Thinking of Margaret

Margaret Catherine Berry: August 8, 1915 – April 9, 2017

To my fellow UT students, she was the “cacciatore lady.” I soon discovered why.

In the 1980s, Margaret Berry, who claimed to have retired from her career at the University of Texas, was still an active volunteer advisor for several student organizations – the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity and the Orange Jackets women’s service society, among them – and every semester loved to invite each group to her house for dinner. It was at one of these gatherings that I, along with so many others, fell under Margaret’s spell.

Her oak-shaded north Austin home on Greenflint Lane was immaculately tended. She personally met each student, greeted them with a genuine smile, and invited them to explore the house and backyard. “My cat, Benji, is here, somewhere. Probably hiding under the bed!” And then she hurried off to the kitchen. “Is anyone hungry?”

Margaret, as usual, served baked chicken cacciatore, deftly handling multiple casserole dishes in and out of the oven, and spooning out large portions onto orange Wedgwood plates that featured detailed images of the University campus: the old Main Building (pictured), Gregory Gym, the UT Tower, Littlefield Fountain. Only later did we learn that the plates dated from 1937 and were actually expensive collectables. “What building is this?” someone would ask. “That’s old B. Hall, Margaret explained. It’s not on campus anymore, but let me tell you about it.”

Along with endless helpings of cacciatore – “Getcha some more. There’s plenty!” – Margaret provided salad and green beans. Bottles of soft drinks, cups, and ice were lined up on the kitchen counter, “and there’s tea in the refrigerator. Remember, T-sips drink tea.”

After dinner, the group gathered in the den to hear Margaret relate a bit about her student days at the University, her time as Associate Dean of Students, and give unsolicited but well-received advice. “Get involved on campus. Take on leadership roles in your group,” she encouraged. “Get to know your professors!” she admonished. “It’s a big university; explore every part of it you can,” she counseled. To her thirty to forty student guests, she was greeter, hostess, chef, historian, advisor, and life coach all at once. And she played each role effortlessly, and with a sincerity that left her guests inspired. “Dr. Berry is quite a lady,” one of my student friends remarked on the way home.

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A fourth-generation Texan, born August 8, 1915, Margaret Catherine Berry was raised in the tiny town of Dawson – about 30 miles northeast of Waco – and showed her academic prowess early by graduating from high school as co-valedictorian. Along the way, Margaret also learned well what it meant to be Texas friendly, something she shared in abundance with everyone.

Above: The UT campus in 1933, Margaret Berry’s freshman year. The old Main Building still stood on the top of hill, while the Littlefield Fountain was new.

A freshman on the University of Texas campus in 1933, some of Margaret’s first semester classes were held in the old Main Building, just before it was closed and razed. Along with her studies, she joined the Y.W.C.A., Mortar Board, and was especially active with the Orange Jackets. Four years later, in the spring of 1937, Margaret graduated with a degree in history, having witnessed the dedication of a new Main Building and Tower just months beforehand.

Above: Margaret Berry’s senior photo in the 1937 Cactus yearbook.

For a few years, Margaret taught in public schools along the Gulf coast – El Campo, Freeport, and Galveston – while spending summers at Columbia University in New York to complete her master’s degree in education. One summer she worked for Newsweek magazine and seriously considered remaining in the Big Apple, but Texas beckoned for her return.

In 1947, she was appointed Dean of Women and an instructor of history at Navarro Junior College, and then became Dean of Women at East Texas State Teachers College (now Texas A&M University – Commerce) in 1950. For the next decade, Margaret was a legendary figure on East Texas State campus, She was called the “lean dean,” or the “mean dean” – depending on the circumstances – and knew each coed’s GPA, whom they were dating, and if they’d violated any dorm curfews.  At the same time, Margaret took a deep interest in the education of her students and strived to be a role model for everyone.

In 1961, Margaret finally returned to Austin and juggled three responsibilities. She’d been appointed Associate Dean of Women at the University of Texas, was caring for her aging parents, and decided to complete her doctorate degree in education at Columbia.

Above left: Margaret Berry at a 1967 Texas Union event. That’s a straw hat on her head with “Hook ’em Horns!” in large letters. 

Margaret finished her dissertation in 1965, Student Life and Customs at the University of Texas: 1883-1933. It was the first survey of UT student life, required many hours of research in the University’s archives, and instilled a deep understanding and appreciation for the University of Texas. “What is a university? Like any living thing, an academic institution is comprehensible only in terms of its history,” said former Harvard president James Conant. Margaret understood this all too well. Her dissertation later became the foundation for her book, UT Austin: Traditions and Nostalgia, a staple in bookstores along the Drag for decades.

As part of the Dean of Students office, Margaret was best-known for her course “Self and the Campus Society.” It was intended to prepare UT students for leadership positions on campus and after graduation, but her infectious enthusiasm for the University, and the example she set as doing her best and always thinking of others, garnered Margaret a legion of adoring fans. “I thought you were the quintessence of a lady and a scholar,” wrote one of her students many years later. “Indeed, you have become my living definition of those two words, and my highest aspiration is to be a fraction of the example you set.”

Above right: Margaret Berry, as Associate Dean of Students and Developmental Programs Director, posed in front of Battle Hall in 1973.

In addition to her course, Margaret created the first telephone counseling service for UT students, authored the first handbook of student rights and responsibilities, was a regular speaker at the summer Honors Colloquium and freshman orientation, and volunteered as an advisor for student organizations.

In the 1970s, former UT Chancellor Harry Ransom asked Margaret to assemble an illustrated history of the University. The book, published by the UT Press, appeared in 1981. She also authored Brick by Golden Brick (a resource compilation on UT buildings), UT History 101, and The University of Texas Trivia Book, as well as histories of the Scottish Rite Dormitory and University United Methodist Church.

Though she officially “retired” in 1980, Margaret continued to be a popular personality on the Forty Acres and in Austin. She served as president of the Austin Woman’s Club and the Retired Faculty-Staff Association, was indispensable on the Texas Exes Scholarship Committee and UT Heritage Society, and was an active volunteer with the University United Methodist Church. In March 1981, the men of the Tejas Club, a student organization, asked her to be the guest speaker at the first annual Texas Independence Day Breakfast for faculty and students. The tradition continued through this year, when Margaret led the assembly in a “Toast to Texas.” (A decade ago the Club made her an honorary member.) In 1995, at the request of the provost’s office – and at the spry age of 80 – Margaret agreed to teach a freshman seminar from 1995–2002.

Above: March 2, 2017 – a 101-year old Margaret Berry is surrounded by members of the Tejas Club after the Texas Independence Day breakfast to honor UT faculty and students.

Her contributions didn’t go unnoticed. Both the Orange Jackets and Texas Exes have endowed scholarships named for her, and she was awarded the Arno Nowotny Medal, given to staff of the Division of Student Affairs “who render meritorious service.” In 1996, Margaret was a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Awards, the highest honor afforded by the Texas Exes, and in 2004 was dubbed Austin’s Most Worthy Citizen. In April 2012, the atrium in the newly-completed Student Activity Center was named in her honor, and at the dedication ceremony, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell officially declared it “Margaret Berry Day” in the city.

In April 2012, the Longhorn Band, UT cheerleaders, and an overflow crowd attended the dedication ceremony of the Margaret Berry Atrium in the Student Activities Center. Margaret is seated with UT President Bill Powers on the left, and Congressman Lloyd Doggett and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell on the right.

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On August 8, 2015, Margaret Berry marked her 100th lap around the sun. Hundreds of former students, University colleagues, and Austin friends gathered at the alumni center to help her celebrate. Like a Christmas Santa at a shopping mall, everyone waited in line to take a turn, sit with Margaret for a photograph, and tell her how much they loved her and the positive impact she’d had on their lives. As part of the formal program, UT President Greg Fenves arrived with a surprise. Margaret had planned to leave the University a $50,000 bequest to endow a scholarship in religious studies named in honor of her parents, but her friends had been busy and raised more than twice that amount. President Fenves officially announced the creation of the Lillian and Winfred Berry Endowed Presidential Scholarship.

Above: Margaret Berry at her 100th birthday party, August 8, 2015.

Margaret approached the podium and, with tear-filled eyes, said “thank you,” but, truly, it was the University community and her many friends, generations of UT students touched by her spell, who, collectively, were trying to express their gratitude to her.

Yes. Dr. Berry was indeed quite a lady.