Bernard J. Somers, professor of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles, and a practicing clinical psychologist in Santa Monica and West L.A. for four decades, died on June 18 in Los Angeles due to complications of cancer after a short illness. He was 79.
Leading by example, Somers inspired two generations of students and others to lead lives of compassion and social change.
When he was just four years old, Somers moved with his family to Brazil where his father was an industrial engineer. While there, Somers and his mother visited the local favelas to feed the poor. He later credited these visits with sowing the seeds of his lifelong compassion for people in need. Before he started school, Somers had become a committed social activist.
As an academic, psychologist, and activist, Somers exemplified what his friend Dr. Jeremy Shapiro describes as “Intellect suffused with compassion for others.”
Spurred by his voracious curiosity and respect for all cultures, Somers led what his wife of 20 years, Virginia, calls, “a life of the mind,” living in the world with curiosity and depth, encouraging others to do the same.
Somers’ career began when he entered the Navy during World War II, at age 18, and quickly advanced to officer rank. The Navy sent him to Dartmouth College, where he majored in chemistry, and then to duty in the Pacific.
After the war, Somers worked briefly as a chemist in New York City, but his desire to connect with people was strong. He began his life-long service to others by volunteering after-hours as a lay therapist.
Soon, Somers returned to school to earn his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University, working as an intern and therapist in a New York City community rehabilitation clinic.
Longing for the endless summers of his Brazilian childhood, he discovered a place to recreate them: Southern California. Somers spent the rest of his life living in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica – close to the beach, and always in the sun.
Somers was a full professor of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles for 37 years, and conducted a private practice on the Westside of Los Angeles for 40 years.
Well-known for his skill as a group therapist, Somers specialized in groups for men as well as adult mixed groups. He wrote numerous professional articles, including contributions to the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
Throughout his life, Somers remained active in the social justice and peace movements. He marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rallied for fair housing in Watts, and offered his services pro bono to the Southern California Counseling Center for over 20 years.
Somers volunteered as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War, headed the Los Angeles organization of “Vietnam Summer,” the nationwide anti-war movement led by Dr. King and Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1967, and later joined with Spock and many others in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s.
Recently, his activism focused on environmental issues, particularly the work of Earth Island Institute, a non-profit incubator of community-based, sustainable environmental projects around the world. And, until his death, Somers continued his commitment to peace activism, working and inspiring others to bring an end to the war in Iraq.
Somers is survived by his wife, Virginia Mullin, a clinical psychologist; a sister, Jean Bergaust; two brothers, John and James Somers; a step-daughter, Erin Mullin of San Francisco, CA; two children from a previous marriage, Evan Somers and Bianca Somers-Ohle, both of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren, Kevin and Krysta Ohle.A memorial service will be held in August. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway, Ste. 300, San Francisco, CA 94133 or Pacific Serenades, L.A. Center Studios, 1201 W. 5th St, Ste. F-240, Los Angeles, CA 90017.