Berniker says goodbye to HM


Liliana Greyf and Oliver Lewis

Former physical education teacher Neil Berniker began coaching at the school when it was called Barnard School for Boys, not Horace Mann. 57 years later, Berniker has decided to retire due to the pandemic. “I was disappointed to see it end this way,” he said. “But I think it’s time to take a step back.” 

For Berniker, the school is much more than a workplace. Throughout seven decades of coaching, Berniker has formed lasting connections with members of the community of all ages and backgrounds. “He bleeds maroon,” his son Eric Berniker ‘90 said. “And I think it is also the only color in his wardrobe.” 

After graduating from New York University in 1963, Berniker took a job at the school. When he first started, he coached Boys Varsity and Junior Varsity Soccer as well as Boys Junior Varsity Basketball and Baseball. Later, Berniker began coaching Middle Division sports teams in addition to the Upper Division (UD) teams.

Although Berniker coached many teams during his time at the school, his work with Boys Varsity Soccer (BVS) was his most lasting and impactful responsibility — one he took on for more than 20 years. With Berniker as its coach, BVS won three state championships and eight Ivy League championships, successes that Berniker said he cherishes deeply. 

Berniker remembers every game fondly, but the first state championship for BVS in 2000 was a particularly exciting event, he said. The team beat United Nations International School (UNIS) by only one point in a shoot-out. “Your first championship is always exciting — for the school, for the coaching staff, and for the players,” he said. “It was just very special to see such a great bunch of guys thrive on playing such a great game.”

While years when BVS was particularly successful were undoubtedly exciting, winning trophies was not all that was important to Berniker. “Even the years when we didn’t have great seasons, the players always made it memorable,” he said. “I could walk away from the season and say, ‘What a great group.’ They came to practice and played great games and were competitive and respectful.”

Berniker was a tactical and well-versed coach, said Noah Phillips ‘20, who played on BVS for two years. “He really anticipated based on the past year what the strength of our opponents were,” he said.

Because of Berniker’s hard work, the team adjusted their tactics on a weekly basis and made sure they were playing their best, Phillips said. The final game of the 2020 BVS season was a display of the team’s values. The way we played our hearts out really showed him how much we cared about him,” Phillips said. “Even though we lost, it was a great game, and we played hard for him.” 

Kri Galvan-Dubois (11) has played BVS with Berniker as his coach for two years and is sad to see him go. “He always cracks jokes with the players and connects with them on and off the field,” he said. “Whenever a player is feeling down, he talks to them and cheers them up. The team is going to look different without his humor and outgoing self.”

As Berniker’s decades of coaching BVS went on, his beloved players graduated, but every team member still holds a special place in his heart, he said. Although he doesn’t see his former players in daily practice after they leave high school, Berniker makes an effort to reconnect with the athletes he knew well.

Berniker was the commissioner of the Alumni Soccer Game for ten years, and many of his former players have come back to visit and play. “It’s always a surprise to see them,” Berniker said. “We rehash old memories. Now they are mature — people with their own families and kids come back — but the bond that we had [when they were young] stays with us.”

Berniker’s leadership stays with his athletes for years after they graduate, Eric said. One of Berniker’s favorite players, Nick Burko ‘14, recently formed a softball team that plays in Central Park with some of his high school friends. They named the team “Bernie’s Babies” after him. “Last year [the team] won, and they invited me down to their championship dinner,” Berniker said. “It was so nice to see them after several years.”

Because Berniker created so many lasting connections during his time at the school, he knew someone almost everywhere he went, Eric said. 

As he grew older, Eric and his brother Scott Berniker ‘87 began to see the impact that his father had had on the people he had worked with and coached. “We would see a mother with a child and he had taught both of them,” Eric said. “Just hearing from people what a special teacher he was for them and how he always pushed them to be better while still being caring became so cool for me. Obviously I had experienced all that myself, but I saw that my dad was being that person to so many people and affecting all these different generations.” 

Along with BVS, Berniker spent many years coaching Junior Varsity Baseball (JVB), which Eric played on for one year. “I relished that — being able to coach my son,” Berniker said. 

Ten years ago, Berniker began coaching Boys Varsity Baseball (BVB). He coached the team for a total of five years. Although he spent less time working with the baseball team, the memories he made have been impactful in their own ways, he said. He coached players on this team that have achieved careers in baseball, including Harrison Bader ‘12 who now plays centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Berniker also spent 21 years as the director of the school’s summer day camp, a recreational sports camp in June. “I always took a lot of pride in developing the community of the camp,” Berniker said.

The nature of Berniker’s job at the school allowed for versatility, giving him the opportunity to announce for basketball teams and teach some physical education classes. “Horace Mann gave me the opportunity to do a lot of different things — one year in the early 60’s I even coached bowling,” he said.

Associate Athletic Director Ray Barile loves to watch Berniker emcee at various events around campus. “He would announce at basketball camp and the kids would just go crazy,” Barile said. “When the Middle School did their end of the year awards, he would go up on the stage. He loved to entertain.”

When Barile was still in college, Berniker hired him to run the middle school’s after school swim program, which was when their friendship began, Barile said. Now, almost 40 years later, Barile will begin his first year at the school without Berniker as his colleague. 

“He has taught me and all the people that he has worked with so much,” Barile said. “In all of the years that I saw him coaching and teaching, I have never heard him raise his voice. Never.” Barile said he learned this coaching technique from Berniker: attempting to create a calmer and less intense environment during practices.

Throughout their four decades of work together, Berniker and Barile have created some lasting memories. “In my first two years of teaching, I would get to work very early some Friday mornings and go sleep on the mats in the Lower Division gym,” Barile said. “Berniker would always come wake me up before the day started.”

Berniker is sure that the connections he has made with members of the school’s community will last long after his retirement. “We’re a very close bunch, the Athletic Department,” he said. “When you work in the same office, conversations will lead to connections. Everybody is so friendly, so congenial, and professional.”

In an email titled “Farewell / ciao,” sent from Berniker to faculty members to announce his retirement, Berniker recalled the many bonds he has formed with his coworkers throughout the years. “I will miss you all, including my frequent calls to 3333 for help (Sheryl, Adam, Jason, and Cassandra) in computer glitches/programs and even to release a real mouse in my printer (no kidding),” he wrote.

Berniker also thanked his colleagues in the Physical Education Department and his friends in the administration. “I take with me through this magical journey the special bond, support, encouragement, and your brilliant style and technique,” he wrote. “You kept the fire burning in my belly to go day to day and year to year.”

The school was much more than just a job for his father, Eric said. It was also his extended family and support system. When his wife passed away, and when he went into cardiac arrest while refereeing, the school gave him the assistance he needed to come right back, Eric said. “The school gave so much to him, and he gave so much back to it,” he said.

After so many decades of devotion to the school, Berniker did not imagine that he would have to leave this way, he said. Finally, however, he had several discussions with his sons and came to terms with his underlying health conditions. “I’m at high risk [for COVID-19], and I don’t want to challenge that at all,” he said.

Berniker was looking forward to beginning his 58th year on campus, and he is sad that he was not able to say a proper goodbye. “It was all so sudden, and it was a very difficult thing for me to do,” he said. “Hopefully when the smoke clears, I’ll come on campus and embrace all the people that I miss.”

Many of Berniker’s students have reached out to him with words of farewell and appreciation. “People are asking when they are going to get to see me and telling me they’ll miss me around here,” he said. “It’s a very good feeling.”

Although Berniker’s farewell is unexpected, there are positive effects of his retirement, he said. He is excited to spend more time with his family than he would in the past and to watch his grandkids Sasha, Madeline, Delilah, and Max grow, he said. 

For now, Berniker plans to reminisce about his time at the school and wait until the day that he is able to return to campus to see his colleagues and players. “It has been a privilege to be a part of this community,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a single second of it, not for the world.”