Former warden talks of life behind the walls
Time hasn’t dimmed the light in Art Bernard’s eyes as he talks of the prisoners he knew 50 years ago. Pappy, Hobo Joe, Young Purple, the people behind the names stir his memory and there is so much to say.
Warden of the Nevada State Prison from 1951 to 1959, he described some prisoners as “no good,” but for others, the description doesn’t fit.
“I grew very fond of many of them,” he said with a distant gaze.
He said Nevada’s prison system was in chaos when he accepted the position under Gov. Charles Russell in 1951. Alcohol and drugs were the biggest problems and Pappy, in for murder, was one of the most seriously addicted prisoners.
Under the previous administration, addicts were allowed a limited amount of drugs because without them, it was thought, they would die. Bernard didn’t believe that and cut off the supply, but Pappy insisted on his ration.
“He weighed 115 pounds. He was in his 50s, but looked much older. He looked like hell,” Bernard said. “I gave Pappy a knife and told him, ‘I don’t care if you kill yourself, but do it right.'”
To break his habit, Pappy requested time in “the hole,” or solitary confinement, emerging just a few days later.
“I told him, ‘when you’re ready to come out, you let me know,'” Bernard said. “We never heard a peep out of him while he was in solitary. The others complained like hell, but no one died.
“Pappy went from 115 pounds to 165,” he said. “He called my wife and I, ‘Pop’ and ‘Mother’ and he was the nicest, kindest little old man. I paroled him to a couple in Chicago as a gardener. Don’t know what happened, after that.”
Bernard was a deputy inspector of mines in Ely in the 1940s when he met Charles Russell, who was then a local newspaperman. The two became good friends and Bernard, a Democrat, campaigned for his longtime Republican friend during the 1950 governor’s race. He said the friendship, together with numerous recommendations from other Republican party members around the state, led to his appointment as warden.
“I told him I didn’t know anything about law enforcement. I’d never even been a Boy Scout,” he said with a smile. “But Russell said I had horse sense and that’s what I needed. Once I got there, I forgot about ever leaving it. You couldn’t have dragged me out.”
Bernard studied the records of every prisoner as warden and some, he said, should not have been there.
“You’d be surprised how many innocent people were in prison,” he said. “They were often habitual violators, but not guilty of the charge that put them there — Hobo Joe spent three years in prison for opening a skylight.”
Serving one to five for burglary after he was found sleeping in Winnemucca’s Eagle Drug Store, Joe had consumed a half bottle of wine.
“He applied for parole a couple of times, but when he was refused, he quit trying,” Bernard said. “He served his time and when he got out, he came to see me. He said he didn’t mind being an ex-con, but he hated being thought of as a crook. He’d never stolen a dime in his life.
“The Parole Department bought him a bus ticket to Salt Lake City and I told him he should stop in Winnemucca and pay for that wine,” Bernard said. “He mailed me the receipt.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Bernard’s family moved west from Illinois around 1915, just before he started school. But most of his education, he said, came through the school of hard knocks.
Part of a wealthy Italian family, his father didn’t work. His parents divorced when he was very young and his mother remarried. His new stepfather was a miner and mining mechanic and the family moved from one mining camp to another in Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.
He was living with his parents in southern Utah when he was 16 and decided to “hobo” his way to Pioche with a friend. The two worked as miners.
“We were too young to work underground, so we lied about our age,” he said. “There is a knack to being a good miner. You were either good at it or not and if you were ambitious, you were bound to succeed.”
Bernard also spent time as a boxer in San Francisco, managed there by Larry White. During that period, he befriended a fellow boxer who called himself “Young Purple” and after years of separation, the two reunited under very different circumstances.
“LaVere Redfield was a rich man in Reno. He liked to keep a safe with silver dollars and jewelry in his basement. He had a wife and a girlfriend and the girlfriend pulled that robbery,” Bernard said. “Purple was a nice, good, honest man, but he was slow in the head. He didn’t know what he was doing. There were five in on the heist and they had a harness made to fit him. Purple was strong as an ox. After they got the safe upstairs they split up the contents and went in different directions, but they were caught.”
Retired, Bernard now 91, resides in Carson City with his wife of 68 years, Naomi.
In addition to his roles as state mining inspector and Nevada State Prison warden, he has been a miner, contractor and businessman.
He is a past president of Carson Rotary Club and in 1948 helped plan the mining exhibit at the museum under Tony Green, the museum’s director. He was director of the Reno Executive Club and is a life member of the American Warden’s Association.
The Bernards have one son and two daughters, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.