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Overcoming obstacles: Born with cerebral palsy, Fred Berry served 30 years in state senate

Salem News - 11/14/2018

Nov. 14--PEABODY -- When the Salem public schools were facing teacher layoffs due to a budget crisis in 2008, state Sen. Fred Berry got on the phone.

There's nothing unusual about a public official making a phone call in times of trouble. But in Berry's case, it was where he made the calls -- from his bed at Salem Hospital and, hours later, from a rehabilitation facility where he was transferred that same day.

The image of Berry overcoming obstacles to help his constituents epitomized the life's work of the former longtime state senator from Peabody, who died on Tuesday morning after a brief illness, according to a statement from his family. He was 68.

Berry, who was born with cerebral palsy, served for 30 years in the Massachusetts State Senate representing the 2nd Essex District communities of Beverly, Danvers, Peabody and Salem. For 10 years he was the Senate majority leader, a powerful position that he used not only to benefit the North Shore, but to advocate for children and for people with disabilities.

Berry's cerebral palsy impaired his speech and mobility and, in his final years, required him to use a wheelchair. Friends and colleagues said Berry endured those struggles with humor and courage and used his political clout to help others.

"Freddy beat all the odds," Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis said. "But he did more than that. He broke down many barriers for himself and many others. He set an example for folks that anything is possible."

Berry, a lifelong resident of Peabody, confronted the challenges of cerebral palsy early in his life. In first grade, the other kids would encircle him during recess and chant, "Monster!, Monster!," he once told students in a talk at the Cotting School in Lexington, a school for students with disabilities.

Berry's parents, who owned a grocery store in Peabody and lived upstairs, enrolled their son for sixth grade at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, a residential school for students with disabilities. Berry returned to Peabody in eighth grade and entered Bishop Fenwick High School, where he became sports editor of the school newspaper and was voted "most witty" by the Class of 1968.

"In the eyes of my family, I was considered a genius just to have graduated from first grade, then from high school and college -- ordinary achievements for which I got a lot of reinforcement," Berry said at the Cotting School. "I got to believe I was special. That gave me courage to try a lot of things people didn't think I should."

Berry went on to earn a business degree from Boston College and a master's degree from Antioch College in Ohio. After college he joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, and spent 15 months in the barrios of Corpus Christi, Texas.

"VISTA taught me how unfair life is," he said. "Politics seemed a chance to do something about it."

'Incredible champion'

Berry returned home and got a job running an employment program for Northeast Arc, a Danvers-based agency that helps people with disabilities. He began his political career by winning a seat on the Peabody City Council in 1979. In 1982, he won a five-way Democratic primary for the 2nd Essex Senate seat.

Berry made oblique references to his cerebral palsy in his early re-election campaigns, telling voters in his literature, "I'm not able to play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, but I certainly can represent you in the State Senate," Speliotis recalled.

"That epitomized his career," Speliotis said. "Freddy exceeded everyone's wildest expectations."

Over his three decades in the Senate, Berry helped secure funding for a variety of projects in his district, including a library at Salem State University and a building at North Shore Community College that bear his name.

Peabody state Rep. Tom Walsh, who was a volunteer on Berry's first campaign for the Senate, recalled the time Berry stepped in to make sure the city did not lose funding for a bus terminal on Route 1 for people going to Logan Airport.

"Fred was very instrumental on the larger stage of Massachusetts, but he was always focusing as well on the things that were important to his district," Walsh said.

Berry was also a strong advocate for early intervention services to help children with developmental delays. The Massachusetts Early Intervention Consortium named an award after Berry -- the Frederick E. Berry Early Intervention Champion Award -- saying that more than half a million children receive services thanks to Berry. The award was won this year by Berry's successor, Sen. Joan Lovely.

Berry also pushed for insurance coverage for autism and mental health services, said Susan Ring Brown, director of development at Northeast Arc.

"We could not have asked for a more incredible champion, both by example and by the work he did," Ring Brown said.

Berry also sponsored legislation to close state institutions in favor of a system of community-based programs for people with mental and physical disabilities, citing his experience in a state school as a young boy and later as an employee at a state institution during college.

In a commentary for Commonwealth Magazine in 2016, Berry said he had been "witness to the dehumanizing approach used to 'treat' individuals confined to state 'hospitals' and 'schools.'"

"That's why from my first day in the Senate to my last day 30 years later," he wrote, "I worked with smart, committed colleagues of both parties to close a system of state institutions that was doing more harm than good to those supposedly being served."

'Funniest guy in the room'

Throughout all of the challenges and political rivalries, Berry maintained his sense of humor. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, in a tweet paying tribute to Berry on Tuesday, said he was "always the funniest guy in the room."

On a tour of the old Higgins Middle School with state officials to make a pitch for a new school, Berry got stuck on a mechanical lift -- and joked that the whole thing was planned, just to prove that Peabody needed a new school.

"His sense of humor was really disarming for people who might have disagreed with him," Ring Brown said. "You had to love him anyway."

Salem State University President John Keenan recalled that Berry never held it against him when Keenan challenged him for his Senate seat in 1994. Keenan was later elected to the state House of Representatives and worked alongside Berry in the Senate.

"I did not know how that would impact our relationship when I finally got to Beacon Hill," Keenan said. "He was an absolute gentleman and mentor and friend in my role as state representative. He could not have helped me any more than he did."

Outside of politics, Berry ran his own nonprofit, F.B. Charities Inc., and worked closely with Northeast Arc. He and his wife, Gayle, were a regular presence at local events.

Berry retired from the Senate in 2012 and continued to work part time with the Arc as an ambassador to local businesses. One of his projects was to establish the Blackbox Theater, in the same building on Foster Street in Peabody where Berry started his career with the agency.

In August, Berry was admitted to the Kaplan Family Hospice Center in Danvers.

In a statement released on Tuesday, his family said, "With great sadness, the family of former Senator Fred Berry shares the news of his passing. Fred died peacefully on Tuesday morning after a brief illness. The family appreciates all the support and well wishes they have received during this difficult time, and asks for privacy as they make final arrangements to celebrate Fred's life.

Political consultant Michael Goldman said Berry will leave behind a legacy of refusing to let circumstances dictate what a person can accomplish.

"We need more people in public life who have disabilities, because they're the best ones to tell us what those communities need," Goldman said. "Fred made sure that everyone in the building knew that."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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(c)2018 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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