They're united by friendship, popsicles and a love of chair volleyball
Bernie Puchajda is a retired police officer, so he's no stranger to working a beat. These days, that beat is a senior center in Parma, though he's more focused on making bump passes and digs than arrests.
Life on the beat
Now in his early 90s, Bernie served for over three decades in Cleveland’s Fourth District precinct, on the city’s southeast side. He wore a dark blue zip-up jacket with his name printed on the left side and an American flag embroidered on the right.
“I went through the Glenville Hough riots. I didn't have to shoot nobody,” said Puchajda.
He's referring to the outbreak of civil unrest that took place in July of 1966 which included protests, vandalism, looting and arson. The riots were fueled by the rapid demographic transition during the 1950s of that Cleveland neighborhood to become overwhelmingly Black with increasingly substandard and overcrowded housing, the overcharging for necessities by area merchants and numerous incidents of police harassment, according to the Case Western Reserve University Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
He also remembered some more light-hearted interactions.
“And we took the drunks home. We didn't arrest them. The wives were really upset when we brought them home saying, you know, the neighbors are watching,” said Puchajda.
We help each other
Bernie lives with his partner of over two decades, Dorothy Justice, and Dorothy's daughter who helps take care of the couple. Dorothy said they met in the mid-1990s at a local bingo hall where Bernie was working security. At the time, they were in their 60s.
"He pulled my apron string. He would reach back and grab my apron string because he would walk around kind of flirting with all the girls,” said Justice.
Prior to meeting Puchajda, Justice was an Army wife for 20 years living in Virginia. About two years after leaving the Army, her husband passed away leaving her a widow with three children. She decided to move back to Northeast Ohio and be with her two sisters.
“He's, I don't know how to say it but he's always so nice to me and, and we just get along," said Justice. "You know, if I want to do something all I got to do is ask him, will you do this with me and he said he'll do it, you know, and we look out for each other.”
About their relationship, Puchajda responded, “She takes care of me. Ever since we got together, we've never complained about one another or had any arguments in 27 years. If people could get along like we are, this would be a different world. We help each other.”
A friendly trio
And then there's Frank Lovell, Puchajda and Justice's friend of three decades.
“Before I forget Bernie and Dorothy want to adopt me, by the way. Can you imagine having me being adopted by them?" said Lovell.
Lovell is a U.S. Navy veteran who worked his way up at the formerly named East Ohio Gas Company for over 28 years before retiring. He is sarcastic and witty, the antithesis of Puchajda's more straight-laced demeanor.
An older gentleman wearing blue slacks and a blue and white striped button-up shirt, Lovell said he is like family to the couple. He often joins Puchajda and Justice for Friday supper.
“My compliments to Bernie and his cooking, he’s a great cook and naturally then, the care packages come back to me," said Lovell.
Lovell said their relationship works because they’re all nice people that get along with each other.
Bump passes and digs
The trio enjoys playing competitive chair volleyball. It's like normal volleyball but indoors, and all the participants are sitting in chairs. They also use a beach ball for softer impacts. After each serve, the players move to the chair on their right.
“We started the volleyball here about, I would say four years ago and originally they had teams but there's too much arguing in the teams," said Lovell. "When we had the teams, it was, you know, the competition, it was nasty. It wasn't very nice. So, we stopped that."
Popsicles for patrol
Now in their golden years of retirement, the three spend their days either at the Donna Smallwood Activities Center or at home under the shade of a tree in Puchajda and Justice's front yard when the weather cooperates. They like to hand out popsicles to the local police officers that drive by Puchajda and Justice’s home in Newburgh Heights.
“We bring the porch chairs and wave to the cops going by," said Justice. "They have two women, policemen and they always come up to us, wanna know how we're doing and everything. And I'd say, how would you like to have a popsicle? And they'll say sure. So I go get a popsicle, they sit down and eat it and they talk for a while, and then they have to leave.”
The three seem to feed off each other's energy and enjoy their respective relationships. To paraphrase a Walt Whitman quote, “To be with those I like is enough.” That certainly seems to be the case for these friends.
“If it wasn't for them and people here at the senior center and it's, it's, that's my family, that's family," said Lovell. "That's why I say they want to adopt me.”
Ideastream Public Media's 'Sound of Us' tells stories of Northeast Ohioans — in their own voices. We work with individuals and communities. This series was produced in partnership with the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. Tell us your story!