9/17/2004--A Sad Note For All of Us
IN MEMORIAM: LEON BERGER
One of our best and brightest has just died. Lee Berger (whom we knew as "Leon" back in Peace Corps days), died of cancer September 17, and there was a memorial service in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 26. Sandy Keith attended and sent us this brief summary:
You should have been there. There
was a band of guitarists who had played regularly with Leon (OK, "Lee,")
that played a song before the service--Several RPCV's were there--Amy
Stone (with husband Ed), Barbara Lucey (with guitarist husband John),
Bernie and Susie May, John Moncrief, Tom McAuliff, George Bellerose, Gerry
Isaacson. The rest of the chapel was packed with teachers who had worked
with Lee. His son Noah acted as sort of MC and did a wonderful job. Lee's
ex-wife also gave a very moving talk about how she had stayed friends
with Lee. Pretty amazing. Lee's 90-something-year-old mother and his girlfriend
Ronna were there too--both pretty devastated. That was the family. Aside
from some teachers and rabbis, the best talks came from a couple of Lee's
students, one of whom had apparently hated all white people until Lee
turned him around. Very moving. Tom gave a lovely talk about how he knew
Lee in PC and later on in Vermont. Lee had made a tape of himself singing
and playing the guitar, (he announced it as "Bushmills and Berger"),
which they played at the end, and pretty much everyone broke up.
Here some more notes people have passed on to us, the first from Barbara Lucey (who taught at the same school with Lee for 30+ years) and Lee's son, Noah:
Dear Amy and Ed, John and Marianne, Bernie and
Susie, Sandy, Peter,
Jon Keeton sent these thoughts from Kabul:
Hello from Kabul, where I just felt a chill go through me with the news of Lee Berger's death. It is hard to believe so many years have passed since we all first met. Yet there is still so much left for us to do. I vividly remember Lee's energy, spirit and smile. I am sure his students over the years must remember him that way also. He gave much.
Around me now is a throng of Afghans preparing to go out and teach democracy for next month's election. Let's all teach someone something today in Lee's memory. However simple the lesson might be, you never know the impact on a life.
Warm regards to all.
Peter Lee wrote, also . . .
I have been a quiet one on this list, I know. I have so enjoyed all the communication from you all. This last flurry of messages about Lee touched me powerfully.
I wanted to share one small memory of Lee.
We worked one memorable summmer on Phuket with Fran Stout and others. We swam daily in the beautiful Indian Ocean. Lee was grinning as usual, swimming and body surfing. A wave caught him and upended him. I remember clearly his legs sticking straight up out of the water, and then he disappeared. He emerged shortly, grin still in place, and his shorts full of sand. Laugh and laugh.
Haven't seen him in twenty years, but I will never forget that grin.
Here are some thoughts from Brad Martin, 9/23/04:
Group XI pals:
One of the truly great things about Lee was that, after experiencing the frustrations of public school teaching in Thailand, he came back to the United States and became a public school teacher. And he bacame a highly effective public school teacher, in an urban place where success was more elusive than it might have been elsewhere. For decades he did his very, very best to interest youngsters (mostly those whose upbringings were often not so great) in real education.
I'm teaching college journalism these days, but I've just about decided that it would be difficult for me to help, in a major way, the majority of the kids I get in my classes. I won't quit trying but, then again, at my age I don't have the energy to go and teach five or six hours a day in high school--which is where my students should have learned what they in fact failed to learn because their teachers were less conscientious than Lee. Lee put up with all the impediments and inconveniences, and he never gave up on his pupils. That is truly the Peace Corps spirit, and I applaud our old friend for having kept that spirit alive until his physical problems intervened.
Sixty years on this earth: Yes, that's a few fewer than most of the rest of us will get, but by God our friend Lee used his sixty years very, very well, as teacher, son, father, friend. I'm certain that our dear friend is resting in well deserved peace.
I wish I could join those of you who are able to turn out in Manhattan on Sunday. There's a deadline that I'm unable to shift, so I can't get up there. I'll be drinking a toast to our dear friend that afternoon, and to all of us survivors, and hope to reminisce in person wtih some of you later in the fall.
Jo (Orlando) Quici wrote
A group of us, including Leon, decided to get together
to celebrate New Years, 1966, in my little seaside town of Prachuab. At
dawn, on the 1st of January, we joined hundreds of other Thais who had
lined the main street that flanked the South China Sea. Our purpose --
to "make merit" by feeding the local monks who walked the length
of the street bearing silver bowls into which we heaped offerings of rice,
oranges, bananas, etc. That afternoon, I remember that we jammed onto
the porch of my little house, drinking Singh beer and listening to the
Beatles' Revolver album. Leon "perfumed" the air with his giant
cigar, looking the picture of contentment. I'll never forget the cheshire-cat
grin on his face then. He was a gem, a good heart, and I will always remember
And from John Moncrief:
I want to add a few thoughts to the report of Leons
memorial done by Sandy Na Rak Keith. The service was at one
of the old time Jewish funeral homes of New York City. It was held in
a sort of gothic chapel, presided over by an elderly rabbi who I assume
came with the service. But, as Sandy mentioned, the memorial was MCd
by Leons very mellow son, Noah, who did it his way. The last song
performed by Leons Friday night guitar group was "John, Robert
and Martin," you know the one that starts Have you seen my
old friend John? Their last lyric started Have you seen my
old friend Lee? and the front two rows were sobbing. Leons
English department colleagues and the chairman of his department all spoke
of their deep love for Leon. Although I had socialized with Leon right
after the Peace Corps (remember that party at Columbia, Pam?) and had
seen him from time to time over the years, he was fun to banter with and
cajole, but I apparently never really knew him. I was quite surprised
when Tom spoke so emotionally about his love for Leon. I never knew that
Leon (Mr. New York City) and Tom (Mr. Vermont) exchanged family visits
on their respective turfs. I was surprised when Leons ex-wife spoke
tearfully of her love for Leon. And it was sort of electrifying when the
black student who had never trusted white people showed up at the end
of the service to testify how Leon changed his life. He didnt speak
very long or very emotionally but it was a thrilling moment. At the end,
Noah played a tape of Leon singing away and playing his guitar with abandon.
Leons mother, who had not come into the chapel until after the Friday
night guitar group finished because she did not think it was appropriate
at a Jewish funeral service, began sobbing hard. I was briefly jealous
of Leon but then remembered I was still alive. When I croak, I am sure
nice things will be said about me but not like the things that were said
for Leon. Way to go Leon!. You made a difference.
This is Peter M. again . . . I think there is nothing I can productively add, except to say that over the past 15 or so years Lee had become an ever-closer friend and that I'll miss him very much. You can post your own comments on the website . . . go to Home, then to "leave a note for us. Or you can send something--notes, pictures, whatever you can think of--to me by clicking here--or if that doesn't work, you can find my e-mail address, along with everyone else's whose address we know or surmise, on the Roster page. If you send something, I'll post it.
Here are some more notes sent after Lee's service by some of us we've been out of touch with for a while:
from Paul Oppenheim:
Thanks for the notice about Leon. It was unhappy news.
from Pam Shea:
Thank you for sending the sad news about Leon.
It has been many years since I have seen him, but I remember his wonderful
spirit and sense of humor.
from Helene (Holmes) (Haase?) Gouead (read about latest events, linked to her name on the roster, for more explanation):
I'm in Egypt and haven't gotten my e-mail for a
month. However, we just moved into a larger house, and will be getting
a phone line in about three weeks . . . that means regular e-mail. I was
in the States for about 3 weeks at end of July and then in England for
3 weeks, then back here. We took whole family to beach at Nuweiba on the
Red Sea, and then Moustafa's daughter got married which was a big deal
for the last 3 or 4 weeks. Now things are beginning to settle down a little.