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Rose Bernstein, at 98; advocate for single parents

Rose Bernstein 'was a social worker's social worker,' said a colleague. 'She mentored generations of us.' Rose Bernstein "was a social worker's social worker," said a colleague. "She mentored generations of us."

Long before unmarried women with babies were described as single moms, clinical social worker Rose Bernstein was on a mission to erase the words "born out of wedlock" from popular use.

"Rose helped to shift the stigma of the 'out of wedlock' mother to the concept of helping unmarried mothers and fathers," said her colleague Catherine Sherry-Paré of Dennis.

Mrs. Bernstein, a pioneer in social work with unmarried parents, died Feb. 15 at Cape Cod Hospital of an aneurysm following hip surgery. She was 98. Mrs. Bernstein and her husband, Saul, lived in the Boston area from 1945 until 1971, when he retired as professor at the Boston University School of Social Work and they moved to Dennis.

"Rose was a social worker's social worker," said another colleague, Nita Finn, of South Harwich. "She mentored generations of us."

Mrs. Bernstein's son-in-law, William Richan of Chester, Pa., described her as a trailblazer when young mothers giving up their babies for adoption were typically discouraged from having contact with them.

"Mrs. Bernstein stressed the need for bonding between mother and child, regardless of the circumstances," he wrote. And, "she was among the first to emphasize the importance of the role of the unmarried father."

In the introduction to her 1971 book, "Helping Unmarried Mothers," Mrs. Bernstein points a finger at social agencies for inflicting lasting emotional damage on single mothers.

"Society sees to it that by action or by implication, a woman who is having a child out of wedlock will come away from the experience with an inferior sense of herself as a mother, whether she keeps her baby or relinquishes him for adoption."

She also felt that agencies had not helped the unmarried father. "The idea of the male as exploiter of the female was challenged more than a half century ago," she wrote.

Mrs. Bernstein was born in New York City, the daughter of Aaron and Chana Peshe (Cohen) Rubin. The family lived in the Russian-Jewish community on the Lower East Side, Richan said in a telephone interview, and were "dirt poor, but they were determined that their kids were going to get an education."

Along with two of her three sisters, Mrs. Bernstein attended Cornell University. Only 16 when she entered, she earned money for tuition by baby sitting and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English, according to Richan. She also studied French and German.

While at Cornell, Rose Rubin met Saul Bernstein. They married in 1930 and had a son and a daughter.

For a time, Mrs. Bernstein taught French and German in the New York public schools. She earned a master's in education from City College of New York and a master's in social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The Bernsteins moved to the Boston area in 1945. While Mr. Bernstein taught at BU, Mrs. Bernstein immersed herself in social work, both in private practice and with nonprofit agencies that worked with women and families.

In 1951, when some female volunteers formed a Big Sisters group with the goal of preventing delinquency among young girls, Mrs. Bernstein was its first social worker, Richan said.

Looking back in a 1978 Globe story, Mrs. Bernstein cited the continuing "lack of services for girls" and the need for more Big Sisters.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Mrs. Bernstein also worked with the Crittenden Hastings House, a home for unwed mothers, now Crittenden Women's Union, and for United Community Services. For about a year, Richan said, she commuted regularly to Washington to serve as consultant, researcher, and director of casework services for the United States Children's Services. When Mrs. Bernstein and her husband moved to Cape Cod, Mrs. Bernstein continued her private practice and mentored a new generation of social workers.

"Rose could relate to anyone of any age with brilliant intuitiveness, warmth, and generosity of spirit, renewing others by her very presence," said Sherry-Paré. "She conveyed a great sense of warmth and flair and looked like everyone's Jewish grandmother."

Mrs. Bernstein also volunteered in schools in Dennis and Yarmouth.

A dozen years ago, Nita Finn said, Mrs. Bernstein was asked by school officials not to allow kindergartners to climb in her lap, because it might appear inappropriate. She consulted colleagues, and they advised her not to turn away the children. She didn't, and that year she was chosen the school district's volunteer of the year, Finn said.

Her husband died in 1997 after 67 years of marriage. Their son, David, a social worker, died of cancer that same year. Their daughter, Ann Richan, who also worked in the human services field, died of cancer in 2000.

In 1998, Mrs. Bernstein moved into the Mayflower Place retirement community in West Yarmouth, where she kept other residents laughing with her repertoire of jokes, along with stories of her liberated womanhood in the 1930s, Finn said.

Mrs. Bernstein relished music and theater and even entertained the notion of working again.

"When the social worker at the nursing home hired an assistant," Finn said, "Rose asked her why she hadn't hired her."

Mrs. Bernstein leaves seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in April, on a date to be announced, at Mayflower Place in West Yarmouth.