She wanted adventure when she joined the American Red Cross during World War II. She worked in Hawaii and later Minnesota, pioneering disaster services to fire victims.
Many nights, the youngest of the Bergeson brothers woke with a start in the dark, awakened by the ring of a telephone carrying word of disaster.
It was 1973 and Jim Bergeson had just finished a stint in the U.S. Navy. He was back at his childhood home in St. Louis Park, sleeping in a basement bedroom until college started. His mother, a longtime Red Cross volunteer, was now an employee with a very unpredictable work schedule.
In the middle of the night, her quick footsteps passed overhead on the creaking floor. Then she was gone.
Ruth Bergeson kept the Red Cross’ “disaster closet,” where clothing and personal items were stored for fire victims. There, traumatized people who had lost everything picked out small tokens of normalcy.
A pair of pajamas. Pants. A toothbrush.
Jim never heard his mother come home. But when he came up the stairs in the morning, she was always there, ready to make his favorite breakfast: tomato toast, adorned with her own canned tomatoes.
With his father already at work, Jim and his mom would talk about where she had been. She described people she had helped — a couple, or a family with kids.
To them, it was just what she did. But for many Minnesotans over many years, hers was the kind face that appeared in the dark of night to help ease their disasters.
“She cared about people,” her son said. “She acted out the caring. It wasn’t just writing out a check to a charity. She did it.”