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Stephanie Bergsma Leaves Her Imprint

When I think of the people who personify KPBS, who’ve given so much of themselves to make the station what it is today, two come to mind. Two powerful and remarkable women, that is.

Gloria Penner, who passed away this fall. In many ways, she was the face of KPBS. With her intelligent, concise reporting and flair for conducting candid interviews, for 40 years, she made sure San Diegans were informed on the news we needed to know.

Stephanie Bergsma poses at the KPBS 50th Anniversary Gala with past KPBS General Managers, Paul Steen (left), Doug Myrland (center-right), and current General Manager, Tom Karlo (right).

Then, there's Stephanie Bergsma, who has worked at the station since 1982, and who recently announced her plans to retire.

While Penner may have been up front and center at KPBS, it was Bergsma who built the station, literally, from the ground up. As associate general manager in charge of Development, Bergsma has worked behind the scenes, quietly and steadfastly, raising millions of dollars over three decades, to help make KPBS what it is today.

How did she do it? By listening. And, more importantly, by paying attention.

“I took after my father, and was very outspoken when I was young,” she explains. “But I learned that there’s easier ways to communicate with people. Really, you can’t be thinking about yourself all the time. Yet, 99 percent of people, including me, are thinking about themselves, and thinking about what other people are thinking about them. I overcome this by being really interested, and really curious. Every day you’re meeting someone new or facing a new challenge.”

Of course, it also helps if you are committed to your work and believe in what you do. For Bergsma, listening to KPBS and watching it on TV, is something she does all the time.

“I passionately believe in news and information, and understanding,” says Bergsma. “I believe in the arts and our programming is superb. There’s nothing comparable to it. I think we deliver the most unique, wonderful service to everybody, and anytime something’s that important in your life, it’s like breathing.”

Stephanie Bergsma speaks at the KPBS 50th Anniversary Gala.

“It touches everybody,” she continues. “Kids, adults. What could be more important? We’ve always said that without education and information we have no democracy.”

Bergsma, who has spent many a day and evening meeting with the Who’s Who of San Diego, asserts that her job is all about people and relationships. And, the knack she has developed for paying attention, is integral to who she is and has helped her build a network of contacts, many of whom have become her friends.

“I’ll be out places and people will tell me their whole life story,” she observes. “I think it’s because they sense that they can really trust me. There’s no hidden agenda. I’ve found the most important part in a career is getting along with people and not offending them. Being nice is a lot more important than being a genius.”

Bergsma has countless stories of how she’s been able to put her skills to good use. She remembers how one woman, who invited her over for lunch, suddenly jumped from the table to get her checkbook, simply because she was so excited about an opportunity that Bergsma had presented to her. The way Bergsma sees it, suggesting the idea was easy, once she knew what the woman’s interest were, having listened and paid attention.

Another, more recently, sent her a thank you message. This, after Bergsma remembered that the woman was about to become a grandmother, and sent her a DVD copy of Call the Midwife, a series she herself adored. The result was a warm and grateful email to Bergsma, saying the DVD was truly “appreciated, beyond your imaginings.”

Bergsma is genuinely touched when her actions are recognized. “It’s really heartwarming when you do something that people really value and appreciate, and it’s meaningful knowing that you can share what we’re doing here with them.”

The KPBS Development department poses for a photo with General Manager Tom Karlo in the KPBS Newsroom. (From left; Caitlin Bergin, Stephanie Bergsma, Tom Karlo, Jennifer Majors, and Trina Hester)

Clearly, when it comes to fundraising, Bergsma’s style is strategic. “It’s really funny, but starting out, I used to think that if I didn’t have the right pitch, I’d feel awkward. I still feel a bit awkward. I’m not the typical fundraiser—those that won’t let go, and are constantly pressuring for more money. They are not sensitive to what’s going on.”

Yet, Bergsma clearly is pitch-perfect at her work. Nothing can attest to this more than her track record, which includes raising the funds to build the KPBS Copley Telecommunications Center, funding all of the equipment, including the digital conversion, support for the recent radio transmitter move to Mt. Soledad, and last year’s remodel that transformed KPBS’ second floor into the state-of-the-art, Joan and Irwin Jacobs News Center. But, of all the gifts she’s procured for KPBS, perhaps none has become more synonymous with Bergsma’s success, than the gift NPR and KPBS received from the Joan Kroc estate.

While Bergsma had a long history with Kroc, dating back to 1992, it wasn’t until Bergsma’s first husband, Alan, was dying of cancer and had been moved to a hospice, that the gift took root. The hospice was funded by Kroc, and Bergsma remembers how Alan, who was in terrible pain at the time, decided to write Kroc a thank you note.

“She had a mailbox there,” recalls Bergsma. “So, they put the letter from Alan in her mailbox, and about a day later she called me, asking me how I was doing, and invited me out to lunch. I started going out to lunch with her, and probably had lunch with her four or five times after Alan died. And, then I got news that Joan was terminally ill. That was about a year after Alan died.”

Bergsma recalls someone advising her never to ask Kroc for money. They met and continued to meet, and on one of those occasions Bergsma brought along Kevin Klose, then NPR president. This meeting, for Klose, would never have been possible, if not for Kroc’s trust in Bergsma.

Then one day, she got word. “I was standing at a gas station and Kevin called me, and said they had just read the will and it was over $200 million. I almost fell over. And later they told Doug (Myrland, KPBS’ then general manager) $5 million of it was for us. She saw us as a franchise and NPR as the headquarters. Really, it made sense, because if NPR doesn’t have programming, there’s no way we can compete.”

What’s next for Bergsma? “I’m in the gypsy part of my life,” she says, smiling. For Bergsma and her husband, Dwight Hare, are about to embark on a series of adventures, doing what she loves best—traveling, snorkeling, entertaining and reading.

Reflecting on her achievements at KPBS, she’s filled with pride. “I feel lucky because working at KPBS has definitely been a two-way street. How many people get to leave their imprint like I have? All you do is look around–I’ve got the building, I’ve got the equipment, I’ve got the remodel, I’ve got the transmitter. People may forget who did it but it’s here and I know it. How wonderful is that? Most people work every day of their lives and don’t see the results. It’s been an extraordinary honor and privilege working here at KPBS, and to see that culture grow and stay that way has been even more amazing.”

At a KPBS staff meeting this past week, General Manager Tom Karlo recognized Bergsma for her 30 years of service. When he finished speaking, Bergsma, who was sitting up front and center, appeared misty-eyed. Most, however, did not notice. They were busy rising to their feet and applauding loudly.

For someone who gave so much of herself and who built the station from the ground up, it was a fitting tribute. But frankly, we can’t thank her enough, and I hope she’s listening.

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