If Minnesota had designated a historian laureate in the past half-century, Hyman Berman surely would have held that title. Through classes, essays, lectures, articles, broadcasts and interviews, Berman, who died Sunday at age 90, was Minnesota’s most public historian. He was the professor to whom Minnesotans turned when they wanted to know where their state had been so they might better understand where it was going.
Berman told Minnesota’s story in a cheery Brooklyn accent. A native New Yorker and the son of immigrant Jewish garment workers, he arrived at the University of Minnesota by way of Michigan in 1961. The young Ph.D. labor historian thought that he and his wife, Betty, would stay for a short time on their way to other academic stops.
Instead, he found his life’s work. Berman developed a passion for this state’s story and its people that was apparent as he shared his scholarship well beyond the academy. He was a leading interpreter of the early 20th century progressive movements that gave birth to Minnesota’s unique Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as well as an authority on the contributions immigrants made to Minnesota’s fabric.
His work on Iron Range labor history drew him into the orbit of the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, who considered Berman a political adviser as well as a friend. Their tie made Berman a familiar figure at the State Capitol, where he dispensed history lessons and political insights with a quotable wit that made him a favorite of journalists.
Berman took emeritus status on the U faculty at age 79, but continued his research and appearances. Kidney disease had recently restricted Berman’s outreach. But he remained in demand and cheerfully obliged as he was able, even granting an interview request in late September one day after his release from the hospital. (That interview will be featured in Lori Sturdevant’s Dec. 6 column.) His voice had weakened, but his enthusiasm for his adopted state had not. That enthusiasm was infectious, and is among his legacies.