I would love to be able to describe the original wood trim, fireplace mantel and extensive firefighting memorabilia collection inside Fuzzy Berner’s 1912 bungalow.
But when I visited his place on a recent sunny afternoon, I couldn’t take my eyes off the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Christmas decorations that seem to have swallowed up all the details I usually write about.
Nope. This wasn’t going to be the usual Home Tour. It’s the story of a man who defied death after being crushed by a car and went on to spread the joy of Christmas to hundreds of friends in the Greater Cincinnati firefighting community and his neighborhood.
The people of Mason might not call Berner the King of Christmas, but they should.
For 18 years, the 76-year-old Kings Mills native has opened his front door to anyone who wants to come in and view his massive collection of 300 cookie jars, 100 nutcrackers, 100 miniature firehouse models, dozens of ribbons and bows and a Christmas tree so full of decorations it stayed up all of this year.
That hasn’t always been the case, but 2015 has been a tough year for Berner. His weakened heart and related breathing difficulties have kept him away from his beloved Mason firehouse where he had continued to work part-time way beyond retirement age.
Taking the tree apart, only to put it back up a few months later, wasn’t going to happen, even though Berner had plenty of people willing to help. No sir. The tree had to stay up along with most of the rest of his decorations – for one more Yuletide season.
The party Berner will throw before Christmas, when his New York actor son, Cameron, is home for the holidays, is going to be his last. Afterward, he said he is going to buckle down and try to find buyers for his Christmas collection, possibly starting with the 300 cookie jars he displays in his dining room.
They are among his most valuable decorations, his favorite being a squinting Santa brought to him all the way from Italy.
‘This is a little excessive’
Few of his decorations are antique and many were gifts from friends and family who have attended his annual open house.
“This is a little excessive,” Berner said of his decorating, “but people look forward to coming back here every year. They’re kind of upset I’m not going to do it again.”
Berner wasn’t a collector when he married for the first time at age 48, but his wife Kim was. She came from a family of antique dealers, including her mother, Pat Drummond, and Kim’s specialty was ceramic wall pockets.
Much of her collection still hangs in Berner’s house. It includes a handful of wall pockets made by Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery in the first half of the 1900s.
“I never collected anything before I got married other than boats, snowmobiles and girls,” Berner said.
In addition to the Christmas stuff, Berner displays firefighting memorabilia on the walls and in glass cases throughout the first floor of his two-story, four-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow. The items he has collected range from badges and nozzles to copper and brass extinguishers and an old Cincinnati Fire Department engine that’s parked in front of his large, detached garage next door.
The engine is one of many Berner bought and restored over the years, using the mechanical skills he learned as a boy on his uncle’s farm, a worker in a transmission manufacturing plant and a firefighter whose specialty was drafting special equipment orders. He sold one of his treasured antique engines to Jim Bonaminio, who displays it at the theme park-like Jungle Jim’s grocery store in Fairfield.
Sales are on Berner’s mind again these days.
“I’m starting to think about selling off the stuff, probably the Santas,” Berner said. “I’d love to see these cookie jars go as one bunch.”
He hinted that he’s a little worried that if he takes down and boxes up the collection to store in his basement after this Christmas like he usually does, the stuff might outlive him.
“If I pack everything up, it’s going to be hard to sell it,” Berner said. “I’d love for somebody to come in and buy it all.
“Some of the stuff I’ll keep so the house doesn’t look bare. I’m not going to strip the house because I’m still going to live here – at least for a while.”
The last thing he wants is for Cameron to be left holding the collection.
“My son is never going to be able to come back and sell all this stuff,” Berner said.
Injured on the job in 1973
Seemingly spry and looking fit, Fuzzy nevertheless said he still feels the aches and pains left over from a near-fatal accident in 1973. Seated in the largest piece of an old set of wicker furniture in his living room, he recalled the day he was fighting a fire with his Evendale crew.
The accident happened while he outside a burning mansion in Wyoming. At one point, he walked down a long lane to the street where he relieved a comrade tending one of the hydrants that fed a pumper. The next thing he remembers, he was waking up in the hospital.
“I couldn’t walk,” said Berner, whose rehabilitation was so extensive it took him three years to get back to full-time work.
To this day, he said, he suffers from what he jokingly calls “Oldsmobile disease,” named for the model of the car that struck him.
The injuries, however, have not kept him off ladders. Until this year, no matter the weather, Berner and volunteer friends strung Christmas lights on his bungalow and high in the trees on his property.
“It was so cold one year, I dragged a kerosene lantern around with me when putting up the lights,” he said. “But I get lots of people to help. People have called to do it this year.”
Berner said it’s probable he will leave his indoor Christmas collection up for a while and concentrate on selling it. He has considered hiring an auctioneer, but he isn’t sure if he’ll do that.
Some treasures are keepers
Hidden among the artificial garlands that ring the windows and plastic poinsettias placed just about everywhere are several treasures Berner said are definite keepers. They include three winter scene prints by Cincinnati artist Robert Fabe (1917-2004) and a blue and red painting of a cat and mouse his son made in kindergarten. All four hang permanently in Berner’s living room.
Another permanent fixture in the home is upstairs in his coved bedroom. There, tucked in front of a dormer window is an old electric train layout that features a Lionel engine and four cars his father purchased at the Western Auto store in Lebanon when Berner was 2 or 3 years old.
“That train set from my childhood is probably the oldest Christmas thing I have,” Berner said. “We used to put it up around the Christmas tree and run it.”
Berner said that nobody kids him about how he decorates his home; they just love it like he does. And although he might feel sad when his run as the King of Christmas is over, he sees a silver lining on the horizon.
“The lights are on a timer until 1 o’clock, seven days a week,” he said. “My electrical bill runs about $600 more than normal for three months.”
Berner’s energy bill savings will be the people of Mason’s loss.