Sunday, January 10, 1999

Man lived alone in filth for years

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEWPORT — He was lonely, he smelled bad, his legs were turning purple. But nobody knew how to help the elderly man, and he was too independent to ask.

        Edward “Jack” Berg died three days after Christmas. Seven people attended his funeral.

        Now his house stands deserted on East Second Street. I keep thinking: Thank goodness he didn't die there.

        If hell exists, it must look something like Mr. Berg's home on the day he was carried away.

        For months, he had refused to let anyone inside. Then, on July 23, a city inspector found the 79-year-old man lying on his living room floor. He was whisked to a hospital, and the house was promptly condemned.

        Mr. Berg's secret was out. And with it, a warning to us all.

        Old age comes hard and mean sometimes. It dumps loneliness at a man's feet like coal in a Christmas stocking. Those who love such a man must be vigilant in their attentions, and they must hope he doesn't turn away.

        Mr. Berg had. And in the end, his isolation nearly destroyed him.

        This summer, city officials hired a woman named Karen to clean 342 E. Second St. She kept saying she couldn't believe it.

        “You tell me how he ever slept in there — how he lived — without bugs crawling all over him,” she said.

        Inside, city officials found garbage covering the floor: old boxes of Cheese Bits and Moon Pies, chili cans, peanut-butter jars, empty bags of potato chips. Feces were everywhere. Cockroaches kept falling from the ceiling. A fly strip hanging in the kitchen was black with bugs.

        On the dining room floor lay the carcass of a cat, bones protruding from its legs.

        Upstairs, cobwebs clung to the walls like macabre neck laces. Another dead cat rotted in a bedroom.

        In all, city officials found five dogs and 20 cats in the house.

        “It's horrible to think what you might go through when you're old,” Karen said.

        She was standing on Mr. Berg's porch, wiping sweat from her face and inhaling the semi-fresh air.

        “Make sure you've got someone to take care of you,” she said.

        Mr. Berg's wife, Ruby, died in 1969. They didn't have any children; Mrs. Berg miscarried twice.

        For a living, Mr. Berg delivered newspapers, owned a used-tire store and rented out property.

        As time passed, he became more and more suspicious. City officials often ordered him to clean up his property, and his responses reflected his distrust.

        “This letter is being phot- statted for my protection,” he once wrote.

        Another piece of correspondence smelled so bad that city employees had to seal it in a plastic bag. They didn't reach out to him, though. He wasn't that sort of man.

        On Fourth Street, Nancy and James Bryant leased a house from Mr. Berg.

        He was lonely, they said. Always wanted to talk. Some times he even brought them little gifts.

        But he was also stubborn. He insisted, for instance, that he couldn't afford to have anyone clean his home.

        Last summer, Mrs. Bryant noticed her landlord's legs turning purple. She suspected diabetes and urged him to see a doctor.

        She also told him, gently, that he needed to bathe.

        “If you don't have any soap, I'll give you some,” she said.

        “I'm getting cleaned up, I'm getting cleaned up,” he replied.

        Here's the saddest part: Jack Berg wasn't always this way.

        Years ago — before Ruby died, before other disappointments soured him — he had embraced a family of 12 chil dren as if they were his own.

        Karen Hughes will never forget his kindness.

        She grew up poor in Newport, with 11 siblings and a father emotionally scarred by World War II.

        In the '60s, she and a brother delivered newspapers for Mr. Berg. Soon he was employing all sorts of kids, making up odd jobs as an excuse to give them change. He made sure the Hughes children had dinner every night. He took them to Coney Island, helped them with homework, taught them to fish.

        He had infinite patience and generosity, Ms. Hughes said.

        She is 43 now. They drifted apart when she went to college. Later, she saw Mr. Berg at church occasionally, and she sensed the past was catching up with him.

        His parents were of German descent. During World War I, his father had been put in the stockades in Fort Thomas because of suspicions about his background, Ms. Hughes said.

        Her mentor never forgot what the government had done.

        Later, he fought in World War II. Once home, he suffered nightmares and drank to forget. His wife persuaded him to quit.

        Not long after Ruby died, Mr. Berg's elderly mother was beaten up by a teen-ager in Newport, Ms. Hughes said.

        More heartbreak for her friend. Eventually, he turned to his pets for solace.

        “They're the only ones that give you love without asking,” he told Ms. Hughes.

Smell "overpowering'
        On East Second Street, neighbors grew increasingly concerned about the stench and bugs coming out of No. 342.

        City files contain complaints back to 1993.

        “I was not able to make contact with the owner/resident during a welfare check,” an inspector wrote in 1997. “I could hear several dogs and cats inside. The smell of excrement was overpowering ... ”

        Newport employees made at least seven other visits. On some occasions, Mr. Berg met inspectors on the porch and promised to clean up. Records indicate he made enough effort to satisfy the city.

        Here is where I question our government. It sets so many rules for us to follow. Surely there is one to save us from ourselves.

        In cases like this, however, the government steps back. If property owners don't agree to it, city inspectors cannot enter their homes, no matter how putrid the smell.

        State social workers might have faced a similar dilemma, said Gary Taylor of the Cabinet for Families and Children.

        The state can seek guardianship of elderly people, but only if they are unable to care for themselves.

        “If people are living in dirty conditions and they choose to live that way, it's really not against the law,” Mr. Taylor said.

A living death
        In July, an acquaintance of Mr. Berg called police. She was worried about his deteriorating health. A city inspector went to 342 E. Second, heard moaning and found Mr. Berg on the floor. He may have been lying there several days.

        Weeks later, I visited him in the hospital.

        “There was nothing wrong with that house,” he told me from his bed. “There were some cats there. There were some dogs there.”

        I asked about the bugs. How could he endure it?

        “You've got to figure out,” he said, “I was dead.”

        Three months later, Mr. Berg passed away.

        His words haunt me still. I think I know what he meant: Sometimes, life isn't much more than dying.

        Rest in peace, Mr. Berg.

        You deserved better than this.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or by e-mail at:

        Anyone concerned about an elderly person's well-being can call the state's department of social services at 292-6340, or Senior Services of Northern Kentucky at 292-7968.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at