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It’s said there’s a simple choice once our schooldays are behind us: We can either keep learning or we can stop.


Either test ourselves or not.


Coast or fly.


From the long list of interests and challenges retired dentist and Tarzana resident Stuart Bernthol has pursued, it’s evident he chose the boredom-free path.


“Dentistry was what I did,” he explains, “Not who I was.”


Over the years Bernthol’s patients shared an endless supply of fascinating experiences with him.


“My curiosity in everything made it easy to talk to them no matter where they were from, and they were from all over the world.” Bernthol counted among his patients a top official in the Soviet air force; a CIA operative active in the Cuban revolution; and an eye witness to Mao Zedong’s pursuit of Chiang Kai-shek.


Going to work was like going to the library, Bernthol says.


 “I’m interested in so many things; anthropology, evolution, aviation, history, paleontology, and then theoretical physics just for fun.”


And add astronomy and Griffith Observatory to Bernthol’s passions.


“When the Observatory shut down for renovation I was devastated,” he recalls. “When it reopened I wanted to bring a group of friends in so I joined FOTO just to be able to get in earlier.”


Recently Bernthol even had himself discharged from the hospital in time to hear Observatory curator Dr. Laura Danly lecture on dark matter that evening.


He estimates he visits Griffith at least once a month and often brings friends and family members.


“I’ve been there a hundred times, and every time there’s something to learn, whether you’re interested in meteorites or cosmic rays,” Bernthol says. “The Observatory has done a wonderful job making the exhibits user-friendly—people at every age can be inspired.”


Growing up in Hollywood, Bernthol’s earliest memory of Griffith is not of the Observatory but the park, where he used to fly kites. “I liked to experiment, and one day I learned a lesson: My kite was six-feet high, so big it broke the string,” sending his prototype into a terminal nosedive.


It only fueled his inquiring mind, something he’d like to do for today’s young people. He recounts a seminal event from his own childhood as a violinist in a youth orchestra. One day the group was bused to an orphanage to perform for the residents.  


“That bus trip I took changed my life,” he says. “I never felt poor, because I was given all I needed, including love. I knew other people had more ‘things’ than us, but my parents gave us so much love and support that things never seemed important to me. They still don’t.”


And now he would like to be part of the effort to inspire today’s less advantaged children.


“A trip to the Observatory could be a moment of epiphany for some young budding scientist and I applaud the efforts of FOTO to make this experience available to them.”


Indeed, FOTO’s financial support ensures students from all over the Southland can attend the Observatory’s school program, a field trip unaffordable in many districts.


To that end, Bernthol has increased his support to the Observatory this year to sponsor at least one school trip.


“I love the mentoring projects that FOTO offers to young children to inspire them and open them up to the possibilities of learning the mysteries of life.”


Bernthol’s own adventurous life includes stints as a Hollywood extra and a long amateur career in the theatre. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in so many memorable opportunities. When I was a student I was in the [1960] movie “Spartacus” with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Lawrence Oliver and Charles Laughton. And at another point I wanted to be a singer and was offered a record contract but decided I didn’t want to risk the pitfalls of that life.”


He didn’t lose his love of performance, however, going on to appear regionally in “Guys and Dolls,” “Auntie Mame,” “Sweet Charity” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”


Having so many interests is “kind of a curse,” Bernthol says. “But there’s very little I don’t enjoy.


“Those of us that are lucky enough to be able to take a bite out of life and participate in so many of the marvelous opportunities for personal growth available in the Los Angeles area, or anywhere one may live for that matter, are truly fortunate.


Bernthol takes that bite in the company of good friends. On any given Thursday, he and friends Stanley Decovnick and Phillip Binderman visit a museum, an air show or art exhibit; at least twice a month they attend lectures—the Civil War is a favorite topic. And they and fellow traveler Dr. William Ginell usually attend FOTO lectures with him. From the Train and Red Car Museum in San Bernardino to the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, the Southland is their playground.


“I think the greatest compliment I ever received was from a classmate of mine in junior high school, who called me the largest volume of worthless information he ever met… I feel so fortunate that I am able to participate in the programs offered by FOTO. Being able to watch presentations and participate in question and answer sessions with so many wonderfully qualified presenters at our FOTO programs is a special privilege.”

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