Hy Berman was 23, recording Alka-Seltzer commercials for a Yiddish radio station in New York and preparing to become a high school social studies teacher in the late 1940s.
That licensure work included a speech exam that Berman flunked because he was deemed to possess too thick of a New York accent. That happens when you grow up speaking Yiddish in Depression-era Brooklyn — eldest son of left-wing Jewish immigrants from Poland.
Berman headed to speech therapy class, which used vinyl recordings to practice proper English.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Berman says in a new book, recently published four years after his death at 90. The record they gave him to learn accent-free English featured Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention.
“His speech was considered standard English and mine wasn’t,” says Berman, who would become a confidante as Humphrey climbed to the vice presidency and Berman rose to prominence as a popular state historian at the University of Minnesota.
Years after the speech and Humphrey’s presidential loss to Richard Nixon, Berman and Humphrey shared an office at the U.
“When I told Hubert about my speech therapy, he was so proud,” Berman says. “But as far as I can tell, I still have my New York accent.”
That’s just one of my favorite yarns from the book, “Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Public Historian” (University of Minnesota Press). There’s delicious insight into former Minnesota governors, from Harold Stassen to Rudy Perpich to Mark Dayton. There’s an eye-opening look at Minnesota’s anti-Semitic past. And more great Humphrey stuff — including President Lyndon Johnson’s obscene threat to “grab” his vice president in a most indelicate way.
Berman’s death four years ago this week appeared to silence the well-loved historian, whose 90 appearances on public television’s “Almanac” made him a popular household commentator on the state’s past.
But thanks to co-author Jay Weiner, Berman is back. A longtime Star Tribune Olympics reporter and former speech writer for University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, Weiner got to know Berman in the professor’s last year.
Weiner recorded several interviews in Berman’s last six months, scouring old speeches and video recordings to round out the story in Berman’s own voice.
In the end, Berman died before reading more than the book’s first chapter and outline. For anyone who enjoys revisiting Minnesota’s quirky political landscape of the later 20th century, the book is well worth reading.
“His role as a translator of history is his real legacy,” said Weiner, who will discuss the book at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 25, at the East Side Freedom Library at 1105 Greenbrier St. in St. Paul.
Far from a rigid academician trapped in a classroom, Berman’s spot on the front lines of recent Minnesota history makes his story so compelling. Take, for example, this scene from the late 1960s when, Berman says, “a university wasn’t a university unless it was taken over by students.”
In January 1969, black students occupied Morrill Hall and took U President Malcolm Moos hostage when he refused to immediately establish an African-American Studies department. At the time, Berman was leading a committee considering a racial history graduate program. So Moos called him frantically to his office, which the president left to go the bathroom and never returned.
“He just upped and left, so there I was, the hostage,” says Berman, whose late-night negotiations ended the “siege” by offering meaningful African-American studies courses plus money for a conference and scholarship funds for black students.
Perhaps the richest content in the book involves Perpich, the Iron Range dentist who became a governor, Berman says, with “more ideas in a day than most governors have in their entire administration.”
Berman and Perpich first bonded after the professor arrived at the U in the early 1960s and headed to the Iron Range to research Minnesota immigrants. Perpich came from a Croatian family similar to Berman’s immigrant roots. Both their dads had deep Socialist bents and “Rudy and I had some kind of chemistry that worked,” says Berman, who became an unofficial Perpich cabinet member and trusted gubernatorial adviser in the 1970s. Once again, he was on the front lines.
While the book at times delves into the inside baseball of university politics, it more often soars with Berman’s easy-to-grasp reflections on immigration and other issues.
Berman insists immigrants like his father were revolutionaries, “cutting the ties that kept him in his old village or town. This is rejecting ancestry, rejecting nationality, rejecting home, and, sometimes even, rejecting religion. It’s quite dramatic.”
For his thousands of students, Berman hopes he honed their “ability to see the present in terms of the development of their own society’s past,” to understand “that the world didn’t begin with their birth.
“A community without a knowledge of its past is like a person with amnesia,” Hy Berman says. “It can exist and function from day to day, but its lack of memory leaves it without a feeling of purpose, direction, or identity.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.