and to her cousin, doesn't have to end.

In the beginning

The story starts in 1972, when a New York City theater actress decided it was time for big-yard-and-picket-fence dreams, and moved with her husband to the Bradenton-area to raise her son.

Pepke had been raised in Detroit, the only child of Martin and Marie Baumgartner, who had left Germany in the 1920s to escape a poor economy.

Within a few years, Manatee Community College, now State College of Florida, hired her as an assistant professor of theater. Here, she found her calling.

She directed 39 plays until her retirement in 1996. She taught acting classes, voice and diction classes, stage and movement classes. And she loved her students, who saw her as a motherly figure.

"In theatre, you work together in a very intimate relationship as a group," said Ken Erickson, fine and performing arts director for the college, who met Pepke when she joined the staff in the 1970s. "Over the years, she would sort of just adopt kids."

In the summers, Pepke and her husband, Max, often traveled to London to live in a friend's flat in the Covent Garden district. Sometimes she'd invite students to stay a few weeks with her.

And sometimes Belmer traveled to London to visit Pepke. The cousins had not met until Belmer was in her mid 30s, when Pepke had traveled to Germany with her mother's ashes in 1982. A relationship grew during these visits. The cousins would sit in that London flat and tell stories about their mutual grandfather, who had visited Pepke in America. Other times, Pepke would give Belmer recommendations for sites to see in the city. And Belmer also remembers visiting Pepke's husband in the hospital when he grew very ill.

In the late 1980s, Max Pepke, ill with intestinal problems, died shortly after they returned to the United States. Bernice Pepke turned to her work.

"She pretty much threw herself into school, into her work," Erickson said. She also started a scholarship for drama students in her husband's name. The scholarship is given annually to an outstanding theater student picked by the theater faculty.

A Bradenton introduction

In 1989, when Belmer visited her cousin in Bradenton, Pepke took her to a rehearsal of her Shakespeare play, introducing her to students and giving her a behind-the-scenes look at her world.

"I think that trip is why I feel related to her work," Belmer said. "She was a person who did what she did with her whole heart. Students loved her."

The cousins stayed in touch through letters and continued to see each other in London until the early 1990s, when Belmer thinks she last saw her cousin. They picked up their correspondence through email, but Belmer hoped to travel to Florida to see Pepke again.

Pepke, 79, died during the college's production of "Dracula" in February 2010. She'd been less involved since retirement but couldn't stay away, coming back occasionally to teach classes or help with production.

This time, she'd helped the crew develop their accents for the performance. She'd just learned she had liver cancer.

More than 100 people showed up to a memorial service at the performing center, a trail of students going back to the 1970s and 80s.

"She was a vibrant, vivacious person," Erickson said. "And she was good at what she did. She would look at every kid that she dealt with as her own."

It was Erickson who informed Belmer of Pepke's death, after he found her contact information in Pepke's home.

Belmer was shocked. Just weeks before Pepke's death, Belmer had sent her cousin old family photographs. The only picture of their grandfather, from the 1920s. A picture of Belmer's mother and Pepke's father as children.

"I was astonished that she didn't answer immediately," Belmer said. "I wondered why she didn't answer."

A scholarship connection

After Belmer first contributed to the Max and Bernice Pepke scholarship fund, the theater wrote her a note of thanks. Now that she's continued her donations, Erickson sent her photographs of the students who received the scholarship.

He also told her about the Berny Awards.

The end-of-the-year drama banquet would now carry Bernice Pepke's name, and students win awards for outstanding performances, in the vein of the Oscars or the Tonys.

Belmer enjoyed that, after she understood.

"She wasn't sure about the Tonys," Erickson said. "She didn't know what they were so I had to send her an explanation."

The college sends pictures of Berny winners. She sends pictures of herself visitng the Porsche Museum and skiing in the Alps.

"I get the impression that she doesn't sit still very long," said State College of Florida Foundation Executive Director Peg Lowery. "But intermittently, she sends a note. Just to say hello. It's fun."

Belmer doesn't plan to stop contributing to the scholarship, and Lowery and Erickson say that they hope one day they can expand the scholarship to two students. For now, Belmer can enjoy being the college's only international benefactor.

"She believes obviously in higher education," Lowery said.

"Once she said, 'Surely, I can't be your only donor from overseas,' and I said 'Well, at the moment you are' ... and she got a kick out of that."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.