South Philadelphia High School remembers history teacher’s nationwide patriotic gesture

In the summer of 1959,  Joan Marie Bergen was named the city’s first Miss Liberty Bell in honor of Alaska’s admission into the Union.

(Photo special to SPR)

Sixty years ago, a South Philadelphia High School history teacher ventured on a journey around the country’s 13 original states. 

 As the territory of Alaska was being admitted into the Union, Philadelphia hosted a colossal celebration around the Fourth of July holiday in 1959 in honor of the 49th state. 

Seeking the attendance of politicians from around the country, the city created an icon to be known as Miss Liberty Bell, who would personally invite governors and senators to the city’s Freedom Week festivities, which led up to the hoisting of the new 49-star flag outside of Independence Hall. 

Seeking teachers across the city to take on the title, the late Joan Marie Bergen of Southern was invited by Mayor Richardson Dilworth after being nominated by principal Joseph J. Rossi.  

Marking six decades since Bergen’s cross-country bus tour, Southern alumni, including her students and colleagues, recently reflected on the history teacher’s impact on the school, South Philadelphia and the nation.

“I can’t say enough about Joan,” said 1959 graduate and retired Southern history and government teacher Mark Hoffman, who had Bergen as a teacher in the spring of 1958. “She made (history) interesting and she made it relevant. She would relate it to what was going on today…She had the rare combination that she really cared about the kids but you couldn’t get away with anything with her. That was the beauty of Joan Bergen.”

The East Falls native graduated from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown in 1949 before receiving both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania during the 1950s.

Following a couple of years teaching at the former Gillespie Junior High, Bergen began teaching history at Southern, where she’d remain for more than 25 years until retirement. 

 Students and colleagues recall a diplomatic and dynamic educator who connected with students on personal levels. They describe Bergen as firm yet nurturing. 

 “I tried to model myself after Joan as a teacher, because she had the one quality that you can’t teach even as a parent or as an educator,” Hoffman said. “She was tough, but she was also loving. She cared about the kids. She cared about what was going on with you but she was no pushover. She was a disciplinarian, and that’s a hard thing to do.” 

She was also the only woman to ever receive a varsity football letter at Southern, as friends and colleagues say she never missed a game and was the lead ticket salesperson. 

Photo special to SPR

“It seemed every student knew Miss Bergen…She was also considered an excellent teacher of history by her many of her students,” said Edmund Rocco, a friend of Bergen, who was also the former community and communications director of the SPHS Alumni Association and 1963 graduate. 

In June of 1959, Bergen, who was only 27 years old at the time, embarked on a chartered Trailways bus known as the “Liberty Bell Special,” which departed from Independence Hall. 

Meeting and inviting politicians from across the eastern seaboard, Bergen made headlines in local newspapers around the country, including the “Newport Daily News” in Rhode Island, “Salisbury Times,” and even the “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner” in Alaska. 

 According to newspaper reports, Bergan was thrilled about the role, as aside from wanting to be a teacher, she also dreamt about being a senator.  

 “As a student, we were just thrilled,” Hoffman said. “We heard that this teacher of ours was Miss Liberty Bell, and she was going to travel around the country as the representative…At the time, you started to get a downturn on what public urban education was. It was a nice idea that a public school teacher could be honored in a way and be the ambassador. It also gave the school a lot of notoriety.”

 Along with in-person invitations to governors and senators in the original 13 colonies, Bergen visited Washington, D.C. to welcome Sen. Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s senator, to speak at the Fourth of July celebration at Independence Hall.

 Southern alumni say Bergen was not solely representing the school but the South Philadelphia community on a federal scale. 

“She was not only a role model in the school, but she became a role model in the city and in the other states that she traveled,” said 1955 graduate Gene Alessandrini, who taught at Southern for 35 years. “It was better to have someone of such quality representing us. She was representing South Philadelphia High School. We were proud of our staff and students, and she represented us well.”

 Four years ago, Alessandrini, Rocco and Hoffman campaigned for Bergen, who passed away in the 1980s, to receive the prestigious South Philadelphia High School Alumni Association’s Service Award of Excellence – an honor that was not previously given posthumously. Rocco says he even submitted a motion to amend the rules that would allow the recognition to be given in this manner.   

 The alumni board approved and the award was given in November 2015. 

(Photo special to SPR)

 After Alessandrini delivered a presentation highlighting her achievements at an awards ceremony, one of Bergen’s colleagues accepted the award on her behalf.

The alumni say even other individuals who have received the award have thanked the patriotic educator, who later became Mrs. Joan Marie Bergen Spector, in their acceptance addresses, referencing “Our Miss Bergen,” who would “arouse interest, stimulate questions, encourage enquiry, and promote deep thinking,” as described by Alessandrini in his commemoration speech.

“As a former teacher and someone who has practiced teaching, every teacher should have what she had – compassion but not being a pushover, holding people to the task,” Hoffman said. “If every teacher had that, education would be great.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano