SOUTH BEND – When a trained surgeon, his wife, and their two small children came to South Bend, segregation was alive and well. That made it difficult for them to find a place to live, but their experience and passion helped changed the face of South Bend for decades to come.
After just a few minutes with Dr. Bernie Vagner and his wife Audrey, you realize age is just a number.
“I’m 94 and she's 90,” said Vagner.
He and his wife have been married for 68 years. But as with any marriage, it has its ups and downs.
“Oh, we argue, but I’ve never laid a hand on her in anger. I’ve made sexual advances towards her,” he says with a chuckle.
Vagner has four children to prove it. They met at Xavier University of Louisiana and married the day after they graduated in 1943. Vagner went on to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and then moved to St. Louis for his residency at Homer Phillips Hospital which was one of the few hospitals in the United States where blacks could train as doctors.
Life began to change for him when he was headed to a job in Toledo when a colleague led him to South Bend.
“He says, ‘You know, I’ve got a cousin in South Bend who's a dentist,” said Vagner. “[He told me] on your way back why don't you stop by and talk to them.”
And that was just what he did. Vagner and his wife fell in love with the city. He opened an office on Washington, and was one of the first blacks to perform surgery at Memorial and St. Joe.
But there was one big problem, no realtor would let them rent, much less buy a home. Audrey finally put an ad in the paper that read “colored physician seeks home.”
Vagner had a problem with the wording of this ad.
“I don't practice colored medicine. I am not a colored physician. I am a physician. I am colored. I do not practice colored medicine and I did not take a colored state board examination,” he said. “I just didn't want there to be any doubt.”
They received some prospects, like a home on Lincolnway.
“They wanted me to come at night, after dark, they didn't want the neighbors to see,” he said.
There were a few other black professionals in town. So how did they buy their homes? Vagner says they would ask their white friends to buy the home for them, and then transfer it to them. That is what he had to do when he tried to buy some land for a new office building.
“She says I want to sell it to you, but I’ll be ostracized by all my friends if I sell to a colored person,” Vagner said. “She says if you can get somebody to buy it for you.”
He did and his friend transferred the land to him for $1,000.
Vagner was later called to duty in Germany (he'd been deferred while in medical school) before he finally came back and bought his first home in South Bend in 1955. He and his wife (and others) challenged South Bend's segregated housing market for years then finally making South Bend pass a fair housing ordinance in 1968.
The Vagners remain at the same home today surrounded by pictures of their family and travels. They are still madly in love and silly after all these years.
Dr. Vagner and five others will be inducted into the South Bend Community Hall of Fame Wednesday night at 7 at the Century Center.
Other 2011 Hall of Fame Inductees: local physicians Drs. Rafat and Zoreen Ansari; Rod Ganey, co-founder of Press Ganey Associates; Edward A. Myers, first black principal and black coach in South Bend; late Hollywood director and producer Sydney Pollack, who grew up in South Bend; community leader Marguerite Taylor; and George Cutter, inventor and business owner.