November 24, 2008 12:00 PM

A week after her husband and best friend of 30 years died last August, Rhonda McCullough was in her bedroom when she caught the whiff of a familiar scent. “I could smell his cologne,” she recalls. “I inhaled and I said, ‘You’re here. You’re here.’ I was turning around, and I said, ‘Hey, Bernard.’ It stayed with me for about five minutes; I was very comforted.”

To the world he was Bernie Mac, a sharply dressed and sharp-tongued Chicago stand-up who rose from Wonder Bread truck driver to comedy superstar. But to Rhonda, 50, his wife of more than 30 years, he is forever Bernard, a doting father and husband who never forgot where he came from. Now as his last movie, Soul Men, hits theaters, his widow is learning how to navigate life alone. “I don’t always feel him,” says Rhonda, who lives in the suburban Chicago home the couple shared for six years. “But I think he comes when I really need him.”

Not long after the movie wrapped last spring, Bernie—who suffered from sarcoidosis, a chronic autoimmune disease—checked into a Chicago hospital, complaining of a persistent fever and difficulty breathing. At first Rhonda wasn’t worried, assuming his illness was a side effect of a new medication. But then his condition seemed to spiral out of control: He developed pneumonia and a kidney infection. “It was just too many things going wrong,” says Rhonda, who kept vigil with their only child, daughter Je’Niece, now 30. On Aug. 9 Bernie, 50, died of heart failure after a second bout with pneumonia. “He looked in my eyes, and they just looked so sad to me; I think he knew,” she recalls. “Somewhere in the spiritual realm, he kind of knew what was going on. Once he passed away, they let us come in, and he just looked so peaceful, so calm.”

On Oct. 28 Rhonda attended her husband’s final premiere in New York City, with Je’Niece and other family members. “We cried,” she says. “Just seeing him and hearing him and knowing we’re not going to see him again.” Those who worked on Soul Men marked the loss of another cast member, Isaac Hayes, who died on Aug. 10 of a stroke. For costar Samuel L. Jackson, the film—about two aging soul musicians who reunite for a last tour—is a tribute to both men. “Bernie was a show-must-go-on kind of guy,” says Jackson, who hugged Rhonda as the credits rolled. “All the elements of him that people knew and loved are in this film.” Other Hollywood pals are also honoring the comic—Madagascar 2, in which Bernie voiced a role—is dedicated to his memory. “You get a double dose of Bernie,” says Soul Men director Malcolm Lee. “He was a gentleman.”

Back at the couple’s two-story brick, contemporary-style house in Frankfort, Ill., Rhonda has her own keepsakes. Bernie’s likeness gazes out from a series of portraits, the shelves overflow with his awards, and his custom-made humidor holds dozens of his trademark cigars. “I haven’t moved anything,” she says. “His clothes are still here, his shoes. Just like it was.”

After his death, she says, “I went into his closet and had a meltdown. I was just trying to see if I could smell him on anything, his suits, his shirts. There will probably come a point when I will get rid of his clothes. Right now I can’t.”

A former nurse, Rhonda Gore met Bernard McCullough in 1975, when they were both Chicago high school students. At first she wasn’t impressed with the cocky young man who told her he would be a star. He used wit to win her over, telling her, “You never seen a black man as pretty as me.” A kiss in shop class on Valentine’s Day sealed the deal. The couple wed in 1977 and a year later had Je’Niece. The young family struggled while Bernie drove a truck to support the family and paid his dues in comedy clubs, but they never gave up. “Life with Bernard was a roller coaster,” says Rhonda. “[But] there was always lots of humor in our home.” Family was always Bernie’s main priority. “Everything he did, he did with family in mind,” says Je’Niece, who was her father’s assistant. “If he got a new offer for a movie, he’d say, ‘I need to negotiate so I can take care of you and your mother.'” When Bernie hit the big time, landing his own Fox sitcom and roles in movies such as Ocean’s Eleven, that didn’t change. “He knew I was always going to be there,” says Rhonda. “He had my back and I had his. That’s what kept us together for 30-plus years.”

Since Bernie’s death, Rhonda has found comfort in her relationship with Je’Niece, who moved into her mother’s home with her 2-year-old daughter Jasmine after a recent divorce. The women now oversee the Bernie Mac Foundation for Sarcoidosis, which seeks to fund research into the little-understood disease (it commonly causes inflammation of the lungs). “That’s where we’re putting our energy now,” Rhonda says. Chris Rock, Ben Stiller and Catherine Zeta-Jones have made donations to the cause.

The work has given Rhonda a mission, but “I still have moments where I cry, and then I get up and say ‘okay’ and take a deep breath,” she says. “God gives me the strength to go on.”

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