Whenever I saw or talked to Bernie Morelli he would inevitably remind me that he wanted to take me on a tour of his beloved Ward 3 community and show me a Hamilton and its people that should be examined and written about so it could be better understood.
He would also insist, after discovering I played golf, that it would be a good time to also have a game together, something that he enjoyed with various Hamiltonians, including his police service friends. Bernie was nothing if not well connected in the city.
Why the personification of Hamilton took an interest in a person who was a non-Hamiltonian still mystifies me.
As the regional reporter for Hamilton Community News I didn’t write as many stories as maybe I should have about Ward 3, the inner city of Hamilton and his work in the ward. Yet after a few years following the goings on at Hamilton-Wentworth regional council, and subsequently the new city of Hamilton, I found myself talking to Bernie more often than usual, not for any particular story, but to learn about the city, its culture and how it worked.
After covering the city since 1999, I found myself still not fully grasping the intricacies, complexities, and nuances of Hamilton politics. Even though I had a couple of degrees in politics and history, and nearly 10 years of practical experience writing about politics, Hamilton was and still remains a different cultural milieu. Hamilton mayor Bob Morrow and his politics were inchoate to me, and the Bob Wade regime, while more understandable, was still scattershot.
It was during Larry Di Ianni’s mayoral term that Bernie, either taking pity on me, or seeing some benefit, pulled me aside into one of city hall’s empty committee rooms, sat me down and talked to me for a good part of an afternoon, explaining, in his “here is what you need to know” saying, with a familiar look that indicated ‘you better get this, stupid’ on what was going on behind the scenes between council and the mayor, the major issues of the day — that included a divisive relationship forming between Councillor Sam Merulla and Di Ianni, and what to look for in the future.
That day Bernie provided me with an accelerated graduated degree in politics, Hamilton style. I quickly learned what politicians had known for years that Bernie was the elder statesman, who brokered disagreements, was the person to go to about a problem or solve an issue. He was a “grandpa” as some councillors described, and mentor, but he was also a keen godfather-styled politico, with a wealth of information, who could be sharp, incisive, and poignant.
From that time forward, whenever I chatted with Bernie, he would talk about Hamilton politics and culture, continuing an education opportunity that never stopped. But he would also talk about his work history, the people he had met, and we eventually discovered we knew some of the same people and places in Niagara, my home area, from his days at Hamilton Cathedral High, or through work even though he was 18-years my senior.
Municipal election years were a particularly enriching time for me. Usually after a quick committee meeting, invariably Bernie, Councillor Tom Jackson and I would sit at the council table and hash out the politics of the day, in an unscripted, backroom manner that people interested in politics would sell their souls to participate in. I would have my interpretations about the races and implications, which both councillors would patiently accept. Then the real story would be explained to me, usually by Bernie. Those sessions would last a couple of hours, but I thought minutes had gone by.
The last time I talked to Bernie he did what he usually would do, walk by the media area after a council meeting and start talking. It was usually about what had just transpired, making a joke in his understated way. Then he would talk about golf, his family, or what was going on in his ward. He would still say he wanted to take me on that tour of Ward 3, something I insisted I wanted to go on just to see Bernie in his natural state, interacting with a part of Hamilton. I regret there wasn’t enough time for me to take that tour of a community he understood for a better part of 23 years.
He then walked away with an impish smile on his lips and a gleam in his eye out of the council chambers, the door shutting slowly behind him.
— Kevin Werner covers City Hall for Hamilton Community News.