Senior Lifestyles

Finding harmony though the decades

Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Marvin Bertelson, second from right, rehearses last week with his barbershop quartet, the Four Gents in Accord.

Mountain View High School choral students have been learning to chop a chord from a veteran barbershop performer whose music has long outlasted his formal career. Marvin Bertelson spent a first lifetime teaching music to elementary school students before he retired in 1990. But the dedicated barbershopper, born in 1925, is now singing – and teaching – into his 90s.

When Bertelson moved to the Bay Area in 1958, “every corner had an apricot orchard on it – you got lost,” as he described it. He worked as an educator throughout his career after leaving the military, teaching music in what was then the Mountain View School District. After retiring, he continued leading a church choir and performing barbershop, and began coaching Mountain View High School students in the barbershop tradition.

Bertelson started the piano at age 10 and by college was an enthusiastic chorister as well. As a young man he went to hear a barbershop show in San Jose and “kind of got hooked,” he said. He is a member of the Peninsulaires, a men’s barbershop chorus, as well as the Four Gents in Accord quartet.

“His enthusiasm for singing is contagious,” Principal David Grissom said at a recent board meeting honoring Bertelson’s work. “Marv is a model for giving your talents to the community and a living example of how much joy music can bring to your life.”

“Marv is amazingly positive and committed to helping kids make a connection to barbershop, and the idea that they can sing for all of their lives,” added Jill Denny, the high school’s choral director, in a subsequent email.

The barbershop harmony Bertelson introduced to Mountain View High features a style specific to a capella singing, with three harmony parts and one melody that combine to create an overlapping acoustic effect that sounds like a “fifth voice” subsuming its constituent parts.

The barbershop repertoire includes songs with a specific chord style people might remember from songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “My Wild Irish Rose.” The barbershop revival of the 1940s created the genre as it is known today, with the striped old-time vests and boater hats that harken back to the first decades of the 1900s. But the style of music itself dates further back, drawing from African-American quartet singing of the late 1800s centered in – you guessed it – barberhops.

A different form of service

Bertelson also became a regular visitor to local social studies classrooms to speak about his World War II experience as a concentration camp liberator. He paired up with a local Jewish group and would travel to speak with students about the camps, often in the company of a speaker who had survived internment.

As a forward observer with the 12th Armored Division, he crossed the Atlantic a few months after D-Day and experienced his first air raid in London as troops massed for the push across France.

“I was at a movie and they flashed ‘Air raid – nobody move,’” he said, remembering the unflappable response of his fellow moviegoers. “They got used to that, I guess.”

His division landed at Normandy and rolled into Alsace-Lorraine. As they reached the Landsberg region, they liberated Kaufering Lager IV, one of the concentration camps that imprisoned primarily Jews for forced labor. Few survivors saw the American arrival.

“All the prisoners were dead, lying all over the campground,” Bertelson recalled.

In addition to murdering many of the prisoners, the retreating Germans had forced others on a brutal march away from their liberators. But the arriving American force made one substantial catch, he said – “we got a hold of the commander, who was in civilian clothes.”

Bertelson said that at the time, he and other soldiers had not been prepared for what they learned at the camps.

“We were surprised by what we saw, amazed,” he said, adding that his division commander ordered German civilians living nearby brought to the camp, and required them to bury the dead prisoners.

Bertelson later wrote a book chronicling his years during the war and after, in occupied Germany. His division captured a key bridge on the Danube, preventing its destruction and speeding up the victory in Europe. Toward the end of the war in Austria, they followed instructions to look for a person of great interest to President Franklin D. Roosevelt – and participated in the capture of Wernher von Braun. Von Braun was the scientist behind the V-2 rockets Germany used to bombard London in the Blitz – and after his surrender, he was folded into the group of scientists who launched the U.S. space program.

Bertelson remains connected to his military days as a member of Los Altos American Legion Post 558 and still gathers monthly with local WWII veterans and, for big reunions, members of his old division.

He keeps it simple when asked why he’s become so deeply engaged with barbershop singing over the decades.

“I don’t know – it’s fun to do,” he said. “The songs are fun to sing.”

Asked what advice he’d give to others who hope they’ll continue to find an active place, on or off the stage, through their 90s, he was similarly direct: “Don’t be a couch potato.”

To hear more of Bertelson’s WWII stories, visit To see his barbershop singing in action, visit

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