Former UC Berkeley professor remembered for teaching, environmental passion

William Berry was an active member of the community as well as a professor.
Alan Leviton/Courtesy
William Berry was an active member of the community as well as a professor.

Former UC Berkeley professor William Berry, a passionate paleontologist with an ardor for teaching environmental sustainability, died May 20 from skin cancer complications. He was 79.

Born and bred in Boston, Berry completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harvard University in 1953 and 1955, respectively, and later earned his Ph.D. in 1957 from Yale University with a focus on graptolites — commonly known as fossilized animals.

Arriving at UC Berkeley in 1958, Berry — who served the campus for 53 years and was at one point the director of the campus’s Museum of Paleontology — was “ahead of his time” and an “expert in earth and planetary science,” according to friends who worked with him throughout his time at on campus.

“What the striking thing about him was how he got undergraduate students to undertake research projects, which wasn’t terribly common in the 70s and 80s,” said Carole Hickman, professor of the graduate school in the department of integrative biology. “He had a very unique way of capturing student interests … he told really engaging stories.”

While teaching environmental science classes at UC Berkeley, Berry became known for encouraging students in environmental restoration campaigns. His efforts — which included having students participate in a biannual Strawberry Creek cleanup and inspiring them to get involved in Save the Bay and Save Strawberry Canyon — eventually led to him being honored at a campuswide Sustainability Summit on May 4, 2005.

“He was willing to step outside of the academic box to understand service-learning and engagement, what was really important — the ‘aha’ moments that the students had were so wonderful,” said Lisa Bauer, former campus recycling and refuse services manager.

Berry spent 33 years in the what was the department of paleontology and served as chair of the department from 1976 to 1987 but gave back to campus in areas other than sciences, serving on the Faculty Committee to personally interview undergraduate candidates for the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarships.

Doris Sloan, an adjunct professor in earth and planetary science and Berry’s former graduate student, said his support for her was invaluable.

“He was equally at home in long-ago earth history and what’s going on today of geology of San Francisco Bay and Bay Area environment — which he taught about,” she said. “He gave me advice and help when we needed to go to the administration to save the program from budget cuts.”

While working with the United States Geological Survey and the Applied Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berry even had time to publish his work when he held a Guggenheim Fellowship at Cambridge University in the 1990s.

Not one to limit himself solely to research and laboratory work, Berry attended Berkeley City Council meetings, serving as a campus liaison to the city, and even chairing the UC Berkeley Long Range Development Plan from 1988 to 1991, which reviewed and allocated space for possible construction projects.

Above all his achievements, Berry loved life and was an enthusiast of the Cal football team, his students and the classes he taught, where Berry formed lasting bonds with his students, said his wife, Suzanne Berry.

“For 45 years, he walked down to Cal and back home each day for five days of the week so he wouldn’t pollute the air with an automobile,” she said.

Berry is survived by his wife and one son, Bradford Berry.