Richard Berner died around 2:30 pm last Saturday Nov. 3, 2018. At the time Jean and I were in West Seattle helping the West Seattle Historical Society with it’s annual “gala auction.” That benevolent huckstering went so well that the gala ran both bountiful and long, and our plan to visit Rich following the auction was prevented by the small worries of slipping time. Two days later we learned that it was also snipped by the singular one of Rich’s death. Born at the very end of 1920, Richard did not make it to 100. As the founder of the University of Washington Library’s Archive he was a mentor to many of us, and friend too. Rich was a fine blend of ready compassion and good humor.
(click to enlarge photos)
We are pleased now to introduce Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence to Restoration, the first of Richard C. Berner’s three books named together Seattle in the 20th Century.When the details, stories, and insights are explored with a close reading, Berner’s accomplishment is by far our widest opening into Seattle’s twentieth century, the first half of it, from the 1900 to 1950. Those fifty years were also the second half of Seattle’s first hundred years, if we begin our counting with the footsteps of mid-western farmers settling here in the early 1850s.
Volume one was first published in 1991 by Charles Press, and the publisher – “Rich” Berner himself – made a modest list of its contents on the back cover. We will repeat it. “Politics of Seattle’s urbanization: dynamics of reform, public ownership movement, turbulent industrial relations, effects of wartime hysteria upon newfound civil liberties – all responding to the huge influx of aspiring recruits to the middle class & organized labor as they confronted the established elite. Includes outlines of the economy, cultural scene, public education, population characteristics & ethnic history.”
For this “printing” we have added many captioned illustrations, some of them copied from news reports of the events Berner examines, and we have almost always succeeded in placing each next to the text it illustrates. On-line illustrated editions of Volume 2: Seattle 1921-1940, From Boom to Bust and Volume 3: Seattle Transformed, World War 2 to Cold War will follow – but not at the moment. The collecting of illustrations and putting them in revealing order with the narratives for Volume 2 and 3 is still a work in progress. Readers who want to “skip ahead” of our illustrated presentations of Berner’s three books here on dorpatsherrardlomont can find the complete set of his history as originally published in local libraries or through interlibrary loans.
How Rich Berner managed it is a charmed story. He undertook what developed into his magnus opus after retiring in 1984 from his position as founder and head of the University of Washington Archives and Manuscripts Division. Between the division’s origin in 1958 and his retirement Rich not only built the collection but also studied it. Berner worked closely with Bob Burke, the U.W. History professor most associated with the study of regional history who first recommended Berner, a University of California, Berkeley graduate in history and library science, for the U.W. position.Together, the resourceful professor and the nurturing archivist shepherded scores of students in their use of the archive. Rich Berner is the first to acknowledge that he also learned from the students as they explored and measured the collection for dissertations and other publications. By now their collected publications can be imagined as its own “shelf” of Northwest History.
Rich Berner showed himself also a good explicator of his profession.His influential book, Archival Theory and Practice in the United States: A Historical Analysis was published by the University of Washington Press in 1983 and was awarded the Waldo Gifford Leland Prize by the Society of American Archivists. Composing this historical study on top of establishing and nourishing the University’s Archive and Manuscripts Division may be fairly considered a life’s achievement, but, with his 1984 retirement Berner continue to work in the archive at writing his three-volume history. He published Volume Three in 1999, and so, continuing the charm of this entire production, he completed Seattle in the 20th Century before the century (and millennium) was over.
(Lest we imagine this scholar chained to his archive we know that with his wife Thelma, a professor of Physiology and Biophysics in the U.W. Medical School and the first woman appointed Associate Dean of the UW graduate school, this famously zestful couple managed to often take to the hills and mountains.)
Rich was born in Seattle in 1920 – the last year explored in this his first volume. His father worked on the docks as a machinist, and for a time was “blacklisted” by employers because of his union advocacy.During the depression, while Rich was attending classes at Garfield High School, his mother ran a waterfront café on the Grand Trunk Pacific’s pier at the foot of Madison Street.
During the war Rich served with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Following it with help from the GI Bill he matriculated at Cal-Berkeley with degrees in both history and library science. It was also in Berkeley that he first met Robert Burke, then Director of the Manuscript Collection of the Bancroft Library. Rich worked part time there.
For Seattle, as for any city of size, there is a “canon” of publications that are necessary reading for anyone wanting to get a grip on local history. The first half of the Seattle Canon may be said to begin with Pioneer Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Reminiscences of 1888. The pioneer canon receives its own magnus opus with the combined works – multi-volume histories of Seattle and King County – of Clarence Bagley, himself a pioneer. That Berner was already attending Seattle’s T.T. Minor grade school in 1926 when Bagley was still three years away from publishing his History of King County is evidence of the “Boomtown” included in the title of this Berner’s first of three books on Seattle history.
With rare exceptions the books included in this first part of the Seattle Canon were published by their subjects, like Denny’s still revealing Reminiscences, or under the direction and/or support of their subjects, like Bagley’s still helpful volumes. They are generally “picturesque histories” written to make their subjects seem more appealing than they often were. The stock of motives for “doing heritage” are there generally supportive or positive, showing concern for the community, admiration for its builders, the chance to tell good stories, and often also the desire to learn about one’s forebears although primarily those truths that are not upsetting.Not surprisingly, and again with rare exceptions, these booster-historians and their heritage consumers were members of a minority of citizens defined by their wealth, race and even religion. It would be a surprise to find any poor socialists, animists or even affluent Catholics among them.
Part Two of the Seattle Canon may be said to have popularly begun with Skid Road, historian-journalist Murray Morgan’s charming and yet still raking history of Seattle. Published in 1951, the year of Seattle’s centennial, it is still in print, and has never been out of it. Richard Berner has dedicated Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence to Restoration to Morgan. The post-war canon is often corrective of the sins of the pioneers. The works of Morgan and many others, certainly including Berner, are not generally clothed in the pious harmonies of their predecessors, the ordinarily stress-free narratives expected of those who were writing under the “pioneer code.”
In our opinion Rich Berner’s three-volume Seattle in the 20th Centuryis the greatest single achievement of our Seattle Canon – “part two.”It has the scope and details required. It is profoundly instructive and filled with the characters and turns of fate that any storyteller might admire and wisely exploit. Within Berner’s three books are the wonders of what they did, the touchstones of their devotions and deceptions, their courage and hypocrisy, meanness and compassion.Certainly, it has been our pleasure to help illustrate this the first volume and to also continue on now with volumes two and three.
Paul Dorpat 10/1/2009
4 thoughts on “Richard Berner – passed”
Bless you Paul for this wonderful tribute to a generous and supportive historian and archivist. He provided cheerful and invaluable help to me in a project that was small in the history of Seattle, but large to my church community. Richard Berner deserves all our thanks for his life and work. Barbara Stenson Spaeth
Thanks for this, Paul. Richard Engeman
What a lovely tribute to a lovely man. His work is truly for the ages, and our wisdom deeper for it. Thank you, Richard!