9/17/2004--A Sad Note For All of Us


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.

Then we all repaired to a bar called Druids, near West Park H.S.--where he had taught--and we had food and drink and toasted Lee. It was a really nice time. I just got home a couple hours ago and am so glad I went. I had brunch with Amy and Ed this morning (I guess it was yesterday morning now) and we were looking on the website for pictures and writings. George Bellerose has some wonderful color photos of Hilo training which I hope he will add in.
Sandy Keith
Sept. 26, 2004

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,
I'm e-mailing you rather than calling because I can't trust myself to control my emotions. Lee's girlfriend, Ronna, called last night to say that Lee is in the final stages of his battle with melanoma. She said that he was sinking into a coma, and the hospice nurse predicted that he has about two weeks. Perhaps you've already heard this from other friends, but John and I wanted to make sure that you were alerted. Ronna said that last night he was with his mother, his son, Noah, and Ronna, that he was not in pain, and that he is ready to go.

As you know, Lee looked good when we got together at Monsoon Restaurant when Sandy was in NY in March. He was also in good spirits when Lee, Ronna and I had dinner with Bradley, when he was in town (in the spring?).

But when John and I heard that more melanoma was to be treated with more surgery (in the early summer?), Lee said, "Don't tell anybody." So, we didn't. He's such a private person. However, we did talk to some friends who knew about Lee's condition. As some of you know, Lee, John , Ronna (for a short time)and I all taught at the same NYC public high school for many years, so we have a wide circle of mutual, caring friends).

I last saw Lee on about July 15 when I ran into him and his mother in a store on the Upper West Side. Lee looked pale and thin, but he was still able to drive. He had just started a new regimen at Sloane Kettering. Then John and I left on vacation, and when we returned, Lee said that he would have to reschedule our dinner date because the medication was exhausting him. But since mid-August, he's been going downhill rapidly. When we would talk with him on the phone, he would speak in almost a whisper, and was plagued by a dry cough (presumably from the lesions on his lungs). He would graciously defer our offers to pay him a short visit, saying that he would like to wait until he felt a little stronger. That never happened. Lee said that Tom McAuliff visited him when Tom went to Connecticut for a wedding recently. We're so glad that Tom and Brad, two close friends, got to see Lee.

Ronna said that she had called Brad and Tom last night, and that Tom would alert George. Ronna has been wonderful--so strong, and at Lee's side. She has brought Lee much happiness over the last few years.

John and I wanted to make sure that you heard about Lee. Ronna said that she and Noah were talking about a memorial service in Manhattan, when the time comes. We'll keep you informed.

Please forgive my sterile, reportorial style...too full of emotion to write more now. Our dear, dear friend is in our thoughts and prayers.
Barbara and John

Dear Friends,
Ronna called. Lee passed away at 6:15 this evening. Ronna will be in touch about a memorial service which will be held in Manhattan on Sunday, September 26. May Lee rest in peace.
Barbara and John

This is Noah, Lee's son. I know Tom as well as Lee's friends from teaching have done a great job getting the work out about my dad. He died peacefully and painlessly on Friday night. He was very content and relieved.
The service, as most of you probably know already, will be Sunday the 26th, 2 pm, at Riverside Memorial Chapel. It is on the corner of Amsterdam Ave. and 76th Street in New York. Their number is (212) 362-6600. Please feel free to call either Tom or me if you need more information.
I can be reached at my dad's house (201) 784-9786 or on my pager (510) 997-0294.

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 him fondly.
Jo Quici
Sept. 27, 2004

And from John Moncrief:

I want to add a few thoughts to the report of Leon’s 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 MC’d by Leon’s very mellow son, Noah, who did it his way. The last song performed by Leon’s 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. Leon’s 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 Leon’s 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 didn’t 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. Leon’s 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.
John Moncrief
Oct. 16, 2004

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.

Live well.


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.

However, I'm interested that you have taken the effort to at least keep a list of some of the people we knew many years ago. Incidentally, my home address has changed. It's 721 Ontario #106, Oak Park, IL 60302 (we sold our house and moved into a condo just a block away).

Our next door neighbors own a condo in Kailua-Kona, so my wife and I rented it for a vacation a couple of years ago. During that stay she and I did a little exploring and found the old school building that we used a a dormitory during practice teaching in Kona -- the Keahou School -- currently used for some sort of pre-school classes, but pretty beat up and overgrown. And behind the building, the rusty pipes which provided those early morning cold water showers are still there. I also found Hookena School where I practice taught. The principal gave us a tour, and it's in great shape. To my dismay, I was much older than anyone on the faculty or staff, and mentioning that I had been there back in 1965 was like referring back to the Boer War or something.

On the Hilo side, the old hospital is still intact, but the former nurses' residence where we lived is gone, and there is an upgraded parking lot and overlook for Rainbow Falls.

It was an enjoyable and interesting vacation, but the closest I've been to Thailand since the late 1960s is the Thai restaurant just down the street from where we live.

Best regards,
Paul Oppenheim
Sept. 28, 2004

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.
We are alive and well here. Rowena and I were married in June--bless the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I retired last December and love the freedom. Ajan Sidhorn was here for a week in August. She is still teaching at the Univ. of Wisconsin and will return to Thailand next May. I loved spending time with her and almost got used to being bossed around again.
You must be loving your new home. How is your daughter?
I left a message for Katie O'Hare asking her to contact you.
Thank you for all of the work you did on the web site. I really looking at the pictures and reading the notes.
Sept. 28, 2004


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.
I'm so, so sorry to hear about Leon. He was a really good person and a great guy. It doesn't seem like we are really as old as we are, but I guess it's the nature of life. I'm sorry we didn't all keep in touch better all these years.
This is short because I only have a little while to cover this month of e-mail, but I'll be back in touch soon.
Love, Helene
Sept. 29, 2004