Man behind Berry Library explains gift: $27.5 million donation earmarked for library is largest ever

by Maura Henninger | 4/22/97 5:00am

When John Berry '44 arrived at Dartmouth in 1940, he was overwhelmed by the commanding presence of Baker Library tower. More than 50 years later, he has donated more than $27.5 million to build a new library.

Berry's gift is the largest in the College's history, and the building it helped pay for is scheduled for completion in the year 2000.

During a visit to campus over the weekend, Berry, whose company founded the Yellow Pages, explained what prompted him to donate a fortune to Dartmouth.

"I've given back in ways that will help young people, because education is the backbone of this country and is what is going to keep this country strong," he said.

A family of philanthropists

The construction of the new Berry library is a family affair. Both Berry's father, posthumously through the Loren M. Berry Foundation, and son George Berry '66, have contributed $1 million to the new library.

Also contributing $5 million to Berry Library is George F. Baker III, whose great-grandfather funded the construction of Baker Library.

Berry said he has always followed his father's example -- from donating money earmarked for the College's Berry Athletic Center to giving gifts to several Midwestern universities.

Berry contributes to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio by giving to the Dayton Art Institute, the city's Natural History Museum and hospital. But Berry's $27.5 million gift to the College is the largest sum of money he has ever donated.

A love affair with Dartmouth

Berry's love affair with Dartmouth began even before he matriculated. His uncle regaled him with stories of life at the College, his hometown had a strong Dartmouth alumni club and he wanted to attend school in the East.

Eager to play football at the beginning of his freshman year, Berry said two weeks of grueling practices helped him decide he would rather spend time studying than getting roughed up on the field.

Berry fondly remembers several favorite classes he took as an undergraduate, including "Cowboys and Indians" as well as a Classics course on ancient Greece and Rome.

A significant part of his education took place outside the classroom, Berry said. He participated in intramurals and competed in bridge tournaments with fellow brothers of Sigma Chi fraternity -- now known as The Tabard.

A smile crept across Berry's face as he recalled the social scene at the all-male College, when students had to trek to women's colleges like Smith to get a date.

Berry's life took an unexpected turn when, as a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps, he was called to duty in May of 1943 with one semester before graduation.

Because he had met the prerequisites for engineering servicemen, he was transferred to the Army Scholastic Training program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Prior to joining the Corps of Engineers, he spent seven months taking advanced coursework in civil engineering.

In March 1946, with a wife and child in tow, he received his discharge from the Army. His engineering coursework in the Army qualified him for his Dartmouth degree.

"Because so many of my classmates went into the Army, Navy, and Marines, Dartmouth didn't have a graduation for two years," Berry said. "Most finished their education elsewhere, some came back to Dartmouth."

The family business

After the war, Berry returned to Dayton to join his father at L.M. Berry and Company.

"My father was, let's say, not only helpful but gave me a lot of guidance and responsibility very quickly," Berry said.

Berry rose through the ranks to become CEO by the mid-1950s.

"My father always carried a title and had an interest but from the late 1950s on, he directly did less of the work and just wanted to know what was going on," Berry said.

When his father died in 1980 at the age of 91, Berry assumed responsibility of the company and renamed it The Berry Company.

Under his guidance, the company grew from a domestic company worth $300 million with 47 employees in 1946 to an international company worth almost $2 billion, with 6,600 employees worldwide in 1986, when he sold it to Bell South.

Although he has left the telephone directory business, Berry is now actively engaged with another enterprise, the Berry Investment Company. Several of Berry's five sons work for this newest venture.

Philanthropy lives

These days, Berry and his wife divide their time between Dayton and extensive traveling. College Vice President of Development Stan Colla said Berry and his wife are world travelers, and they spend a good deal of time visiting friends and family around the country.

Berry said he remains an active philanthropist in the Dayton area. He said two local institutions he supports are Ohio State University and Rio Grande University, where a building bears his name.

But Berry said his most meaningful connection is with Dartmouth. He said he keeps in constant touch with the administration, alumni fund and class reunions.

Berry said he plans to be intimately involved in the construction of the library that will bear his name.

"Although I'm certainly not a designer or engineer, I want Berry to complement Baker, which is a very fine building architecturally," he said. "I'm very interested in the look of the new library. I can assure you it won't look like Bradley, Gerry, and Kiewit."

He said his central priority is that thousands of future students enjoy and benefit from the new library. But he acknowledged that the work is never complete.

"Someday they'll even outgrow Berry," he said. "This library isn't the final phase, as technology constantly changes these days."

But the Berry Library will remain a permanent fixture on campus, and, hopefully, it may overwhelm a freshman or two someday.

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