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Remembering Fred

For those of us lucky enough to call Fred Berger a friend, Tufts in the late 1960s was the adventure of a lifetime

I saw the last panty raid on campus my first year at Tufts, 1965. Freshman year we had parietal hours, and a towel on your door meant you had a guest of the opposite sex, and curfew was 11:00 on Fridays, midnight on Saturdays. By the time we were seniors, the dorms were co-ed and your guest could spend the night, no towels, no sweat. We came in with the old Tufts and left living in a brave new Youthquake world. Why am I thinking about all of this now? Because Fred died.

I met Frederic S. Berger the very first time my high school friend Michael and I walked into Miller Hall, our dorm freshman year. Michael and Fred already knew each other, they’d gone to summer camp together, and the three of us ended up becoming close. We helped each other through all the dislocations and traumas that afflict new college students trying to find their way in the strange new world, and we also embarked upon extraordinary adventures.

Fred, it turned out, came from a world of privilege. His father was Louis “Doc” Berger, who’d graduated from Tufts in 1936 with a degree in engineering and then gone on to found the enormously successful international engineering firm the Louis Berger Group. The old man was awarded an honorary degree from Tufts our freshman year, and even served as a trustee. Not that you’d guess any of this from meeting Fred. He never put himself above anyone else—or took himself too seriously.

Fred and I pledged a fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi, spring semester of our freshman year. (Michael, whose grades weren’t high enough to permit him to join a fraternity, became a secret member.) Phi Ep resembled John Belushi’s fraternity in Animal House. It was a chaotic place with all-night poker games and parties that became legend, like the beach-themed one where the pool broke, nearly electrocuting the band, and turning two truckloads of sand into impassable muck. Fred’s brand of humor was very much a part of the Phi Ep scene. One time, he cooked dinner and used bizarre combinations of food coloring on all the dishes, then served them to a bunch of stoned friends, all the while acting like everything was normal.

Off campus, Michael, Fred, and I became regular visitors of Karmu, a Central Square shaman who, when he wasn’t fixing cars at a garage on Green Street, spent his days “healing” students from area colleges. In time, Karmu would come to be known as the Black Christ of Cambridge, but we caught him at the beginning of his ascent. He was a matchmaker, a therapist, a barefoot curandero, and a wiseman. He could cure your depression, improve your social life, and boost your self-confidence. The first time we met him, we brought along a classmate, and we would never forget the blessing he gave her: “You’ll have Zook! And Wook! And you will be a scorecolackin’ chickadee.”

We also frequented Harvard Square, the stomping grounds of other countercultural figures. Back in 1965, Harvard, which had fired the psychology lecturer and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary only a couple of years earlier, still had its share of “turn on, tune in, drop out” sentiment, and at Club 47 on Palmer Street, you could hear the likes of Joan Baez, whom we preferred to think of from her appearance on an anti-draft poster that read: “GIRLS SAY YES to boys who say NO.” (We generally found that to be true.)

One of Baez’s sisters, by the way, was her fellow folkie Mimi Farina, wife of Richard Farina, the author of the comic picaresque work Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which Thomas Pynchon said came at the reader “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.” That book was part of our literary canon, more prized and discussed than any assigned for a class ever was. We also liked The Lord of the Rings and the science fiction classics Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

If we were inclined toward the surreal, the fantastical, the outrageous, it wasn’t only because of the drugs we were doing. Our sense of reality was equally disturbed by what the draft protesters were protesting and the folksingers were singing about—the Vietnam War. As David Fenton, a photographer for the underground press group Liberation News Service, is credited with saying, “War made everybody crazy.”

Vietnam caused us to question everything we believed. Freshman year I stood in a receiving line and proudly shook the hand of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In 1968, my junior year, I demonstrated against him on Boston Common as a member of the notoriously radical organization Students for a Democratic Society. The demonstration was tear-gassed. That used to happen a lot.

Experiences like the ones Fred, Michael, and I shared forged a powerful bond, one made even stronger by the fact that we were young together at a time when the young dominated the country. We were Baby Boomers. And no one took the bonds of our youth more seriously than Fred. No one showed more loyalty or love. His motto was “If friends can, friends do.” The ethos came from his more serious side, which was always in evidence beneath the absurd sense of humor and the high spirits and the ability to imbibe mind-altering substances while pondering organizational charts.

Fred’s serious side also showed itself in his drive to become his own person, which posed a special challenge. After all, he lived in his father’s world. He was going to Tufts, where his father was a trustee, and he was being groomed to take his place in the family business. In a quest for authenticity and individuality, he made the bold decision in the middle of our junior year to take a six-month leave from Tufts and become a lineman for New England Telephone. There he was accepted for who he was, not just for being Louis Berger’s son. When he returned to school, he was more confident and comfortable in his own skin.

Because of his job with the phone company, Fred graduated a year after Michael and me, in 1970 rather than 1969. He went on to MIT, where he followed up his bachelor’s degree in economics with a master’s of science in civil engineering. When he went on to work in his father’s business, he was ready to make his own mark on it.

Fred’s career at Louis Berger began in 1972 with a three-week assignment that turned into a three-year stint in Nigeria. Over the decades, he matured into a true citizen of the world. He worked in nearly seventy countries on four continents. He built infrastructure, fostered development projects, and established international partnerships. And wherever he went, he became known for his sensitivity to the culture he found. He ate the local foods, adopted the local customs and dress whenever possible, and became fluent in several languages. “[T]o be useful in the twenty-first century,” Fred said in a 2009 interview, engineers “need to have international experience and a global perspective.”

Which is not to say that Fred neglected causes at home. Like his father before him, Fred was a huge supporter of Tufts. He served on the board of overseers. He helped administer the permanent chair of engineering endowed by his father, as well as an endowment for Tisch Library’s Digital Design Studio grants program. He was active in the Dean’s Discretionary Fund for the School of Engineering and the Institute for Global Leadership.

And in his personal life, Fred’s gift for creating and sustaining relationships never left him. He married the love of his life, Elizabeth “Betty” Brannan, J69, with whom he had three wonderful children. He was the best man at one of my weddings. He got our friend Michael a job at Louis Berger. And when another of our Phi Ep brothers died after being hit by a car, Fred made it his priority to help his widow both emotionally and financially.

After graduation, I lost touch with Michael, but in all the years that followed, I never lost touch with Fred, who actively worked at maintaining his college friendships. He traveled a lot for business, and although he could stay in any hotel he wanted, he made it his practice to stay with college friends. Many times he stopped at my house in San Francisco on his way to and from distant lands.

Fred was also remembered fondly in a Facebook group called Tufts in the Sixties, which was founded by a circle of friends who used to hang out at the “Kursaal”—that is, Curtis Hall, home of the student union. Now they hang out in a virtual (and ageless) student union. I learned from the group how to send away for my FBI file…and was disappointed to learn that I didn’t have one.

Fred battled cancer courageously for more than a year before succumbing in April 2015. When I heard the news, part of me couldn’t believe it. I still can’t fully accept it. Fred is not dead. He’s just building roads on some other continent. Or maybe what I should say is that he’s not dead because something of him and his deep desire for human connection lives on in me. Maybe it was that spirit that compelled me, after learning of his death, to finally seek out Michael.

Though I hadn’t spoken to Michael in forty-five years, it seemed like no time had passed at all when he answered the phone. We talked about a lot, but what I remember best from our conversation is this: He told me that he had carted a box of vinyl record albums out of his basement the day before, and that at the top of the pile was one by the late-60s psychedelic folk band Pearls Before Swine. It wasn’t his album, though. It had wound up in his possession because we were all always sharing everything. It was stamped “Frederic S. Berger.”

Fred Berger was my friend, and I wrote this for him. If friends can, friends do.

Peter Beren, A69, a literary agent in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the author of California the Beautiful (with the late photographer Galen Rowell).

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