He's the Answer to the Question, Who's the Shrewdest, Most Charming Guy at the State House?

Friday, November 2, 2012

A long time ago, my boss and I scheduled a meeting with Fred Berry, the state senator from Peabody, for a health care client of ours.
Something came up at the last moment and my boss was unable to make it.  We proceeded without him.
I started the meeting by apologizing for my boss’s absence and explaining why he couldn’t be there.
“He’s very sorry he couldn’t be with us here today, Senator,” I emphasized, “and he wanted you to know that his thoughts and best wishes are with you.”
Berry studied me a bit before responding.  He was giving some thought to how he should react.
“You tell your boss,” he said, “that I am just so pleased that he was thinking of me.  He’s a very busy man.  With all he has to do, I can’t believe he has even a minute to think of me.  Of me!  You just tell him how grateful I am for that.”
Berry was born with cerebral palsy, which affects the way he speaks, in addition to hampering his mobility.  The words tend to come out of his mouth slowly, like individual blows from a muffled drumstick, with a slight pause between each one.
“ You. Tell. Your. Boss.”
The sly glint in his eyes was unnerving. 
At the time, I knew practically nothing about Senator Berry. 
All of a sudden, I felt like I was on thin ice.  “Oh, oh, the senator feels snubbed," I thought.  "He’s going to take it out on me -- or worse, on our client!  What will I do?”
I need not have worried.  Berry was only pulling my leg.  Once the introductions were out of the way, the conversation picked up and moved naturally.  We were there for almost an hour, and as we walked out the door, the client was feeling good.
Fred Berry, currently the longest-serving member of the Massachusetts Senate, is getting ready to exit the State House.  At the end of his term in early January, he will retire from a career in politics that started in 1979 with his election to the Peabody City Council.  Now 62, he entered the Senate in 1983 and has been the majority leader, the Senate President’s right arm, since 2003.
Berry was honored at a testimonial dinner at the Danversport Yacht Club in September.  For weeks in advance, the event was sold out.  Six hundred admirers jammed the club’s cavernous banquet room on a Thursday night to honor him, express their appreciation for all he’d accomplished as a legislator and public servant, and contribute to the Fred Berry Charitable Foundation.  The night’s proceeds, about $70,000, were donated to food pantries in the communities of Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Salem and Topsfield, which make up his district, the Second Essex.
Governor Deval Patrick escorted Berry and his wife, Gayle, into the room that night, amidst ferocious applause and cheering.
Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, sent a letter of tribute, which was read aloud.  “Despite personal obstacles,” Biden wrote, “Senator Berry’s determination and fervent passion has made him a powerful voice for so many in Massachusetts.”
A video tribute was played on a big screen.  Senate President Therese Murray was among those who appeared in it.  “Nobody has been a better role model for people with different abilities than Fred,” she said.  “In all of the personal issues he has faced, he’s faced them head on, and he’s still been able to come to work.  He’s still a trusted advisor, and he is a good friend.”
“I’ve had a magical run,” Berry said that night.
There can be no doubt that Fred Berry has been an outstanding elected official and that he deserves all the bouquets coming his way in the last year or so.  The gap in the Senate created by his departure will be conspicuous and long-lasting.  Men like him don’t often come around.
I have never lived in Berry’s district, and I can count on one hand the times I have spoken with him as a lobbyist or encountered him at one event or another.  One Friday night I bumped into him at a restaurant on Route 1 in Saugus and we had a good conversation about his alma mater, Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody.  My daughter, Catherine, had recently graduated from Fenwick.
In 15 years, I probably contributed to Berry’s campaign treasury twice.  Though I admire him greatly, we were never buddy-buddy.  Nonetheless, I have a little insight into the nature of his popularity and success.  I think I know why he is so beloved. 
Freddie Berry emerged from a crucible of physical challenges that would have thwarted 99.9% of the people he crosses paths with every day.  For 30 years on Beacon Hill, he has been not just a good political player, but one of the best ever in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  He’s always been as shrewd as Lieutenant Columbo, as funny as Jerry Seinfeld, and as charming as Bill Clinton.  In countless skirmishes, he has come out on top with some maneuver out of the blue -- and has made the folks under him like it. 
When you consider, clear-eyed, what Berry has accomplished, you just about enter a state of awe.  And there is something else there when you are in that state: self-condemnation. 
You regret you have not done a fraction of what he has in developing his God-given talents.

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