Bernard J. Brommel, who taught at Northeastern Illinois University for 28 years and in retirement became one of the institution’s most generous donors, died Sept. 22 at his home in Kalamazoo, Mich. He was 88 years old.
He is survived by his partner of more than 20 years, Carl Ratner, as well as his children Michaela, Brian, Debra, Brent, Brad and Blair. Funeral plans are pending, and a Northeastern memorial service will be announced at a future date.
Brommel was born in 1930 in St. Marys, Iowa, south of Des Moines, one of nine children who grew up on the family farm. He liked to refer to himself as “the son of a pig farmer” to reference his humble beginnings.
He earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Communication, with a minor in Education and Theatre, and later earned a Master of Science from Northeastern Illinois University in Counseling and Family Therapy, and a post-doctorate degree from Northwestern.
Brommel used his M.A. and post-doctoral work to start a second, simultaneous career as a private practice counselor in family therapy. A frugal individual, Brommel grew a personal fortune in part by setting aside and investing the income he earned as a family therapist.
Soon after retiring, Brommel began making large donations to Northeastern, becoming the NEIU Foundation’s first million-dollar donor and eventually contributing more than $2.5 million. In recognition of Brommel’s continuing generosity, Northeastern named the Science Building after him in 2010. It is now known as Bernard J. Brommel Hall.
“His enthusiasm and passion for Northeastern Illinois University shone through in our every interaction,” Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson said. “Bernie will be missed by me and the Northeastern community but never forgotten.”
Brommel leaves a tremendous legacy at Northeastern. Among his contributions, Brommel established the following:
- The Brommel Doctoral Scholarship to support graduate students who want to pursue a doctorate
- The Distinguished Research Professor Award to provide a research stipend for current faculty
- The Brommel Awards for Student Research and Creative Activities to recognize outstanding work in the annual student symposium
- A string of 25 scholarships named in honor of key people in his life—primarily faculty and students at Northeastern, but also leaders of the university’s resident dance company, Ensemble Español, as well as mentors and students of and from his various high school and college teaching posts
- The Brommel-Hahs Lectureship in the College of Arts and Sciences
- The Bernard J. Brommel Endowment in Communication, Media and Theatre to support a faculty position
Brommel was instrumental in working with President Emerita Salme Steinberg to create the NEIU Foundation’s Founders Society, which recognizes alumni, faculty and friends who notify the University that they have included Northeastern in their estate plans. In total, Brommel’s endowed gifts have generated more than $370,000 in support for students and faculty to date.
“It’s impossible to put a value on what Dr. Brommel means to Northeastern,” NEIU Foundation Board President John Roskopf said. “He asked others to be generous and he led by example, contributing to endowments and scholarships where they would have the greatest positive impact on the academic experiences and successes of the University’s students.”
Brommel described the endowment in Communication, Media and Theatre as his greatest wish, which he pursued with energy and passion even into his final days. His intent was to establish an endowed professorship or eventually Northeastern’s first endowed chair, in the area of Family Communication and Interpersonal Communication.
“Dr. Brommel was a great teacher, mentor, scholar and philanthropist, but he has also inspired others to give their time, attention and hard-earned money to Northeastern,” said Vice President for Institutional Advancement Liesl Downey, who also serves as Executive Director of the NEIU Foundation. “In many respects, you could argue that Dr. Brommel dedicated his life to the betterment of Northeastern. This community will always honor and appreciate his generosity.”
Brommel earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in l951. He taught at Rowley High School in Iowa from 1951-54 and then taught at Keokuk High School from 1954-59, earning his master’s in Education (Speech and Theatre) from University of Iowa in 1955. He earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1963 in Communication and taught at Indiana State University from 1959-67. He taught at the University of North Dakota 1967-71 and then moved to Northeastern, where he taught full-time from 1971 to 1997 for the Department of Speech and Performing Arts (now the Department of Communication, Media and Theatre), specializing in family communication and serving in many leadership roles.
Brommel remained a close friend of the Department of Communication, Media and Theatre long after his retirement. He was a regular visitor to Northeastern and often attended Commencement ceremonies, lectures and luncheons with his scholarship recipients. He even continued to teach as a frequent guest lecturer.
“For decades Dr. Brommel inspired and mentored students and faculty,” department chair Shayne Pepper said. “He cared deeply about Northeastern and remained connected to us throughout his life. It is comforting to know that his legacy will live on through his written work, the students and faculty who knew him, and the many who will continue to be connected to him through his numerous endowed scholarships and faculty positions. He will always be part of this university.”
College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Katrina Bell-Jordan met Brommel when she applied for a faculty position in 1996.
“I accepted the position, and in so doing began a professional relationship with Dr. Brommel that has now spanned more than 21 years and that has been more rewarding than I ever imagined due to Dr. Brommel’s steadfast encouragement and support for my work as a teacher, scholar and administrator,” she said. “Having had the privilege to serve as department chair and now as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I can attest that he has left an indelible mark on this university.”
While his health declined over his final years, Brommel remained a tireless advocate and relationship-builder for Northeastern. After reading a magazine article about one of his former students who went on to work for Oprah Winfrey, Brommel reached out to Alice McGee and invited her back to campus.
The next year, McGee was honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award for her work on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where she won nine individual Emmy Awards for production and helped launch Oprah’s Book Club. During her address to the students, McGee acknowledged the longtime mentor who meant so much to her, particularly during her days as a student.
“He is the reason I am here,” McGee told the graduates, recounting Brommel’s skill as a teacher. “He saw me. He called me by my name. Dr. Brommel ... has endowed dozens of scholarships, including one in my name. That’s touching lives. I want to thank you, Dr. Brommel, so much.”
Those wishing to make gifts to Northeastern in memory of Dr. Brommel may do so online. Choose “other” as the designation and indicate in the notes “In memory of Dr. Brommel.” Dr. Brommel requested that memorial gifts be placed in the Bernard J. Brommel Endowment for Communication, Media and Theatre, which will support a faculty position in the field of Family Communication and Interpersonal Communication. Checks can be made out to the NEIU Foundation with “In memory of Dr. Brommel” in the memo line, and mailed to NEIU Foundation, 5500 North St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625-4699. For more information, contact the Office of Development at (773) 442-4200.
Top photo: Bernard J. Brommel (right) poses in front of Bernard J. Brommel Hall with his sons Bradley (left) and Blair.