Like Franklin Roosevelt, the Late Senator Berry, D-Peabody, Was Super-Abled

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Whenever I think of Freddie Berry, the late Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate who will be buried this weekend, God rest his magnificent soul, I can't help but smile because he was such a naturally funny and attractive human being, the kind of person who constantly surprised and delighted you with his slyly camouflaged wit and high intellectual voltage, and because every day that he ventured forth into this brutish world he was a walking, talking Exhibit A of how much a righteous person possessed of an unswerving, ferocious determination could achieve in the face of obstacles the nature of which normally crush 9,999 out of a 10,000 souls.  I doubt that Freddie's soul was ever seriously dented, so formidable was his inner strength. 

Berry died this past Tuesday at age 68 following a long period of declining health.  He was born with cerebral palsy, and though he bore the effects of that condition his entire life, he was defined, first and last, by his remarkable, soaring spirit and his innate, irrepressible sense of humor, and not by the condition that sometimes contorted his speech and limited his physical movements.

On the day of Berry's death, the State House News Service noted that he, as a member of the Peabody City Council, had won a five-way Democratic primary for an open Senate seat in 1982 "as the only candidate who said he was pro-choice."  Undoubtedly, this discomforted some at his alma mater, Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody.  The SHNS also reported that, right after his election to the Senate, Berry and his wife, Gayle, started and ran the Fred Berry Charitable Foundation out of their Peabody home, an organization that raised more than $1 million over three decades to help food pantries, homeless shelters, educational programs and various human services agencies. In the Senate, he was the tribune of the poor, the chronically ill, the physically and mentally challenged, the homeless, and every hard-luck, forgotten, friendless, family-less, invisible person who had no chance of surviving without a hand from our government.

The tributes to  Berry have been gushing forth from those who knew him and served with him at the State House.  Two of the most resonant remembrances were offered by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem.

Tarr said: "Former Majority Leader Fred Berry was an outstanding senator, a champion for the needs of his district and people across the state, and a dear friend.  He was an extraordinary public servant with a kind heart, and a sharp intellect.  Despite a lifetime impacted by cerebral palsy, Fred gave strength to those who needed a champion.  In the years that we spent together in the Senate, I knew of nobody more capable of being both uproariously humorous and profoundly poignant, the effect of which often better informed the thinking of those in the Senate Chamber.  Known not only for his abilities as a legislative leader, he was also acclaimed for his decades of civic engagement by helping those in need through his charitable work.  Word of his passing is truly saddening and I extend my sympathies to his family and friends.  I hope that they will be comforted by knowing that his legacy will live on through his lifetime of accomplishments, the close associations that he made, and the love that he shared with so many."

Driscoll said: "He was always the funniest guy in the far.  More importantly, he had an indefatigable zest for life and served Salem and nearby North Shore communities with distinction during his decades' long service as our state senator.  Underneath his outward humorous personality, Fred Berry was a force to be reckoned with -- a true champion who always stood up for those who didn't have a voice or political clout on Beacon Hill, in particular children in need."

When I think of Berry, there is one scene that almost always comes to mind.  One day, back around the turn of the century, I had set up a meeting for a then client of ours, the American Cancer Society , with him in his office at the State House.  A professional colleague of mine at the time was supposed to attend that meeting with me and three persons from the ACS.  That colleague, in fact, was supposed to lead our presentation because he had formerly served in the legislature and knew Berry well.  But, at the last moment, he was unable to attend and asked me to explain his absence and apologize to the senator for his being a no-show. 

Dutifully, I opened the meeting with an explanation of my colleague having to be somewhere else and an expression of his regard for the senator and his regrets at not attending. 

I had no history with Berry.  I had never met with him before on a piece of client business and was nervous about having to carry the ball at the meeting. I was sitting right next to him and Berry kept eye contact with me throughout my opening spiel and listened patiently to what I said; I could not tell how he was taking it.

When I was through, he paused for three or four seconds, silent, still fixing me with his eyes.  At last he responded.  "Your friend is a very busy man," he said, "a very busy man.  I'm just glad that, with everything he has to do, he would stop and think of me, and be sure to tell you to tell me that he is thinking of me.  He wishes he was here and is sorry he is not!  Well, I'm just glad that he, a busy man, such a very busy man, with big responsibilities, important things, is thinking of me.  He's thinking of me!  You tell your friend not to worry.  He's an important man.  You tell him, Thank you for thinking of me."

Given my limited perspicacity, I didn't realize until Berry was done offering reassurances that he was actually puncturing a pal who dared to have better things to do than meet at that moment with one of the Senate's top dogs -- and a widely beloved dog at that.  Had it not been out of line to do so, I would have burst out laughing at how well, how artfully, he had just pulled my pants down.  Instead, my face broke into a big, stupid grin, and a welcome sense of relaxation came over me.  "This guy has a wicked sense of humor," I said to myself. "Everything's going to be alright."  And so it was that day for me and the folks from the American Cancer Society

What a man, and what apiece of work, he was.

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