Bertha Fenner, longtime owner of Dibbo's restaurant and hotel, died Saturday at the age of 85
Bertha Fenner didn't need time to think when asked why customers keep coming back to her restaurant day after day, month after month, year after year. "I think it's being friendly with people," she said. "Don't you?
"Recognize them even if you don't remember their names. Or if they had an ache last week, ask about it. Friendliness, don't you think so? I do. "People have got to be nice to each other. I think that's the best thing."
The friendliness at Dibbo's is what has made it a second home for a large number of Hudson natives. Many were children when they ate their first meal at the Dibbo. Now they're bringing their grandkids in for a piece of Bertha's banana cream pie. "Her customers are her friends, and of course she has a heart of gold," said Willis Miller, publisher emeritus of the Star-Observer. Miller heads to the Dibbo every weekday morning for coffee with a group of friends. He, plumber Roger Evenson, City Attorney Bill Radosevich and Dick's Bar owner G. Fred Kramer were trading wisecracks around a table in the dining room one morning last week. All of them have been customers for years. Evenson said he remembers bringing his son there for a piece of Bertha's pie when the boy was just a lad. Now his son is close to 40. That should give you an idea of how long he's been a Dibbo's regular, Evenson said.
It's the good food, the people who work there and the people he sees there that keep him coming back to the old restaurant at 517 Second St., he said.
It's been more than 50 years now since Bertha, of necessity, got a crash course in cooking for a crowd.
She was working in her Aunt Mary's boarding house in her hometown of
Superior when Mary suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. Her father, a Belgian immigrant and a pattern maker, suggested that Bertha take over the 21-room family-style operation.
"You can make a living there," Edmond VanHove told the youngest of his two daughters.
"Whoa, I says to Pa, I don't know how to cook. Well, he says, (Uncle) Tom will help you. That's how I got started," Bertha recalled.
She was just 19 or 20 when she bought the boarding house with a $2,500 loan from her father.
In 1956, she learned through her brother-in-law, real estate agent Delbert Hector, that Dibbo and Evelyn Means wanted to sell their hotel in Hudson.
Bertha and a previous husband, and her sister, Martha, and her husband, Delbert, bought the business. They all lived in the hotel above the restaurant and bar when they first came to town.
The business partnership between the sisters and their spouses dissolved, but "Martha stuck with me," Bertha said. She's been waiting on tables in Dibbo's restaurant for more than 40 years.
The sisters work seven days a week. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday, and on Sundays they come in to bake and prepare dishes for the coming week.
Bertha comes to the restaurant at around 4 a.m.
"I get the dinner going and everything -- and the rolls. We make our own rolls, too," Bertha said. "And soups, I make soup, my gosh. Homemade soup is a lot better than canned stuff. It isn't very often that I have to open cans."
Three or four homemade pies go in the oven before daybreak.
"Everything's from scratch. It's very seldom that we buy anything that's ready-made. We make our own. It's better that way. Cheaper, too," Bertha said.
The first customer, Larry Hanson, arrives at 20 minutes to five. He has breakfast before continuing down Second Street to his job at Erickson's City Market. On his way home from work, he stops in for a cup of coffee.
By 7 a.m., the counter is crowded with working men. Bertha describes the scene as "just like Ladies Aid, except it's men."
She knows what most of the men want for breakfast before they order -- and how they want their eggs done.
"It's a nice town," she said. "I don't remember names very well, but I know faces. We've got a lot of nice customers. Lots of good help."
A quiet good Samaritan
What Bertha Fenner didn't mention in that 1998 interview were the things she did quietly, behind the scenes, to help those in need.
Judy Gillen, owner of The Stylist hair salon right next door to the Dibbo, opened her business in 1982 after Fenner came to her and offered the space for very affordable rent.
"I couldn't have gotten started without her help. She was so good to me, keeping my rent where I could manage it and just being so kind all the time. I did her hair every week for almost 30 years and she was always bringing us in her homemade soup or some pie. She had the biggest heart, even more than people knew," said Gillen.
While she never talked about it, Gillen said Fenner made a habit of helping those in need, whether it was with a hot meal they couldn't pay for or a bed upstairs in the hotel. She even lent out her car to those who needed a lift.
Gillen said she would often open the restaurant on holidays for those who had nowhere else to go.
Gillen said Fenner was a real benefactor in Hudson. "And these days we could all use more of her kindness around here."
A memorial service for Fenner will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, 520 11th St. S, Hudson, with a visitation starting at 1 p.m. A complete obituary appears on page 4C and also online.