BY CAURIE PUTNAM | PHOTOS BY BRANDON VICK
Most days, you can find her in the annex on the second floor of the Cultural Life Center (CLC) at Roberts Wesleyan College. Room 212 is her regular stomping ground for teaching communication courses. If she’s not there, she’s tucked away in her office at the Religion and Humanities building on Orchard Street, grading papers into the late hours of the evening.
And if you haven’t spotted her at either location, she is likely in Hamden, Connecticut, visiting with her son, a professor at the Yale School of Music, her daughter-in-law, and her three year old grandson.
Elvera Berry, known affectionately to her students as, “Dr. Mrs.” is not only a professor, but is also Director of the College Honors Program and Chair of the Communication Department at the College. Her longtime colleague, Dr. C. Harold Hurley, Professor of English, calls Elvera “an institution in her own right.”
The person she brings takes the risk of connecting with her students. “Elvera has shaped my personhood unlike any other educator I have known. My mind, my heart, and my spirit are so grateful that that initial invitation she extended to me (and to all of her students) to step with her into the world of ‘still trying to figure this all out,’” says Celeste Grayson Seymour, Ph.D. candidate, Duquesne University.
Dr. Rebecca Letterman of Northeastern Seminary comments, “Elvera Berry pours her life into the education of her students, both inside and outside the classroom. True encounter – both with texts and with people – is her passion”.
As the daughter of German immigrants who were never able to attain anything beyond that of sixth and eighth grade educations, there was no question: she would inevitably be going to college. Interestingly, Dr. Mrs. attained her undergraduate degree from Roberts Wesleyan College. She majored in German (ironically, the language she initially resented having to learn), and minored in Spanish and Music.
Dr. Mrs. taught German at the secondary level in the Greece School District. She had been teaching one year when her alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College, approached her offering her the position to teach German at the post-secondary level. Dr. Mrs. accepted, and it was in that same year that she met another new faculty member, young Paul Berry, who she refers to as being “a magnificent tenor and renaissance thinker.” Berry was, and is today, a music professor at the College. He says of her, “[She’s] an unusual combination of commitment and energy, with empathy and self-discipline.” The two were married in 1966.
She completed two Master’s degrees: German/Linguistics at University of Rochester; Speech/ Rhetoric at SUNY Brockport. After foreign language offerings were reduced, and the College received a Title III grant, she was instrumental in developing a Communication Major grounded in the Liberal Arts. In 1987, she received a Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo, combining her endless fascination with rhetorical studies with the philosophy and practice of undergraduate higher education.
Each of these academic feats, however, did not come bereft of challenges. While pursuing her graduate level degrees, attending to the needs of her students, and extending her services to the community, Dr. Mrs. was also invested as a wife and mother.
“Of course, anyone who really knows me knows that I’ve never mastered the ‘balance’ piece,” she explained, “I’ve tried to do what I do as well as possible but surely have short-changed some areas in the process. I suspect many professional women will resonate with my tendencies: what is most apt to be short-changed is the non-professional side.” Her son, a second generation ‘Dr. Paul Berry,’ has another opinion.
“She probably feels as if her professional activities kept her away from her family, but I rarely perceived them as such at the time,” he said. “Her travel to conferences provided opportunities to sample my father’s odd but creative cooking. Occasionally she would have to bring me to class and station me at the back of the room with some books and colored pencils, but afterwards she would talk with me about what she was teaching and why, and whenever we were together I felt comfortably at the center of her life.”
Dr. Mrs. is petite, sprightly even, but one only becomes aware of this when standing next to her, for her personality is large and electrifying enough to fill CLC 212’s capacity. She allows for no passive spectators in her class. Everyone is given the opportunity to contribute to the classroom discussion that she so masterfully facilitates.
Her adamancy about student-to-student interaction mirrors literary and social critic Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of “keeping the conversation going” in a “voyage of discovery together.” Regarding that “voyage,” she notes: “I attempt to create a classroom environment in which students are, indeed, challenged but also supported in their efforts to make connections with the subject under investigation and with each other.”
In addition to the engaging dialogue she enforces among students, Dr. Mrs.’s approach to academia is profoundly concerned with seeing that students recognize and make connections, not only among their various courses, but are able to see how the material they’ve encountered in class manifests itself in day-to-day experience.
“Life in compartments doesn’t tend to serve us very well,” she argues, “It is so difficult now to pursue education for nourishment and transformation; we seek training for specific ‘jobs’ despite the data showing how little security there is in any job. I want students, if possible, to learn about ‘being’ even as they’re preparing to ‘do.’ I want them to be given a chance to wrestle with the life-sustaining big questions in the company of other serious wrestlers!”
Her philosophy of education is, in part, based off of the ideals of her own influences; a conglomerate of the afore-mentioned Kenneth Burke, Roberts Wesleyan College founder B.T. Roberts, educator and activist Parker Palmer, theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and Frederick Buechner, among several others have attributed to her method.
Alumnus A.J. Thomas (Senior Pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church, Charlotte NC) captures her intent: “Dr. Berry pushed me, in both class and life, because of the deep care, concern, and affection she lavishes upon her students. She never taught us what to think; she always taught us how to think.” Author Eileen Button adds: “Elvera taught me to value questions more than answers. When I was a student, she once gave an infamous final with the single question, ‘So what?’
What concerns does Dr. Mrs. have about higher education? “Two things I find increasingly lacking in academe,” she says, “wisdom and grace. I don’t mean we’re increasingly stupid—we have access to more factoids than ever before! But what we do with what we think we know is another matter. Wisdom does not trade long-term vision for short-term schemes, or enduring consequences for immediate gain. And then there’s grace, a rather old-fashioned word for the 21st century—witness the nature of current academic, political, social, and theological debate. By ‘grace’ in this context I mean the genuine desire to be freed from, and free others from, shackles of circumstance, bigotry, ignorance, greed, or deception. To those ends, I see the classroom as a place of real conversation, in which I, too, will be learning.”
A Penn State Ph.D. candidate, Bryan Blankfield, explains: “When confronted with an “either/or” situation, Dr. Mrs. offers a “both/and” perspective. I cannot think of a more fitting description of her pedagogy . . . [She] taught me that education . . . is a lifelong process of discovery, as we better understand ourselves mentally, spiritually, and relationally with others.”
As 2014 will mark Dr. Mrs.’s fiftieth year teaching, I asked her, “Why Roberts?”
She responded, “It’s almost all I ever have done—and probably all I ever will do. In the best of times, I may occasionally have caught just a glimpse of what Frederick Buechner describes in Wishful Thinking: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’”
Former students of hers are literally planted all over the world hosting a vast variety of professions. Here’s what some have so graciously disclosed after reflecting on their experiences in her classroom: “Dr. Berry has many gifts. She knows how to inspire, how to make people think, and how to scare the bejesus out of you. I graduated a decade ago, and I still reach out to her a few times a year asking for her feedback on projects. And she’s still inspiring me, making me think, and sometimes scaring the bejesus out of me.” –Kristin Valentine, Director of Development, Bread for the City.
“Dr. Berry pushed me, in both class and life, because of the deep care, concern, and affection she lavishes upon her students. She never taught us what to think; she always taught us how to think.” –Rev. A.J. Thomas, Senior Pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church.
“It would be wrong to pretend that Dr. Mrs. was only a teacher. She silently observed as I searched for my footholds in a new environment. She smiled, watching new relationships blossom. She pushed when I was on the verge of giving up, and she affirmed when no one else could.” –Robin Kanak, Villanova University
Elvera Berry is an accomplished conference presenter and recent author of a major book chapter in Humanistic Critique: Teaching and Learning as Symbolic Action (2010). She has presented countless papers at dozens of Higher Education and national and regional Communication conferences, been a member of numerous Middle States Accreditation Teams, and led faculty workshops on several college campuses. She currently serves on the Executive Council of the Eastern Communication Association, at whose annual conventions her senior students regularly present papers, and as secretary of the Kenneth Burke Society.
Among having received other prestigious awards, she was the first recipient of Duquesne University’s Spiritan Award for Teaching, given to her because of her efforts toward students in their undergraduate pursuits has perpetuated their becoming outstanding professionals and graduate students.