Remembering John N. Berry III

Teacher, raconteur, debater, mentor, advocate, editor, and above all, librarian: Colleagues and friends from the field recall John N. Berry III’s vital voice.

Teacher, raconteur, debater, mentor, advocate, editor, and above all, librarian: colleagues and friends from the field recall Berry’s vital voice

 


Grounded in Practice

While I was always happy to grab a drink at a conference hotel bar with John, I have some really great memories  of the class he taught at Pratt Institute. I was getting my MLIS while also working full time at Brooklyn Public Library, and I had already worked in the field at BPL for  many years. John’s class was like the “current events” class, but every critical and timely story that we discussed also benefited from the rich and colorful history he was able to bring to it. For me, John grounded “library school” in history, practice, and in reality.
—Nate Hill

A VOICE FOR CHANGE Berry when he joined LJ in April 1964, 1990, and the late ’90s. Photos courtesy of LJ

 


A Crucial Character

John Berry wrote many masterful profiles of library leaders. Each of them attested to his belief that the librarianship is, using one of his favorite descriptors, crucial to communities and the country as a whole. As infuriated as he made could make some in the profession, arguing with him sharpened our thinking and made us value our work even more.

I know this personally. He first spotted me precisely because he disagreed vehemently with me about the managing of library collections, an argument crudely described as “quality vs. demand.” He even invited me to write an article for LJ, outlining the approach, which I called “Give ‘Em What They Want.” He called my library’s approach “The Towson Heresy,” from the name of Baltimore County Public Library’s headquarters.

Despite this, he would say actually because of it, because controversy is good for magazines, he later invited me to apply for the job of LJ’s Book Review editor. We argued the entire four years I worked at LJ and continued through the 12 more years I worked at LJ’s then-sister publication, Publishers Weekly. As opposed as we were on many things, we shared a belief in the importance of libraries. He became one of my best friends.

Friends remember friends for their accomplishments, but love them for what made them fun to be around. 

John was a great storyteller, so much so that I never once told him I’d already heard one of his chestnuts, which he told in his signature gravelly voice. His singing voice was perfect for renditions of old Union songs and he knew all the verses. 

He loved to laugh and when the atmosphere was right, you could get him to click his heels. 

At a restaurant, before a meal, he would order his favorite drink, asking for it as if he’d never had it before.

Often wearing a hat in public, he had the air of being from another age, but one that was hard to pin down. He described himself, an “old leftie” or a “progressive.” His stories of moving to the Sierras as a kid, trying to fit his East Coast ways into jeans and flannels (attire that he grew to love) seemed almost 19th-century. His stories of his loft on 100th Street in Manhattan placed him in yet another era. 

He loved to tell limericks, the more outlandish the rhyme, the better, with a bit of a brogue, but his real forte was a killer New Hampshire accent, which he must have pulled from his childhood. 

As much as he was identified with Library Journal, he took great pride in the changes brought about by succeeding editors-in-chief, Francine Fialkoff, Rebecca Miller (now publisher), and Meredith Schwartz, who have brilliantly used digital tools to turn LJ into a hub for learning and communicating.

Thanks for everything, John. You were crucial to many people’s careers, including mine, but most of all, I was privileged to call you my friend. I wish you were here to write John N. Berry III’s profile. It would make great reading.
—Nora Rawlinson

 


Thriving on Disagreement

I first met John in the winter of 2011 as a student in his professional writing class at the Pratt Institute’s Information School. His class was one of my favorites, as it mostly consisted of John bringing up controversial issues in the library profession, and then asking us our opinions. I wasn’t used to someone so renowned in the field caring about the opinion of someone who didn’t even work in a real library yet. I remember he even offered extra credit for anyone who would write a letter to the editor and get it published in Library Journal. 

What was unique about John was that he thrived off of others, especially his students, disagreeing with him. Anyone who ever held court with him at one of the hotel bars during ALA knows this. His favorite part of conferences seemed to be hanging out with the late night crowd, debating timely issues. I remember, for example, a particularly heated discussion over whether the new ALA Executive Director should be required to have an MLS. 

John Berry was not only a great library school professor, but also a dedicated mentor who followed the careers of his former students, checking in with them regularly. When I introduced Pete Hamill at Darien Library in 2011, not only was John in the audience, but he later wrote about the program and mentioned me by name in Library Journal. As a newly minted librarian, I thought this was the absolute coolest.

I saw John regularly over the years, meeting up for a meal or getting together at conferences. One of my favorite memories of him was from ALA Annual in Vegas in 2014. He called me from one of the shuttle buses to tell me he had just won a jackpot on the penny slots! 

I last spoke with John this past May. He was cleaning out his Stamford home in preparation to put it on the market, enjoying Louise’s cooking, and watching classic movies. He will be sorely missed by many in the profession, but he leaves behind an indelible legacy.
—Erin Shea
 

CONFERENCE CENTER Berry was a fixture at library convenings (from top): with Sacramento PL Director/CEO Rivkah Sass at PLA 2012; with Norman Horrocks, dean of Dalhousie University library school, at ALA Annual 2004; regaling LJ Librarian of the Year Luis Herrera (far r.) at ALA Midwinter 2012; with former LJ boss Eric Moon (l.) and McFarland’s Robert Franklin in 2004; and with Pratt Institute’s Nasser Sharify. Top photo by Michael Rogers; second and fourth photos by Tom Hurst; third photo by Kevin Henegan; fifth photo courtesey of LJ

Never To Be Forgotten

John Berry—he was indeed a man for all seasons.

In the late ’90s I had the privilege of traveling to Morocco with a group of librarians and library educators under the auspices of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Pratt Institute. John was part of that group along with Mitch Freedman, Dean Seoud Matta, Charles Rubenstein, the venerable Dean Emeritus Nasser Sharify, and others. 

We were there to address students and faculty, sharing suggestions regarding academic programs for formal education and training in information science at the École des Sciences de l’Information (ESI) in Rabat. My area was services to children and young people. John’s waswell—everything! In that resonant voice of his he spoke about the importance of libraries, information access, equality, understanding service populations, and so much more. 

But the surprising, and great fun, part was John’s knowledge as we wandered through the Souks, visited the food markets, and ate at the roadside restaurants. He shared his knowledge of olives, gave guidance on how to buy carpets, and coached us on just how to choose wisely as food was sliced, grilled, and served at wayside stops. And the train system—John knew everything about the great trains in Morocco! He’d been there before, but this was John just being himself—a fount of knowledge about everything from the importance of peppermint tea to the justice system to the 12th-century walls of Marrakech and the nesting storks at Volubilis, ancient capital of the kingdom of Mauretania. He shared it all with us in his offhand way. It was a time never to be forgotten. I never have.
—Inga Boudreau
 


Focus on Clarity

I love to write, and I love libraries. So, enrolling in “Writing for the Profession” with Adjunct Professor John N. Berry III while I was in library school at Dominican University was a no-brainer. I had read countless columns of Professor Berry’s in Library Journal

I was a young, confident graduate skipping out of Marquette University with an English Major and ample expertise in writing—or so I thought. Taking this class was an opportunity I did not want to miss.

I still remember that sinking feeling looking at all those red marks. I had just received my first graded paper from Professor Berry. I looked around the room to find other students processing similar feelings—a mix of shock and confusion on their faces. Many of us were used to receiving rave remarks about our writing. Not anymore.

During Professor Berry’s class, my papers always came back dripping in red—decimated and chopped up into bits with arrows and cross-outs all over the paper, unrecognizable from my original submission. Eventually, I learned I couldn’t get emotionally attached to my writing. It was a hard lesson to learn, and it took the entire semester to learn it.

Professor Berry never showed restraint in his editing or grading. He was a precise taskmaster, challenging his students to expect more from themselves and their writing. He would tell us writing required constant process improvement. He shared stories of working with his editor and writing projects for various journals across the country. He said writers shouldn’t be attached to their work, and this was necessary in order to hone their craft. I didn’t know the phrase “growth mindset” at the time, but John was one of my first teachers in this concept. He pushed me out of my comfort zone and complacency in my writing. I will always appreciate him for that.

I wouldn’t realize until the end of the semester, but Professor Berry’s sole purpose was to help his students succeed. He invited students to send him drafts to review, even after graduation. He encouraged and supported anyone interested to submit a piece to Library Journal. 
In the classroom, his goal was to make his students better writers by uncovering our bad habits. He challenged us to focus on clarity, stripping out the superfluous and retaining only what was necessary. Outside of the classroom, his goal was to help librarians tell their stories. But no matter what, it always took a lot of red pen.

Thank you, Professor Berry.
—Renee Grassi

 


A HAPPY REUNION Lillian Gerhardt, John Berry III, Francine Fialkoff, and Fred Ciporen gathered at Fialkoff’s departure celebration in 2012. Photo by Michael Rogers

The Eternal Questions

John was my boss, mentor, colleague, friend, supporter, and so much more, and that never changed, even during the years I was editor of LJ. We worked together for over 30 years, from the time I was a book review editor (history, sports, women’s studies, et al.). In those early days, many on the staff were wary of John—he could be gruff—but he was always more bark than bite. And as time went on, he became a mentor and friend to many a young staffer.

John taught me about journalism, writing, editing, and, of course, librarianship. I remember running down the hall to his office in a panic when an author we’d alleged plagiarized from an earlier biography threatened to sue me, and LJ, for libel. John explained about plagiarism and libel, and I walked back to my office, called the author’s publisher, and that was that. We stood by our review and our reviewer. Lucky for us, the reviewer, an academic librarian, had the 25-year-old book on her shelves, so we could prove where the material had been lifted from. 

John’s advice for editing features: Ditch the first sentence and move the concluding paragraph, or a variation of it, up front—writers always want to work up to their conclusion, when they need to state their argument right at the beginning. As for editorials, John told me if you’re not being criticized, attacked, excoriated, then you’re not doing your job. 

Of course, I can’t forget the iconic John, who argued so cogently and fervently for the fundamental principles of librarianship and goaded others to do the same. I channeled what he taught me about advocacy journalism and shot down news editors who wanted more “balanced” coverage. He loved to argue the eternal questions with them. His tutelage made me feel like a de facto librarian, and many people still take me for one. I’m extremely proud of that.

Oh, John’s voice, who would not be captivated by that. I loved hearing him pick up the phone and saying his name in that deep timbre. I can hear it in my head now. I wish I could still hear it in real life.
—Francine Fialkoff,  former Editor-in-Chief, LJ

 


A Place in History

I was hired by Cahners Publishing as publisher of LJ and SLJ in 1988 and PW [Publishers Weekly] in 1991. John Berry was the chief editor of LJ, and Lillian Gerhardt had that responsibility for SLJ. I believe, at the time, that the two of them were among the finest editorial writers in the country. 

Cahners Publishing, in those years, had been the largest business to business publisher in the world with over 120 publications. Cahners in turn was owned by Reed Elsevier, a giant international publisher of medical journals, science books, and LexisNexis. 

Just prior to my arrival, Cahners acquired the Bowker company from Xerox. Along with with Books-in-Print came the two library publications and PW. In a very brief period, we succeeded in placing the library publications among the top performers in the entire company. 

I am proud to say the excellence of John Berry, Lillian Gerhardt, and Nora Rawlinson were recognized by the corporation and they were made vice presidents. John, Lillian, and Nora were succeeded by extraordinarily talented people.

I worked alongside wonderful people and believe the history of American libraries must reserve a place for LJ and SLJ as well as John Berry and Lillian Gerhardt.
—Fred Ciporen, Group Publisher, 1988-2003

 


Honoring Loss

John’s ability to characterize someone was never more evident than in his July 1978 editorial honoring the profession’s loss of Sarah Rebecca Reed, Dean, Emporia State, and acknowledging his loss: “Ah Sarah, I sure will miss you.” Ah John, We sure will miss you.
— Blanche Woolls, Emerita Prof, Pittsburgh, SJSU

 


THROUGH THE YEARS John Berry III with his colleague of decades, then-Managing Editor of LJ 
Bette-Lee Fox. Photo courtesy of Bette-Lee Fox

Leaving His Mark

It’s difficult to imagine a world without John Berry in it. I started as a clerk typist/proofreader at Library Journal in 1972. Several moves later, I was managing editor: I had to edit John’s writing, and he felt he had to disagree with all of my changes. I learned to hold my ground, and he learned to back down (sometimes). 

John retired in 2006 and continued to contribute his monthly column and many features, which I still had the privilege to copyedit. Once we were settled on Varick Street, John would phone me (though he was just across the room) to ask about deadlines and tech stuff relating to our production system. 

When he stopped coming into the office, he would still call me all the time. We had traveled a long way from 1180 Avenue of the Americas, and we loved talking about the past and former colleagues when the opportunity arose. He had a great memory for all LJ accomplished over the years, in no small part because of his efforts. After I retired, I actually missed his phone calls. No one will leave a bigger mark on LJ’s history than John.
—Bette-Lee Fox, LJ, 1972–2019

 


A Life Well Lived

“Schuman was my first feminist…it was her most valuable gift to me.” (“My First Feminist,” LJ June 15, 2001). This week I reread those words John Berry wrote about me almost two decades ago with tears and gratitude. How fortunate was I to have a friend like John, such a presence—not only in my career—but in my life? More than once I kiddingly told him: “You made me famous.” 

I was in my early 20s when I met John Berry. I was in awe—he, after all, was editor of Library Journal—I was just the acquisitions librarian at New York City Community College. John attended every meeting of the fledgling NY Social Responsibilities Round Table, Librarians for Peace, and the various other groups we formed in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We spent many hours into the night—plotting and planning programs, demonstrations, and marches we hoped would help change America’s libraries, librarians, and the American Library Association. He was an active participant and shaper of resolutions and activities at the Congress for Change and the first “official” SRRT activities and programs at ALA in 1969. 

Even when we despaired of ever being able to change the “establishment,” John was there supporting us, connecting us, buoying us up. He gave us a platform and helped to shape and amplify our voices. He argued with us, he cheered us on, he cajoled us, he published us, he wrote about us. In the early expense account days, he took hordes of us to dinner. And since LJ often had a suite, he gave us a place to meet late into the night.

John convinced me to write my first article (“Social Responsibility: An Agenda For the Future,” LJ, May 15, 1969). It was the first of many—on privatization, social justice, feminism, advocacy. He also encouraged me to write my first book, Materials for Occupational Education, with the Bowker Company—which at the time owned LJ. John usually mentioned me when he covered ALA conferences, library related social justice activities, peace marches, etc. And then in 1970 he offered me a job—Associate Editor of School Library Journal. I entered the world of library publishing.

John was a dear friend and supporter. I will not call him my mentor because he would have laughed at the term. Even when he was my boss, John referred to us as “office mates.” He thrived on discovering people with ideas and talent and publishing them in the pages of LJ. He was a brilliant thinker and writer. His editorials helped to shape—and change—libraries and librarians over more than half a century. His support for social justice and advocacy was unwavering. 

Words came easily to John. I was often amazed to see him type out a brilliant editorial in one draft. In later years he would sometimes call to read one of his editorials, his wit and passion resonating through the phone. He was a mesmerizing speaker, and John’s close friends will remember his deep and compelling voice as he recited poetry or sang International Workers of the World songs. He sang “Joe Hill” as we scattered my late husband Stan Epstein’s ashes in the ocean. 

Late night arguments at library meetings with some other brilliant library thinkers like Major Owens, Eric Moon, and Arthur Curley were legend. John loved to argue and could sometimes be quite contrarian–often just to keep the dialogue going. 

I suspect there will be many tributes to John from the many people John discovered and encouraged. We learned from him and he learned from us. I will always be grateful that he “discovered me,” gave me my start in publishing, cheered me on as ALA Treasurer and President, and supported me when I started Neal-Schuman Publishers. But more important—and what I will always miss—is the deep and lasting personal connection, intellectual stimulation, and loving friendship we shared. Oh John, we knew each other so well, and I cherish the gift of friendship and support you unstintingly gave to me. Your loss is profound—for your family—your friends—your students—[and for] America’s libraries and librarians. Yours was a life well lived and you left a lasting legacy for all who care about social justice and America’s libraries.
—Patricia Glass Schuman 

 


Fifty Years of Memories

These were my thoughts, October 10, the morning John died: 

My dear friend, John Nichols Berry III, died this morning. 

He was 87. John was a force of nature throughout his colorful life. I never thought he could possibly die. He kept going despite all of the afflictions he had the last 20 or more years. It would be hard to say just how many people and their ideas were placed before the library community by John’s editing of LJ. My debt to him as a publisher/editor and as a friend is incalculable. 

One salient memory was of the parties at his W. 100th Street NYC apartment. He had a captain’s chair without legs suspended from the high ceiling by a rope. We could swing back and forth while watching through his gallery windows the traffic on Broadway and his single room occupancy buddies across the street. Every year students and Norman Horrocks from Dalhousie University, NS, library school would attend a party at the apartment. One year I invited students from my classes at Columbia University’s School of Library Service. 
His politics, or as he called it, ideology, was of varying degrees to the left. He inspired numerous people, movements, and changes in library operations and policies with his editorials and the authors he published. 

Our friendship goes back 50 years or so. I could write endlessly about my life and a crazy quilt of experiences with John. John was the vendor of vendors in the early ’70s as the Library Journal editor who made the R.R. Bowker Suite open to all. The younger members of the profession who were never invited to the various ALA parties now had a place to go where they were important and valued. Plus, they could eat and drink for free and mingle with their colleagues. 

John put together a historic centenary issue of Library Journal in January 1976 (volume 101, number 1). As one of the invited authors, I fought with him over changes he wanted to make to the article I submitted, “Processing for the People,” a rite of passage endured by all of his contributors. Among the authors were so many of the leaders of the library profession of that time. 

OLD FRIENDS John Berry III with longtime friends from the field, Patricia “Pat” Schuman and Maurice “Mitch” Freedman. Photo courtesy of Patricia Glass Schuman

One of John’s quirks came from his wishing to please. He often told people who said they had something they wanted published that they should send it to him. In one case John had put off an author who repeatedly wanted to know when her cataloging article would be published. Having no other excuse, he told the author that he had referred it to me—only he never did. Subsequently, I gave a talk at an ALA meeting. Her husband belligerently asked me why the hell was I holding up his wife’s article. I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. Once John sent me her article, I told him that it was very good and he should publish it—a happy, albeit protracted, ending. 

Another fun story goes back to the late 1970s. I would stay over at his loft when I taught late and had to show up early the next day for Columbia library school committee meetings. One night we were watching a Yankees game—John had two semi-functional black and white TVs on two separate chairs. On one the sound worked. On the other, with the help of a coat hanger, we could watch the game. On that particular night, Al Hrabosky (sobriquet, the Mad Hungarian) was pitching for the Kansas City Royals. He would stomp around the mound after he struck out a batter. The sad end to Hrabosky’s story was he had to face Reggie Jackson, who hit a colossal home run. John and I laughed and laughed at Hrabosky’s comeuppance. 

At ALA conferences there were always the late-night, substance-aided songfests. It always came around to John singing: 
“…the banks are made of marble 
With a guard at every door.
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for.”

John’s memory was beyond encyclopedic. He could quote end-lessly. I loved listening to him reminisce, tell stories, sing songs, and go on about one thing or another—making it all sound beautiful. 

Even when we watched baseball or had a meal together, library issues inevitably came up. There were times when there was disagreement, and sometimes the vitriol got out of control.

John knew his library history. He loved to quote Jesse Shera’s discussion of the democratic and free nature of the early Massachusetts public libraries. His example of the lighthouse as a perfect example was how he explained the library as a public good. The lighthouse gave value to the whole community even though most had no personal need for it. It benefitted the people because of what the ships brought them. Not everybody used it, but the enrichment of those who did contributed to the entire community.

John, I love you, I always have and I always will. Rest in Peace. You’ve earned it, and you will be missed by untold numbers of people you reached—and none more than me.
—Maurice J. Freedman, Past President, American Library Association

 


A Gift of Pride

In one of his later columns, John Berry wrote about his experience teaching at the Pratt Institute SILS program: “The beginning of each semester always rejuvenates me. There is nothing more stimulating than those first few sessions with a class of expectant students, arriving with their high energy, curiosity, and desire to participate and impress.... It is a great privilege and honor to work with them to try to answer the accursed questions that continue to plague our profession.”

I met John at 25, when I enrolled at the Pratt Library School. I had moved to New York City for college seven years prior, with childish notions of brilliant and worldly professors who pepper conversation with poetry and literary quotes, and provoke arguments that last deep into the night. That wasn’t, in the end, my college experience (like, at all!), and eventually I forgot I’d even harbored that desire. But on my first night of class at Pratt that August, it was a surprise reunion with a slew of forgotten emotions.

Here was this dude, right out of the gate talking about Dostoevsky and his “accursed questions,” then quoting union songs like 10 minutes later, and name-dropping every badass librarian going back decades. And then I find out later that the Beastie Boys got their start in his loft?! Who is this guy?

HONOR AND PRIVILEGE John Berry III with Josh Hadro, June 2008. Photo by Michael Rogers

How do I know, 15 years later, that all this came up that night in John’s class? Because the first email I ever sent myself about John had a few lines jotted down quickly from during class, including: “Professor Berry, lots of quotes, and good phrases; Dostoevsky: ‘the accursed questions,’ ‘the injustices of age.’” I kept up this habit of emailing myself pithy JBIII lines through my time as an editor at Library Journal, when John would come in once a week to bask in his “Editor At Large” status, stopping in to the offices on the way to teach his Pratt class each semester.

In preparing to write this, I went back to review those emails I sent myself about John, and just sat with the various quotes I recorded of things he said extemporaneously, but somehow never pretentiously. This one, from April 2010, hit me pretty hard:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

In the spring, it will be a decade since I started teaching at Pratt myself (another thing I owe in part to John, because he put in a good word with the dean). I’ve written a lot of student recommendations over the years, but recently I’ve often found myself writing about how proud I am to know that our students will soon be our brightest future colleagues, and how grateful I feel to be a part of bringing them up to speed on the latest in the profession.

It’s obvious in retrospect that I owe my entire teaching career and philosophy to John, and the attitude he embodied. It’s hard to describe how apparent it is now that the privilege and honor I feel in working with each semester’s crop of amazing new students is just an heirloom gift of pride that John gave, not just to me, but to every one of his students. I think he knew how important this gift was, but of course I’m just figuring this out.

And now all of a sudden those accursed questions hit just a bit differently without John around. 

“We that are young / shall never see so much,” indeed.
—Josh Hadro

 

CONNECTING WITH COLLEAGUES (from top): John Berry III engaging Movers at LJ’s Movers & Shakers luncheon, 2008; with Gates Foundational Global Library head Deborah Jacobs, PLA 2012; with former Darien Library Director Alan Gray; and with former Pasadena PL Director Jan Sanders at ALA Annual 2003. Top, third, and fourth photos courtesy of LJ; second photo by Michael Rogers

 


A Giant in the Field

Taking John Berry’s Introduction to the Profession class at Pratt SILS turned out to be life-changing for me. A professor with an open door, a loud laugh, and vast knowledge of the field, John Berry was genuinely excited in seeing the next generation of librarians coming forward. I was not the only student of his that had the opportunity to be mentored by him. I count myself deeply fortunate he believed in me and encouraged me. He opened doors for me, but would often remind me that I walked through them and earned my successes. 

John would invite recent grads to talk to his students about the realities of job seeking and first career job advice. What followed was always dinner and drinks where he would tell tales of libraries for hours. John never shied away from the wrongs of libraries past; discrimination, inequity. His stories included being a part of the civil rights movement to break those barriers as an ally. Through those panels, I forged deep and lasting friendships with colleagues in similar career stages. 

I had the great fortune to work for John’s wife Louise at Darien Library where John and Louise became like family. I felt honored when John held my son on his first birthday. After my family moved to the western states, I knew I could always count on seeing John twice a year at American Library Association conferences. We had a routine of connecting at least once during the conference for dinner or drinks. (Anyone who knew John will remember that socializing always involved gin.)

John was a master storyteller. Lucky in gambling and finding four-leaf clovers. A witness to sea changes in the field. A teacher and mentor to a new generation of leaders. John Berry was a giant in our field and will be deeply missed. 

Cheers, John. I’ll look for four-leaf clovers in your memory and carry your lessons with me.
—Gretchen Caserotti, Library Director

 


An Arbitrary Exercise

One day, not long after starting as an assistant editor at LJ in November 1998, John appeared in my “office”—the book room—to report that he had received a complaint from an author. We had rejected this person’s book unduly, he said. I said that I wasn’t in a position to respond, since I didn’t make the decision. Fueled by mischievous outrage that had him pacing, he talked over my ultimate suggestion to speak to the editor who had done the deed. He sided with the slighted writer who had written an admittedly marginal book because the judgements of the book review editors were arbitrary, to use his exact adjective. 

Sensing the red flag he was flashing in front of me, I responded calmly that that would only be true if there were no guidelines in place to evaluate submissions, but there were. It was one of my responsibilities to ensure they were accessible. I spent a goodly amount of time emailing and faxing them to writers, publishers, and publicists, explaining they took the form they did to support the mission of public and academic libraries. He waved away my logic and growled like a ship captain, “Arbitrary!”

FROM THE POLITICAL TO THE UNPRINTABLE John Berry III in conversation with Heather McCormack in June 2008. Photo by Michael Rogers

Our back-and-forth continued, both annoying and entertaining me. Was this going to be corporate America most days? Arguing with a bearded, fedora-wearing librarian who had the distinct air of a union organizer? John wouldn’t accept my rebuttal, and I wasn’t buying his crotchety stance of, “I’m above reason that doesn’t suit me.” 

I didn’t know John at all at this stage, and to have known John was to appreciate his deep political bent. He routinely had stirring thoughts, stood up from his desk, and marched over to whomever he thought should have it out with him—or at least that’s how it felt. As I was a mere 50 paces from his office, I couldn’t escape my first ideological rodeo with him, and I was glad for it. He threw all counterarguments to the wayside because his leftie soul refused exclusion of any kind. He knew better than I did that magazines like ours could only be arbitrary at their peril, especially in the unstable B2B company that was then paying our salaries, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying to kick capitalism in the teeth. Anyone should be allowed inside the castle; lower the drawbridge now and forever. 

John’s gift was to make you think while wanting to tear your hair out. His insistence that the book review’s workflow be more democratic influenced my professional morality by steady degrees. The more punches I took in life and at the office, the more his philosophies clicked and informed my way of dealing with prickly systems and people. Consequently, in our 14 years as colleagues and longer as friends, I never passed up the chance to argue with him, especially over dinner, whether at his and Louise’s house in Stamford or a restaurant in Manhattan. 

I left New York more than five years ago and LJ more than eight, but to this day when I’m walking by the Mississippi River to forget about the pandemic, I still think of our conversations and laugh. They ranged from the political to the unprintable, as we shared an absurd and profane sense of humor. 

John didn’t formally mentor me, as my attempt at attending Pratt’s library school was thwarted by the 2008 recession, but he taught me plenty: about the role of librarianship in a democracy, what to drink with pesto, how to wash dishes, and, best of all, how to fight evil. I loved the man. He always said goodbye in this way, and now it’s my turn: peace be upon you, John.
—Heather McCormack, St. Paul, MN

 


MUTUAL RECOGNITION Berry with Rebecca T. Miller, taken by her daughter in July 2018 at his NH home. Photo by Harper Morrow

Mentor and Friend 

I first got to know John secondhand as he discussed—sometimes vehemently—library issues with other editors at LJ and their conversations leapt over the cubicle walls to where I worked as a book review editor. His knowledge and passion for the topic was unmistakable. His love of libraries as a tool to empower civic engagement and social responsibility sparked my growing interest in the field. 

Years into my work here, I got to work closely with John, editing his writing, and that’s when I learned just how actively he learned through the course of argument as he engaged with the variables at work in a good discussion. He loved to be challenged; he loved to play with ideas and have fun in the process of learning how others think about things; and he loved testing authority. 

Once, when I was visiting a class of his at Pratt to discuss working at LJ, he told his students that I was a fierce editor and jested that some of his best work was in the wastebasket because of my “butchery.” I winked back, “That’s funny—some of my best work has your byline on it.” Oh no, had I insulted him? Nope. He laughed loudly and delightedly. We both loved that story, as the moment bonded us in our mutual recognition of the give and take of editorial development, as well as the fun of sparring as a conversational mode. He had already begun to be my mentor; in that moment he also became my friend.
—Rebecca T. Miller, Group Publisher      

 

 

 

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