Young at heart – Senior couple has become an icon at Union Hill School |

Young at heart – Senior couple has become an icon at Union Hill School

With little more than a smile, she hands out hamburgers and cartons of milk to hungry students.

When the day is done, he pulls out his buggy loaded with mops and cleaners and, like a quiet hero whose work is done long before anyone arrives to see him, meticulously wipes and sweeps classrooms clean.

They are a young-at-heart couple whose traditional working days have long since passed, yet they toil part time not to supplement their fixed incomes, but to be closer to the hundreds of students and teachers at Union Hill School that have become part of Bernice and Tom Vieira Jr.’s family during the past two decades.

They are a couple who would prefer that their work speak volumes.

“We’re simple, modest people,” said Bernice Vieira, 81, taking time from her lunchroom duties to dissect a career at Union Hill School that started nearly a quarter-century ago when she served lunches in the hallway of the school before there was a proper cafeteria.

Tom Vieira, a robust 87, said recently that his work tidying up classrooms, even cleaning toilets, tops just about any job he’s ever had since being discharged from the Army after World War II.

“I like things nice and neat,” he said. “It gives a good first impression.”

After a stint as an Army field artillery man, he worked at Bethlehem Steel, made car seat cushions, was a production manager at a concrete supplier that helped build what is now Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, and was a machinist.

He’s working not for corporations now, but for children.

“I love it. It’s a great pastime for me. The teachers and kids are like a family,” he said.

Many times, the teachers get much of the recognition at a school. When Union Hill wins an award like the California Distinguished School award, as it did last year, the people at the top of the masthead – Superintendent Rod Fivelstad and Union Hill Principal Eric Fredrickson – normally get the props.

But Fredrickson will tell anyone that Bernice and Tom Vieira deserve recognition for the school’s success, as much or more than anyone else on campus.

“They epitomize work ethic,” he said. “They’re great role models for our teachers and staff.”

Some people think the Vieiras are nuts for working so late into their lives.

Tom Vieira said he tried fishing for years in the Sacramento Delta after his first retirement, but his casts never caught much but weeds.

On their first date more than 58 years ago, Tom Vieira impressed his future bride by failing to catch a single minnow.

Like her husband, Bernice Vieira toiled for years in the postwar Bay Area before embarking on her second career.

“I always wanted to go to school, but nobody could get help in those days,” she said. So she helped pay the rent working in quality control at Gerber and Kellogg’s factories in the East Bay. She also made tin cans.

Now, her greatest joy is working in human relations of a sort.

“It’s a good place, and we enjoy coming here,” she said. “When I get in my car and turn on my radio, I feel the same thing – that I’m so happy to have this job.”

As children of the Great Depression, Bernice Vieira said her generation was instilled with a great need to provide for themselves and future generations.

As a child, she spent summers working on fruit ranches near Atwater, earning $9 for an entire summer picking peaches.

She put off a dream of becoming a teacher so her children would have the opportunity.

Bernice and Tom Vieira’s son, Dave Vieira, was a popular teacher at Ready Springs and Magnolia Intermediate School. He died four years ago.

Tom Vieira has two other children from a previous marriage.

The Union Hill community has celebrated the couple’s achievements, throwing parties for Tom Vieira’s 80th and 85th birthdays.

The two are as ingrained into the school as its famed bell tower, said Sandy Blake, a 34-year Union Hill employee.

“They’re just good role models to any of us,” said Blake, a second-grade teacher and the longest tenured teacher at the 800-student school.

Their volunteerism and spirit are invaluable.

Many times, the couple has asked Blake if they could help decorate her classroom before the school year. Years ago, Blake remembered, Tom played on the school’s faculty-staff softball team.

In two decades, Bernice has missed only a handful of days.

“If I could adopt additional parents, I’d choose them,” Blake said, crying softly. “I would trust them with anything. I would do a business deal at their word. They’re the best, just the best. There isn’t anything phony about them.”

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