Rita Sloan Berndt, a neurology professor at the University of Maryland Medical School for 25 years who studied people who suffered from aphasia, the loss of the power to use or understand words, died June 17 of lymphoma at her home in Roland Park. She was 70.
Sheila Blumstein, a professor of cognitive linguistics and psychological sciences at Brown University, called her colleague and friend a force in the fields of aphasia and neuroscience.
"We have yet to truly understand aphasia and the reasons behind it, but we've come a long way, and Rita was part of the reason we've come a long way," Dr. Blumstein said.
Dr. Blumstein remembered that when she and other scientists held a wrong belief about something in the field, and Dr. Berndt would give it a "push."
"She had the strength and intellectual grit to follow it through and show the rest of us she was right," Dr. Blumstein said. "But in a gentle way — she didn't have a nasty bone in her body."
Dr. Berndt was born to Naomi Ravenscroft Sloan and Joseph Sloan in Baltimore and was raised in Catonsville. She graduated from the Institute of Notre Dame in 1962 and married her husband of nearly 50 years, Rick Berndt, in 1964.
The two met when she was 14 and he was 16, on a bus home from a basketball game with the Catholic Youth League in Philadelphia.
Mr. Berndt remembers the girls lining up to get on the bus first; he watched a pretty 14-year-old as she walked by and tapped her on the shoulder.
"I said, 'It would be a good thing if there was a seat left next to you on the bus,' and there was," he said.
After they were married, Dr. Berndt worked as a legal assistant to help her husband through law school. About a year after their son was born, Dr. Berndt went back to school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1968.
She earned a bachelor's degree in liberal studies in 1971 and went on to earn her master's degree in psychology in 1975, and Ph.D. in cognitive psychology in 1977 from the Johns Hopkins University.
During her career, Dr. Berndt focused on learning what different areas of the brain did. She worked with stroke patients and people who suffered from aphasia, though the core of her work was "basic science," said Mr. Berndt, an attorney.
After graduating from Hopkins, Dr. Berndt worked at the university as an associate professor of cognitive psychology. In 1983, she became a faculty member in neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she stayed until she retired in 2008 as a full professor.
"Rita had an unusual and sort of extraordinary sense of joy around things she really liked," said her son, John Berndt, who remembers his mother as deeply intellectual, introverted and extremely compatible with his more social father.
Dr. Berndt "really did enjoy her life in a vibrant way," her husband said.
In 2001, Dr. Berndt was diagnosed with cancer. In 2003, she had a risky, rarely done procedure so she could live to see her grandchildren.
"I had kids rather late. ... I think it was a great surprise for my mom that she was going to be a grandparent," said her son, who has two sons ages 11/2 and 3. "She spent as much time with them as she could possibly muster. It was a great bonus round in her life in a way. She was very excited about it and about the future of my family."
She had many interests, including movies, books, sports, cooking and music.
She loved to travel and spent many summers at Great Gott Island in Maine. She also traveled each year to Italy with friends and loved going to Yellowstone National Park to watch the wolves.
The couple shared a love of athletics, and her husband remembers Dr. Berndt keeping a pair of Converse hightops and socks in the trunk of their car until they were in their 30s, in case they spotted a game of basketball they could join.
"When we would drive, we often would stop [when seeing kids playing basketball] and say, 'You kids want to play some two-on-two?' " Mr. Berndt said. "She would pour these balls in [the hoop]. We had so much fun playing sports through the years and so many good stories about how people responded to her basketball skills."
A celebration of her life will be held at 11 a.m. July 16 at the new performing arts center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle. A private burial will be held in the fall at Great Gott Island.
In addition to her husband, son and two grandsons, Dr. Berndt is survived by her brother, Don Sloan of Bel Air.
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