Out of the public eye, two who recently passed helped make South Florida a better place

·6 min read

A few years ago, The New York Times did a series of obituaries of people who never made the obituary page at the time of their death, for whatever reason. The obituaries were of some famous people and some not-so-famous people from throughout the country.

One of the obituaries was about a woman — Bessie Stringfield — a local Black biker who rode her motorcycle through the United States during the Jim Crow era, sleeping in the homes of kind Blacks in the South on her journey. She became a hero to local girls — Blacks and whites — alike.

I mentioned Stringfield because the Times thought she was worthy of an obituary, although she had died decades ago.

I feel the same way about two recently deceased Miami residents: Wes Jurgens, who was a beloved volunteer at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables for a quarter-century, and Bernard Poitier, who was a Black businessman and the nephew of Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier. Both men, each in his own way, contributed greatly to mankind.

Wes Jurgens was a beloved volunteer at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden for a quarter-century.
Wes Jurgens was a beloved volunteer at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden for a quarter-century.

Wes Jurgens: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden volunteer shared his extensive knowledge

I learned of Jurgens’ death through Jeanne Bunten, a faithful reader of my column. Bunten is a volunteer at Fairchild and told me that she had the pleasure of working with him for 15 years. “He worked in the Herbarium at Fairchild and is sorely missed by all of those who were lucky enough to know him. He had an incredible source of knowledge about plants and was a botanical artist, contributing to many publications. He was a gifted painter and often made designs for shirts and posters used at Fairchild. He died on Oct. 11, at age 92,” she said.

Through our conversation, and later a conversation with Sherry Jordan and her brother Rick Poston, I found myself wishing that I had known Wes Jurgen.

According to Poston, Jurgen settled in South Florida after he got out of the Navy after World War II. He met his wife, Masako, a Japanese concert pianist, when he answered an ad for a pen pal in the newspaper.

“You understand this was in the 1950s,” Poston said, “years before social media. They struck up a friendship, that later turned romantic. After visiting Masako in Japan, the two married in 1952. They were married 64 years when she died in 2016.”

After Jurgens’ wife died, Poston and his wife, Toshiko, who is also Japanese, “adopted” him as family. “They had no children and Wes had no family here, so we became like family to him, taking him on outings and to concerts.”

At Fairchild, Poston said Jurgens was a “valuable volunteer research associate as well as an extraordinary artist. Not only were his botanical drawings used by Fairchild on souvenir items in the gift shop, they also appeared in many publications. He was an expert on tropical plants from all over the world and developed a way of identifying and categorizing them,” Poston said.

In fact, Jurgens’ botanical plant illustrations found a home in London, where there is a repository for tropical plant life. His illustrations were sent there to help identify and categorize tropical plants.

“He has traveled all over the world, mostly in Europe, and mostly because his wife was a concert pianist,” Poston said. “He also had a fascination with opera and classical music, and probably saw every opera ever produced. He could recite the dialogue as it was being performed. He was a real Renaissance man.”

Poston said a celebration of his life and his involvement at Fairchild will be announced at a later date.

Bernard Poitier was the proprietor of Poitier Funeral Home and the nephew of actor Sidney Poitier.
Bernard Poitier was the proprietor of Poitier Funeral Home and the nephew of actor Sidney Poitier.

Bernard Poitier: Funeral home founder showed kindness

When I think about Bernard Poitier, my mind takes me back to the day when we were in our early teens. Often during the summer days, Bernard would stop by, with his friend Charles Williams (now deceased), and we would sit on the concrete front porch of our apartment in the Liberty Square Housing Project, talking and laughing at each other’s antics. And at my neighbor Mr. Houston, who always pretended to be asleep, but kept a watchful eye on me and my brother while our mom was at work.

Bernard attended Dorsey High School, where he graduated in 1955, while I attended Booker T. Washington Junior /Senior High in Overtown. Most of our conversations were about which school was the best — the Dorsey Bulls or the BTW Tornadoes. It was friendly banter, which helped secured our friendship over the years. And it fascinated us youngsters to know that Bernard was the nephew of a “real” movie star, the Oscar-winning Sidney Poitier, which made Bernard somewhat of a star to us back then.

Time passed and soon the carefree days of summer were over. But we never lost touch. Bernard became a teacher and later, when he started his business — Poitier Funeral Home, more than 50 years ago — he told me that it was his Uncle Sidney, who gave him the startup funds.

Bernard was a colorful character. He ran his business the same way. But under the flamboyant outward appearance was a soft heart. I don’t know of anyone who can count the number of people he buried, when their families were short, or simply didn’t have the money to bury their loved ones.

Abraham Thomas, one of Bernard’s longtime friends, said, “When I was about 6, Bernard was the first person I met who I saw character and quality in. His mother and my grandmother were in a saving club together. Bernard used to bring his mother’s money to my grandmother to save — a common practice in Black communities back then. I watched the interchange between him and my grandmother. He was always polite, and he never changed in the more than 60 years I knew him. There should be a great reunion when he meets all the people he helped, Thomas said.

I remember, personally, one such kind deed he performed was in the late 1970s when Haitians were coming to these shores in large numbers. Many were being smuggled here illegally on private boats for large amounts of money. One family — a mother and her five children — were being smuggled here when the U.S. Coast Guard tried to intercept the boat. The captain made the mother and her five children jump overboard. They couldn’t swim and perished in the water a few miles from the shores of Miami.

I remember the incident very well, because I was sent by The Miami Herald to interview the family of the deceased. Bernard called me just before I left the office to tell me that he was burying the family pro bono, and that someone had donated burial clothes for the mother and the three little boys. He still needed clothes for the two little girls. I volunteered. It was the way we worked.

That was the story of only one family. There were many others, some I didn’t know about. Bernard died Oct. 15. His funeral is scheduled for Oct. 29. Richardson Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Bea Hines can be reached at bea.hines@gmail.com .

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