Melanie Edgecombe, a Willoughby native who now lives in Texas, was looking through photos at her family home in Madison Township in Lake County when she stumbled upon a faded Polaroid that made her pause. In the photo, she is pictured on a beach near her childhood home with a friend and David Berger, the Shaker Heights bodybuilder who was killed in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics.
“I was home recently, and my mother, who is 92, gave me some photos and Dave’s photo was in there,” Edgecombe said.
Berger was among 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September at the 1972 Olympic Games. Although the photo that brought the two together was taken in 1966, that turn of events is en route to bringing two women, Edgecombe and David Berger’s sister, Barbara Berger, together in 2016.
It was the summer of 1966 – Edgecombe was 11 and David Berger 22. A friend took a photograph of the two posing with a friend.
“The beach was at the bottom of Chestnut Street in Willoughby – on the lake. I lived one block from the beach. He was only there for one summer that I can remember,” Edgecombe said in a telephone call from her Texas Hill Country home. “It’s a funny picture because David was already on his way to developing his weightlifter physique and I look like a skinny drowned bird standing next to him. He has his hand on my head in a gesture of kindness.”
That summer 50 years ago, David Berger seemed to materialize from out of nowhere, a “handsome newcomer who looked like he was willing to take us out on his air mattress. Just a new kid on the beach; I was 11, he was like 21 maybe.” (He was 22.)
Edgecombe said Berger was very kind – and, perhaps, a bit exotic.
“He was someone different. I don’t know why he was there,” she said. “I guess we knew he didn’t live in the neighborhood.”
Edgecombe added that this was a private beach in a “crappy kind of town,” and Berger was high class, with a “real air mattress.”
“It was our beach. We went, oh, there’s somebody new here. That piqued our interest,” she said.
As an adult, Edgecombe thinks of David Berger every time there’s a terrorist attack. She also thinks of Barbara Berger, whom she swears she met on that Willoughby beach, recalling that she used baby oil as suntan lotion, which Edgecombe had never seen before.
Her memories stirred by the dappled image, Edgecombe decided that while she didn’t need to hold onto the photo, the Berger family might want it.
“I can’t throw it away, it’s a precious thing,” Edgecombe said. “Even if it’s (just) the Jewish community I would think they would want to have it.”
She brought the photo back to Fredericksburg, Texas where she has run a bed-and-breakfast community for the past 23 years. She ended up introducing herself via email to Barbara Berger and promised her the photo.
Berger is retired from a variety of professions including law, journalism and landscaping. She left Cleveland in 1968 after graduating from Shaker Heights High School and now lives in Portland, Maine. Three years younger than her brother, David, and three years older than her brother, Fred, a retired social worker who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Berger well remembers the beach of her youth. She immediately realized the photo was taken on the beach by her grandparents’ cottage.
“The interesting thing about that cottage is that when my father was growing up they would move there for the summer and they would play baseball in the back,” Berger recalled in a telephone conversation from Portland. “There was a guy who lived next door who was always working on a breakwall to prevent erosion. Now there’s no backyard at all; it all eroded, but the guy who built the breakwall had a backyard.”
Berger hasn’t been there since 1999 and doesn’t know whether her grandparents’ cottage still exists. However, 50 years on, it seems likely that Melanie Edgecombe and Barbara Berger will meet again, thanks to the internet and memories they didn’t even realize they shared.
“I just like the way he’s putting his hand on her head,” Berger said. “(He) could be tough on the outside but he was a very compassionate person.”
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland Heights.