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Hyman Berman (1925-2015)

December 22, 2015

Hy Berman lived in Minnesota for nearly 55 years. A native New Yorker, who spent a significant period of his childhood on a chicken farm in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Berman came to be so thoroughly associated with his adopted state that when he died, a reader of the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted that Minnesota was now a little less Minnesotan.

In 1961, Berman was recruited to teach at the University of Minnesota; he retired in 2004. The year he came West from New York—by way of Michigan—was the year that John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic President of the United States, took office, and the year that a young Robert Allen Zimmerman left the U and Minneapolis for New York City and became “Bob Dylan.” The year he retired was the year that the Connecticut-born Texan, George W. Bush, was re-elected President, establishing in the minds of many a troubling period of American reactionary interventionism, as well as a continued retreat from the social, cultural and political progress of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society. All of these programs and epochs were not only important to Hyman Berman, but definitional as well.

In 1984, barely six months before Hy Berman’s 60th birthday, he recorded a deeply personal interview with his colleague and friend from the University, Professor Clarke A. Chambers. The substance of the interview could outline “a great American novel.” Berman’s childhood (the son of radical Jewish workers in the garment industry), his acquaintance with union leaders, leftist theoreticians, and writers, time in the U.S. Army, and studies at the City College of New York and Columbia University provided a textured backdrop to his move to the North Star State. In 1961, Berman claimed that he didn’t know Minnesota from Montana and that family members seriously wondered whether there were sidewalks in Minneapolis. Those perceptions changed quickly.

Hy Berman had that rare regionalist gift of being particularly aware of his surroundings. Such sensitivity naturally led to historical analysis. As George Bernard Shaw’s philologist and linguist, Henry Higgins of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady would say, Berman absorbed Minnesota and its history “with the speed of summer lightning.” A natural listener, Berman sensed the disillusionment behind labor activism evident in the bloody truckers’ strike in Minneapolis in 1934, the still-divisive meat packing strike in Austin, Minnesota in 1985–86, and the wound—and perhaps permanent rift—in the state’s unique Democratic Farmer Labor party following the Presidential Election of 1968, when Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and Senator Eugene J. McCarthy both sought the Democratic Presidential nomination. Both men were, of course, Minnesotans, although Humphrey was born and raised in South Dakota.

Berman’s legendary course in Minnesota history, HIST 3837, grew out of both this knowledge of conflict and a particularly Middle American sense of corrective optimism. He will be rightly remembered as an old leftist, but he was also a classic liberal. He knew that progress was possible on all fronts—racial, economic and educational, to name only three.  Like all persons of good sense, Hy detested small thinking, pettiness, and smugness; he could see these all around him, including in the state and University. Openness and generosity—the correctives—were equally apparent to him. In 1969, only days after Hubert Humphrey had left the Vice-Presidency, University President Malcolm Moos approached him about a visiting lectureship in the Political Science department. The faculty balked, to put it mildly, but Berman offered to share work on a historical project—and his office—with that other great Minnesotan. Humphrey accepted Hy’s offer. The following year, when Gene McCarthy decided not to run for his seat, Humphrey returned to the U.S. Senate, where he had previously served between 1949–1965. It is worth noting that Hy supported McCarthy in the 1968 campaign.

Hy Berman was extremely generous to me as well. Knowing how difficult I found it to adjust to life in the state and the University (which I did not expect), he shared with me a love for the history of both. It has made a great difference to me over the past decade. I know I will never go more than a few days without thinking about him. His memory will indeed “be for a blessing.” May Light perpetually shine upon him.

Stone is a member of the faculties of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. Since 2005, he has taught Berman’s course on Minnesota History.