BY JAY WEINER
Until the work began on what would become Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Public Historian, I didn’t know Hy Berman very well.
For nearly 30 years, I was a reporter for the Star Tribune and Hy was a prominent University of Minnesota professor and political pundit. But a search of my clippings reveal that I never quoted him. And while he was the all-time most frequent guest on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac public affairs program and I was an occasional analyst, our paths never crossed there either.
But over the years, Hy’s friend and pharmacist—and my friend and pharmacist—Tom SenGupta brought us together. Tom was the longtime owner of Schneider Drug on University Avenue in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, known for its colorful murals and posters supporting Paul Wellstone, single-payer healthcare, and investments in public education. For decades, Tom hosted occasional weeknight salons with political candidates, authors and activists as a gaggle of 30 or so, mostly retired professors, aging hippies, and community gadflies gathered around a potbelly stove in the middle of his pharmacy. I’m sure it was there that I first heard Hy and his passion for working people, his remarkable interpretations of history, and his humor.
About a decade ago, I got to know him a bit better. Hy and Tom began collaborating on an idea to create a monument or a gathering spot or an organization to honor “the common man.” It was an amorphous, but bold, vision, and they struggled to nail down a concept, a location, and funding. Nevertheless, along with local sculptor Doug Freeman, they began meeting for dinner five or six times a year at Café Biaggio on St. Paul’s University Avenue, and inviting others to brainstorm. Tom invited me, I accepted, and I became a regular participant, drinking martinis, eating pasta, and sharing stories with Hy. He told many of the same tales just about every dinner, a sort of greatest hits from a rock star. The stories never got old.
In February 2015, I was delighted to receive an invitation to Hy’s 90th birthday, which he celebrated with his friend and fellow nonagenarian David Noble, the professor who recruited him to the university in 1961. There, in Noble’s living room, sitting on a stuffed chair, removing himself from the noise and hoopla, Hy and I chatted, and I wondered if anyone had ever sat him down and recorded his stories.
“No,” he said, dismissively and, I’d soon learn, inaccurately. “Nobody wants to hear my stories.”
I told him someone should at least get his Mark Dayton and Rudy Perpich and Hubert Humphrey stories on tape for posterity. He shrugged, accepted the idea, acquiesced, and a few weeks later I visited Hy at his home with no agenda, goal or motive other than to get an hour or two of anecdotes on my digital recorder. I had no idea what I would do with the sound or the stories.
I sat on his couch and he in the leather director’s chair in his living room. It was lined with hundreds of books and adorned with spectacular paintings and sculpture by some of Minnesota’s greatest artists like George Morrison and Cameron Booth. He showed me a thick, blue three-ring binder. He explained it contained the transcripts of interviews—he had recorded many of his stories!—and some rough chapters he’d done and worked on eight years earlier with California State University, Long Beach political scientist Jack Stuart. The idea was to transform those interviews into a book of Hy’s memoirs, but the two could never get their act together even though the University of Minnesota Press wanted Hy’s memoirs and Hy wanted to make them happen. He’d asked other potential collaborators in town to assist, but no one bit, and he needed some help to complete this book project.
As I reached over to examine the binder’s contents and as he handed it to me, our eyes met, and he said, “What do you think?”
I’d never been hypnotized before, but, when a man of Hy Berman’s stature, magnetism and cuteness stares at you and suggests he’d like you as a partner, it’s kind of tough to resist.
“Sure, I’d love to help,” I said instantly, without realizing what I’d gotten myself into. What a wonderful spur of the moment decision I’d made and a privilege I’d stumbled into.
Thus began, over a seven-month period, a sporadic dozen sessions of about two hours each at his home, mostly at the end of my Friday workdays. I developed my questions around the Stuart interviews and to fill missing gaps in them. I also dived more deeply into Hy’s relationships with key historic figures. We filed for Hy’s FBI files via the Freedom of Information Act, which answered some questions for him. He directed me to some of his earliest writings, and I tracked down the House Un-American Activities Committee testimony in which he was mentioned, and some of his newspaper commentaries. It was truly fun.
On several occasions I sat beside him and watched some of his Almanac TV appearances and other lengthy videotaped interviews, reviewing what he’d said and confirming that using that material was OK with him. “I’d say the same thing today,” he said. All told, I gathered, perhaps, 35 to 40 hours of Hy Berman sound.
Hy and I developed the outline for this book together. He approved updates to it after a meeting with University of Minnesota Press editor Erik Anderson. The three of us conducted that final meeting in his hospital room. Hy also read and liked the beginning sections of the first chapter I shared with him. Sadly, that’s all he saw. He died November 29, 2015.
The night of his funeral, his wife, Betty, came to me, practically waved her finger in my face, and said, “You’re going to finish the book, aren’t you?”
How could I say no to that?
In the end, my goal was to write something that you could figuratively put up to your ear and, somehow, hear him. I know Hy would have wanted it that way.
I might have organized it, but this is Hy’s book, his words, his story and stories. I was simply with him to serve as the vehicle to bring his voice to the reader. I channeled him.
Still, I feared that transferal of voice to laptop, then computer to paper, would mean a loss in translation of his lively tone, his rapid cadence, his twinkling eyes, and his professorial authority.
That’s why when I sent the finished manuscript to Hy’s daughter, Ruth, I was more than a bit nervous about her reaction. That trepidation turned to excitement and emotion when she wrote back that while reading the advance version of the book, “I felt like I was in the room with him.”
If you as a reader feel as if you’re in the room with Hy, that, then, is the treat I sought to deliver.