Mike Berry also championed ‘Womyn’s Herstory’
Mike Berry was a teacher who not only inspired his students, he inspired his fellow teachers, too. Through his full and satisfying classroom career of 45 years — all at Healdsburg High School —Berry was many a student’s favorite teacher and he was a source of contagious intellect and wily wisdoms to his fellow educators.
Berry died at his Healdsburg home on May 26, 2020 from his recent fight with cancer. He was 80.
“Bottom line, he was just a great, great guy,” said his HHS colleague and longtime neighbor Lew Sbrana. “He really had a heart. He loved teaching.”
Berry taught history, civics, economics and whatever lessons fit in between those formal categories. He even taught HHS students summer driver’s education.
“Mostly what he taught his students was for them to think for themselves,” said Sbrana. “He really stressed that.”
In days when high school teachers were still addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” the hearty history teacher was called just “Berry” or, sometimes, “Comrade” by everyone except his wife Judy. If Berry had any greater love than teaching, it might have been baseball and the Oakland A’s. Suffering through Parkinson’s in his last few years, he had special enjoyment attending the local Prune Packers baseball games at Rec. Park.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Berry graduated from Humboldt State University and started his teaching career in 1964 at HHS, the same year Sbrana arrived.
“We were both looking for houses at the same time and Mike found a Santa Rosa builder with a floor plan he liked. We both bought the same plan and built our houses side-by-side on two lots on Twin Oaks Way,” remembered Sbrana. “We were neighbors for over 50 years and for lots of that time we didn’t even have a fence between our houses.”
Berry and Sbrana were members of a tightknit HHS teachers’ fraternity that also included Rege Heth, Bob Harbaugh, Rod Wallstrum, Darrell Barbieri, Wes Tsurumoto, Marty Clobucker and several others, including Herm Velasquez.
“I began my teaching career in 1964 but did not come to Healdsburg until 1970,” said Velasquez. “It was a period of excellent teaching and collegiality. We produced many successful graduates and Mike was responsible for more than his share. He demanded a lot from his students, but not near as much as he did from himself. I was third on the seniority list when I retired. The two ahead of me were Flora Pearl and Mike Berry and I did not think they were ever going to retire.”
In 1969, there was an attempt to have Berry fired by citizens who disagreed with Berry’s student reading list that included writings by Marx, Stalin, the Black Panthers — but also Lincoln, Washington and John F. Kennedy, according to fellow teacher Rege Heth.
“The real issue was the role of the teacher, and whether questioning one’s own, and society’s beliefs strengthens the learner or weakens him/her. One accuser present argued that students should be ‘indoctrinated in Americanism.’”
Heth remembers that The Healdsburg High School Board, following a public hearing and meeting until 2 a.m., affirmed its confidence in Berry, recognizing him "as an excellent teacher."
Board member Robert Remolif commented that Mike Berry was “guilty of being a very effective teacher.”
“Mike believed in questioning prevailing assumptions and conventional wisdom, examining the sources of your own beliefs and caring about the welfare of the people around you,” said Heth.
Berry retired in 2008 to devote more time to serious reading, baseball radio and family. He continued to volunteer as a poll watcher for local elections and he delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. On the first Monday of every month he would join his teacher comrades for breakfast at Adel’s. Every Fourth of July, he would fly two flags, a 13-star United States flag and a LGBT rainbow flag.
His strident opinions filled many faculty meetings at HHS and overflowed into letters to the editor at The Healdsburg Tribune. A favorite passion of his was promoting “herstory,” or the historic contributions of women.
“He really reached out to the female students,” said Sbrana. “He was a strong advocate.”
Each semester, Berry would require his student to attend local government meetings to observe democracy in action. Local elected officials were frequent targets of Berry’s lampoons.
His wife Judy, who shared a birthday with him each year on July 16, survives him. Son Matt, daughter-in-law Kathy and four grandchildren also survive. He was predeceased by a daughter, Stacey.
Berry will be interred at Ocean View Cemetery Sunset Memorial in Eureka, CA. In lieu of flowers a donation may be made in his name to Sutter Care at Home for Hospice.