In Memory: Emeritus Professor of English Thomas Berger | St. Lawrence University Human Resources

In Memory: Emeritus Professor of English Thomas Berger

To:                  The St. Lawrence Community
From:              President William L. Fox
Date:               October 19, 2015
Subject:           In Memory: Professor Emeritus Tom Berger

The inimitable and beloved Thomas L. Berger, Piskor Professor of English Emeritus, died on Friday, October 16, with his wife, Debra Drummond, and his children by his side.  Tom had been in hospice care since early August. 

Tom, who received the J. Calvin Keene Award in 2000, was a member of the faculty from 1971 until his retirement in 2007. A graduate of Dartmouth College, with a master's degree and Ph.D. from Duke University, he became an eminent Shakespearian scholar, teacher, editor, and bibliographer. His published writings included at least five books, many facsimile editions of Shakespeare's plays, and countless reviews of books on Shakespeare, and on the Bard's contemporaries.  Tom edited the prestigious journal Shakespeare Quarterly for many years, and was general editor of the Globe Quarto Editions, a series of modernized editions of works by Elizabethan playwrights. In addition, Tom was the United States secretary of the Malone Society, for whom he prepared facsimile editions of the first quartos of Henry IV, Part Two and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Instrumental in bringing the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (now the American Shakespeare Company) to the St. Lawrence campus, Tom contributed to the life of the University in ways that were original and matchless.  As one example of his whimsy, he was proud to call himself the owner-manager/player/coach of the English Department Football team, and its official organ, Maytricks, which featured, according to reliable sources and collectors, "Grammar Corner," where in the edition of 13 October 1992, a "hopelessly illiterate sign on the corner of Park and University is reported as having just blossomed in time for "Parent's's's Weekend," reading "Welcome Family Weekend."  Tom, in a pique of irritation and amusement, then proceeds to skewer the yard-sign grammar for welcoming the weekend instead of the family.

Tom's other satirical newsletter, The Blue Note, was an occasional treat welcomed avidly by campus readers, more than the Green Sheet, the erstwhile campus newsletter.  Being mentioned in The Blue Note became a mark of great distinction, a sign that one actually had been noticed, the spoof serving as a visible sign of his admiration.  Tom's gentle bite reminded his colleagues to care deeply about issues, much less about ego, and always about working toward St. Lawrence's best nature.

Tom arrived at St. Lawrence the same fall I entered as a student.  He dazzled in Freshman Comp, providing my classmates the first clues of what was eventually in store.  Like Prince Hal, he stood in a line of succession behind distinguished English Department elders, Delmage and Holberg.  Within a decade, however, Tom commanded the stage of his classroom as if it were an ancient kingdom, bounded by transcendent laughter and human agony.

Trustee Marion Roach Smith '77 enjoyed Tom's friendship over many years. She wrote me this weekend, and also gave me permission to share some of her reflections.  She remembered that "[Tom] would leap atop the classroom desk in Richardson to inhabit Juliet at her balcony and he would transpose Mrs. Capulet to a nattering, worrying mother vacuuming her family's crypt while ruminating on her daughter's dating choices. These were his ways to bring the Bard to his students, keeping him alive, well, and understood, well in the 21st century.

"That Tom was tough is too simple an explanation, too easy a criticism, too quick a default position, and all-too-popular a brusque definition of the man. That he wanted us to know what he knew and was willing to put it into the tune of Cole Porter or George Gershwin, or to dance across an expanse à la Fred Astaire while reciting iambic pentameter was the expression of his great desire to get what he knew into our heads and hearts. He was born to be a teacher, of course….Tom believed in fun – having it, as well as poking it – and he was very good at both, enjoying them equally."

Tom's wife Debra wrote that there will be a celebration of Tom's life sometime in Spring 2016 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, where "an abundance of remembrances, anecdotes, and recounting of various academic accolades and hijinks should make for a grand time."

If you wish to honor Tom's memory and provide his family with your thoughts, we have set up our Memorial Web site.

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