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The Berry Best

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Jan 6th, 2021
0 Comments
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article by Georgiann Potts | photography by Kelly Moore Clark 

Dr. Ron Berry is a quiet, thoughtful fellow by nature. By his own admission, he is an introvert who cares more about serving and helping others than about garnering personal attention. Reminiscent of those who are known better by their actions than by their words, Berry is a remarkable example of what not just dreaming of change, but also doing something to bring it about, can accomplish. His previous associations with ULM – as student, graduate student, teacher, and dean – have brought to his life a deep sense of purpose. And each has helped him develop a comprehensive understanding of not just how universities work in general, but more importantly, specifically how ULM works. For his leadership, his tireless work to empower students and faculty for personal and professional success, and his commitment to the betterment of all, ULM President Ron Berry is our January 2021 BayouIcon.

Prophesies often come at the most unexpected times and from the most unexpected places. When Dr. Ron Berry, ULM’s 9th president, was an undergraduate at then Northeast Louisiana University, one of his math professors made an astonishing prophesy in a class Berry was taking. 

Dr. Richard Fritsche was notorious for challenging his math students. Berry remembers that this particular class had begun with 30 students, but after midterm only Berry and 9 others remained. During class one day, Fritsche posed a difficult question to his students and Berry answered it. Fritsche was so impressed with his young student’s response that he declared to the class that one day “Mr. Berry” would have a building on that campus named after him. 

Today, while there is no campus building bearing his name, it does appear on a very important door – the door to the ULM President’s offices.  Although Berry admits that becoming president was not a lifelong ambition, he also admits that it presented an opportunity to serve that was impossible to resist.

Berry never expected one day to be the leader of one of Louisiana’s major higher education universities. “I could best be called an ‘accidental’ administrator,” Berry says. “It was never in my career path; it just happened.” When he realized the greater impact that his being an administrator could have on others, the prospect became more exciting to him. Virtually every phase of Berry’s life had prepared him for this moment. 

Early Years 

Ron Berry is a child of the Delta, that rural region that has endured poverty for so many decades that many have lost hope. Born and reared in Winnsboro by a mom he credits with being his champion, Berry knows firsthand the limits that poverty creates. “My mom was a rock who provided inspiration and support that allowed me to become who I am. She often worked two jobs to provide for our family, but never complained about our situation,” Berry says. “She was always thinking about how she could help others and provide for her two sons. I get my patience, calmness, and concern for others from her.”

His mother, Maxine Berry was born in Mississippi but spent nearly all of her life in Winnsboro. She was divorced when Berry was in second grade, leaving her with two sons – Rick and Ron — to rear on her own. “In our early life, she worked at our elementary school as a reading aide specialist. After we were out of elementary, she worked a variety of jobs to see that we had what we needed,” Berry remembers. 

An extended family nearby, including grandparents and his mother’s 6 siblings, meant that Berry grew up surrounded with love and lots of fun. “I was the next-to-youngest of the cousins, and I especially enjoyed when we would all get together for holidays,” Berry remembers. “These were very large gatherings, usually held at one of my aunts’ or uncles’ homes. Later my mom hosted the entire family for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Sports played an important role during Berry’s childhood. Berry’s older brother played baseball (pitcher) and football (quarterback) at Winnsboro High School. Berry was a 4-year letterman on the baseball team (first base). Baseball was a favorite family sport, and by the time Berry was 18, his family made up a major part of a traveling softball team. “We traveled the South and at one point were the state champions for our classification in Louisiana and Mississippi,” recalls Berry. “That time with my brother and family members was truly memorable.”

Two Uncles Pave the Way

Two of Berry’s uncles, Jake Parks and Tom Parks, were early role models for Berry. Berry describes Jake as quiet, patient, and giving. When the business he was working for was having a bad time, Jake worked for free for several months to help the company survive. That example of self-sacrifice for the greater good stayed with Berry.

There was a second time when his uncle’s heart had an influence on Berry. In one of the earliest softball tournaments that Berry’s family played in together, his uncle was the coach. His own 7 sons were very talented, while Berry describes himself as being “. . . by far the youngest and least talented on the team.” When the tournament was over and the family team had won, Uncle Jake presented Berry with the Most Outstanding Player award. Puzzled, Berry asked his uncle why he had been selected. His uncle’s reply was simple: “You played the hardest, had the best attitude, and never gave up.” 

When his uncle was terminally ill, Berry visited him in the hospital. While he was there, the preacher came in. The preacher asked Jake if he could pray for him. Uncle Jake’s reply, “Yes. I could use the help and you could use the practice.” Berry never forgot his uncle’s example of good humor in spite of a crisis.

Berry’s uncle Tom was also instrumental by example in helping Berry find his way toward a career in higher education. Tom did not live in Louisiana, but his success, drive, and passion for higher education was an inspiration to Berry. He earned several degrees from ULM and later earned his PhD in English from Vanderbilt University. He recently retired from Clemson University where he had served in several administrative positions including Associate Dean, for which he earned Emeritus status. One of his uncle’s accomplishments that Berry is most proud of is the “Call Me Mister” program that his uncle designed to recruit minority men to teach, and to become role models for students at an early age by encouraging careers in the education field.

Career Choices

When Berry was 12, he worked mowing lawns and quickly decided against that for a career (especially during the hot Delta summers). When he was 13, he worked as a service station attendant where he pumped gas, fixed flats, changed oil, and did whatever he was asked. Through this, he learned that he was good working on things with his hands – an asset for his future career.

At 16 Berry worked as a clerk at the Office of Welfare where he gained invaluable exposure to how a professional office is organized and works. He worked on the computer system to retrieve data, a task that fascinated him and ignited his love for computer technology. He also worked during the summer as a grocery store clerk and in retail sales, both of which sharpened his “people skills”.

  Berry’s earliest career plan was to become a high school math teacher. His high school English teacher suggested that he might also consider other options. Because of her influence, he began undergraduate studies at Northeast Louisiana University in pre-law, a degree that he believed would lead to “. . . a financially stable career and life.” It took one accounting class during his sophomore year to change his career path. Berry loved the math and business component in accounting, but by his senior year, he realized that he didn’t want to spend his life as an accountant. He missed interaction with others, and didn’t like the isolation of office work.

Berry worked at a small business that included retail, wholesale, and limited manufacturing while earning his MBA at ULM. During his last graduate semester, Berry enjoyed teaching economics. “Life had come full circle and I was back on the teaching track,” Berry says, smiling.

Realizing that the terminal degree would be essential for a long-term career in higher education, Berry enrolled in a doctoral program at Mississippi State University. While he intended to major in economics, after discussing his plans with the Computer Information Systems (CIS) faculty, all agreed that his degree should be in CIS.

Higher Education Career

When Berry had completed his coursework at Mississippi State, he took a position at High Point University in North Carolina as Assistant Professor of CIS. There he taught 18 hours a semester (including 3 nights per week) while simultaneously completing his dissertation. “This was great because I had the opportunity to teach nearly all of the CIS classes imaginable as well as teach adults in the evening degree program,” Berry remembers. “Unfortunately, I had no life because all I did was work!”

When his mother experienced a significant health issue, Berry applied for a one-year visiting assistant professor position at ULM. His plan was to stay for just one year — but that was 25 years early. He found ULM to be a perfect fit — a place of opportunity and a chance to make a significant difference in many lives.

Berry achieved tenure and a promotion to Associate Professor a year early and was named Technology Coordinator for ULM’s College of Business Administration (today known as the College of Business and Social Sciences). As time passed, he became CIS Department Head, interim Dean, and finally Dean of the College of Business Administration. “Each of these positions taught me something that helped in the next,” Berry says. “I think the most important lessons have been those that taught me patience and that nothing happens overnight.”

During his quarter century at ULM, Berry has been impressed with the faculty’s commitment to their students and to the community. “They have been asked to do more than they should, and each one has done so for the sake of our students and community,” Berry says. “They are truly committed to student success.”

Finding a Perfect Life Partner

Berry was so consumed by his studies and work that he remained a bachelor until he was 36 years old. A self-described independent bachelor who focused most of his time on his professional career, he met Christine Hollman who was interviewing for a ULM assistant professorship. Berry laughs when he remembers her reaction to their meeting. After Christine’s father also met Berry, he asked his daughter if Berry might be a “prospect”. Her response – “No, but he might be a good babysitter.”

At the time, Christine’s son Michael from a previous marriage was a two-year-old. “Well, I must have been a fantastic babysitter because we eventually did fall in love,” Berry says. “We dated for three years and then married.”

During their courtship, the two discovered that they had similar behavior patterns and shared values even though they had experienced very different childhoods and were different personalities. “Christine moved every few years, while I was the small-town Southerner,” Berry explains. “Though we are both introverts, she plays the role of an extrovert much better than I do. She loves to discuss matters with others while I tend to do the opposite.” 

Berry proposed to Christine at her home in Monroe. He laughs when he remembers the moment – and how he inadvertently managed to remove some of the romance from the moment. “Right before I was going to propose, Christine told me that she had just lost a ring that I had given to her on another occasion,” Berry recalls. “Being the introvert and nerd that I am, after I proposed to her, I told her not to worry because her engagement ring was insured. I thought I was being funny since she is the insurance professor, but my humor wasn’t greatly appreciated.” (Berry had the last laugh, however, when several years ago she lost her engagement ring and was very happy that it was insured!)

Their alliance has been a mixture of joy and support for each other. Berry admits that Christine carries most of the family responsibilities. Son Michael is a 21-year-old senior at ULM pursuing degrees in math and finance. He plans to earn the PhD in Economics. Berry describes him as “. . . definitely more like Christine – extremely intelligent, driven, and clumsy!” Daughter Alea is a 16-year-old sophomore at River Oaks Academy. Berry says she is quiet and shy, just like he is. She is “. . . very creative and loves to write and to draw.” 

The Berry’s favorite couple activity is to have a nice quiet dinner out just to talk with each other. They try to have a “date night” every Thursday night, but increased responsibilities have limited those evenings. Still, both try to have as many “date nights” as they can manage. One of their favorite family activities is family “game nights” during which they compete fiercely over cards or board games.

Finding a “get-away” that the entire family can enjoy is easy for the Berry’s. Armed with season passes to both Disneyland and Universal Studios, they travel to Orlando as often as possible. They also took a family trip to London one summer that they all enjoyed immensely, while Michael was taking classes at the London School of Economics. The family stayed in dorms and explored the city at leisure. No surprise — of special interest to Christine was a tour of Lloyds of London.

Accepting the ULM Presidency

Berry is the first to admit that moving into the presidency during the middle of a semester and with a global pandemic raging was hardly an auspicious beginning. The limitations imposed by the pandemic plus the obligation to keep students, faculty, and staff as safe as possible proved challenging. Still, Berry is making the most of the opportunities that are there.

One of the most encouraging aspects of his candidacy was discovering that he was more resilient, patient, strong, and calm than he would have thought. Another was the number of people who became surrogates and made phone calls, sent emails, and wrote letters on his behalf. “The support of the ULM and broader community made all of the difference in the search process,” Berry admits gratefully. “People in Northeast Louisiana really care about the future of ULM. They participated in this search process like never before.”

Both Berry and Christine are committed to making a difference in people’s lives through education. This is their passion, and it drives much of what they will do as ULM’s President and First Lady. Both are grateful for what educations meant for them, and will work tirelessly to make education accessible to others.

Because of his background in CIS, Berry is particularly cognizant of the impact of technology on education. As in almost everything, technology presents positives and negatives. Without technology, the online courses/Zoom classes/real-time communications would not be possible. Even so, that same technology threatens to change the very nature of education. “Access to information will continue to get easier and less expensive; however, we will still need to teach individuals what to do with that information,” Berry says. “How we do that is the unknown that we must explore so that we can provide the best education possible to all students.”

Berry is looking forward to developing partnerships with VCOM’s president Dr. Dixie Tooke-Rawlins that will help increase access to lower cost healthcare, improve health outcomes, and increase educational opportunities for the region. He believes that removing barriers to a wide variety of opportunities will be key to ULM’s long-term success. 

The ULM Opportunity Fund

Shortly after becoming president, Berry and Christine helped form the “ULM Opportunity Fund” as a way to begin removing barriers. Through it, they hope to help faculty earn their PhD and teach at ULM, help students finish their college education, and create Leadership programs for females and other underrepresented groups. After hearing about funding issues during the interview process, Berry created the idea and made the first donation ($100,000 over four years).

In many ways, Ron Berry is perfectly suited to lead ULM and the region to even more success. He has experienced firsthand the impact of education, and wants to help other Delta children enjoy that same blessing. “Growing up in poverty was a primary challenge in life, but it made me a stronger person, instilled in me the desire to want something more in life, and made me truly appreciate all that I had,” Berry says. “Like many kids growing up in poverty, I was very shy and reserved and somewhat socially inept. Time, teaching, and my life experiences have improved each of these.”

Berry cites Abraham Lincoln as one of his personal heroes. He admires Lincoln’s leadership skills and strong character. Lincoln once wrote, “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” ULM President Ron Berry would surely agree.