Bernie Altman, a beloved mental health advocate and retired teacher, died Thursday two weeks after suffering horrific stab wounds and other injuries at his Kelso home.
He died at about 4:40 p.m. at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, a spokesperson for the family confirmed. He was 92.
Altman was reportedly beaten and stabbed by his son David Altman in his Kelso home on Aug. 25. Friends say David Altman had suffered from severe mental illness for years. He is now being held without bail on charges of first-degree attempted murder and kidnapping. David Altman will be evaluated to determine his competency for trial, according to court documents, but his arraignment has not been scheduled. (It was not known whether the charge will be increased murder now that Altman has died.)
It was a tragic ending for a man who had dedicated his life’s work to helping the mentally ill.
Friends say his children’s mental illnesses became a catalyst for his advocacy work. In 1979, he and his wife, Marcia, help to found the Alliance on Mental Illness in Cowlitz County that eventually became the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)-Cowlitz. In 2013, the group merged with the Clark County arm of the national organization to form NAMI Southwest Washington.
“He is one of the kindest, most considerate people I know. He was always so grateful for everything, yet he was a real advocate for social justice,” said Peggy McCarthy, executive director of NAMI Southwest Washington
His activism took him into the political realm. He ran for a state House of Representatives seat in the late 1970s, and he worked with former state legislator George Raiter on a bill to create a statewide regional support system for people affected by mental illness.
“I thought the world of him,” Raiter said about the first time he met Altman.
A native of New York, Bernard “Bernie” Altman moved to Comerton, Mont., after completing college to teach in a small high school. There he met and married Marcia. They were two of four teachers at the school.
In 1948, the two moved to Kelso so Altman could teach English at what was then Huntington Junior High School. He and Marcia had two children, Rosalie and Hillery Jack. Hillery Jack later changed his name to David.
“(Bernie) was very, very instrumental in Cowlitz County not only as a teacher in the school district for 30 years, but he was member of many support systems,” said Janis Housden, who worked with Altman in the behavioral health care system.
His sense of social justice also bled into his work fighting for the elderly. He produced a monthly senior news publication for a local social service agency, which was later published by The Daily News in the 1990s.
“He was very well known as an advocate of the mentally ill, but he was also an advocate for seniors. It gave the senior community their own voice,” said Dave Rorden, an elder care lawyer and former City Editor of The Daily News who worked with Altman.
Friends described Altman as sharp-witted and energetic.
“He had a wry sense of humor. He was from New York City, so he had a little different personality from a lot of people you run into our here,” Rorden said.
Daily News reporter Rick McCorkle shared a desk with Altman for many years. At the time Altman was in his 70s, but would still show up focused and “plugging away every day.” He loved to play pickle ball and would often try to get other seniors in the area involved in the racquet sport.
Even as he entered his 90s, Altman continued to volunteer with NAMI Southwest Washington. He was also active with Retired Teachers Association and AARP.
He had the progressive, forward-thinking mindset of someone 50 years his junior, Housden said.
Rorden described him as “a tireless advocate. He made sure that the issues stayed in the forefront. He will really be missed.”
In the last year, Altman lived most of the time at his Kelso home, but for part of the time he stayed at the Canterbury Inn, where Marcia, 96, now lives, McCarthy said.
“They were still in so much in love,” McCarthy said of the couple.
A service will be held at Canterbury Inn but has not yet been scheduled. The family is still accepting donations to defray the costs of his two week hospitalization. With the help of NAMI Southwest Washington, Altman’s daughter, Rosalie Olds, has created an account at Fibre Federal Credit Union for friends and family to donate to help cover his medical bills.