A Home in History
U professor Hy Berman wrote one of Minnesota’s great political speeches.
Editor’s note: As former University President Eric Kaler’s speechwriter for seven years, author Jay Weiner learned the best speeches are delivered by people who are deeply engaged with the message a speechwriter crafts. When two people, writer and orator, trust each other, an eerie mind meld sometimes happens. The result—not always, but occasionally enough—can be a bit magical.
As I helped write Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Public Historian, about longtime, much-loved U of M history teacher Hy Berman, I couldn’t help but notice Berman and Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich had developed the special kind of bond that can arise between speechwriter and speaker.
For 43 years, Berman was one of the University’s most popular professors, but he also had a side gig for a couple years as a member of Perpich’s “kitchen cabinet.” More than a relationship between an opinionated wordsmith and an unorthodox politician, this pairing was a marriage of working-class confidantes, one from the Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods of New York, the other from the Croatian-speaking Iron Range of Minnesota.
The two had met very early in Berman’s University career, when he spent months at a time studying Finnish immigrants on the Range, while Perpich was an aspiring politician from the area. Berman became close to the Perpich family and, eventually, an adviser to the governor.
Berman had come by his many passions naturally, as the “red diaper baby” of left-wing, Polish Jewish immigrants in New York. He barely dodged the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, played a role in mediating the Black student takeover of Morrill Hall in 1969, and fought against and wrote about Minnesota’s anti-Semitic tendencies. He also developed a lifelong alliance with Hubert Humphrey, was a peerless political observer and labor historian, and was a familiar presence on public airwaves, particularly the Twin Cities PBS show Almanac.
During his time as part of Perpich’s inner circle, Berman helped Perpich write his inaugural speech, and craft a few other issueoriented positions. Berman also wrote the speech on the following pages for him, which defines both Berman’s view of history and his lifelong goal of translating and promoting that subject for the public. At the time, Berman was already en route to becoming the face of public history in Minnesota.
It was an honorary position he held until his death in 2015.
- Jay Weiner
The following speech, written by Hy Berman, was delivered by Governor Rudy Perpich on April 15, 1977. It seems to encapsulate the deeply held beliefs of both men, something a good speechwriter strives to accomplish.
"My concern and interest in our history is long and deep. I have seen an immigrant generation and their children become productive and contributing Minnesotans. I have seen their struggle to maintain their own heritage, and place it alongside the cultures of other ethnic groups to create a genuine American society.
I have experienced and deeply felt the need of immigrants and of my own generation not to be shunned, nor swallowed up by an earlier established culture.
I have seen and participated in movements for the inclusion of all human experience into our historical record and have come to appreciate the need for constant re-evaluation and openness.
History is not only a classroom or archives exercise, or a subject taught by the coach. It is not the sole possession of the super patriot or of the intellectual. We all are a part of history and history is a part of us.
The struggles of our ancestors, the sacrifices they made to achieve a better life for all of us, should have prepared us long ago to expect that newer groups in our society would make similar demands and with the same justice. Exclusionary policy leads to divisiveness, disunity, and disorder.
A better understanding of our past would have cushioned the stresses of the last decade when women, minorities, and the young insisted upon their rights to be fully included in our culture. But the lessons of history are learned only when knowledge becomes a familiar part of our daily lives and thoughts.
For the last few years I have been able to put my feelings into constructive action as the state’s chairperson for the Bicentennial. I have traveled the length and breadth of our state and have seen and felt the thirst for participation in our history, expressed by young and old both, in rural and urban sections of Minnesota.
Long before Roots appeared in a book and on television, demonstrating the hunger of our Black citizens to learn about their heritage, I sensed the same hunger among all segments of our state’s population. It was expressed in the efforts of individuals and groups to trace the history of their families, to understand their folk heritage, their communities, and their institutions. It was expressed in the efforts to preserve artifacts from the past—lighthouses, bridges, buildings—each a living reminder of the state as it was. It was expressed in the massive volunteer community efforts to clean up the environment so as to bequeath a portion of the state’s natural beauty to future generations.
These were not exercises in nostalgia. They were serious attempts to understand our present by understanding our past. Our Bicentennial efforts were only a beginning, however. Too often as a nation we go off on fashionable binges. I do not believe that we can afford to make history a passing Bicentennial fad.
Here in Minnesota we pride ourselves on our quality of life. As Harrison Salisbury has recently observed, there is a unique Minnesota Spirit. I firmly believe that much of this spirit comes from the living ties with the past that our state has cherished. We are not a bland, standardized people, living on the two-dimensional plane of the present, without depth or perspective. Nor are we a homogenized people, unaware of the widely varied cultures from which we have come. The sweat and sorrows and dreams of our grandparents and great-grandparents as they struggled to turn the prairies and forests of this tough, beautiful land of ours into farms and towns are still very close to most Minnesotans.
Even our political traditions of active citizen participation and maverick independence are with us each day—commemorated in the very names of our two major parties, the Independent Republicans and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties.
The Road to the U of M
Hy Berman would not have come to Minnesota in 1961— and stayed on the U of M Twin Cities history faculty for more than 40 years—were it not for the University’s urban setting. After he and his wife had spent the 1960-1961 academic year at Michigan State University, his wife, Betty, was unhappy.
“[Our] house was in a place that had no sidewalks … within a short distance of the Michigan State stadium,” Berman said. “Every Saturday it was bedlam during football season,” he said. “And no sidewalks. No sidewalks!”
In December 1960 Berman learned there was an opening in the U’s history department. He came to campus, delivered a guest lecture on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the very next day was offered a job.
“I picked up the phone and called [Betty], told her of the offer, and she asked one question: ‘Do they have sidewalks in Minneapolis?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Take the job.’”
Evidence that a strong sense of the past has taken firm root in all parts of the state is unmistakable. The impressive growth of county and local historical programs within the past generation proves this: recent expanded activities; collections of photographs, manuscripts, and museum items; marker programs; audio-visual presentations; sites and buildings protected from the onslaught of the bulldozers; lectures; county, township, and community histories are evidence of our people’s hunger for knowledge of the past.
People of all ages have taken increasing interest in their neighborhoods, capturing the spirit of their communities in books, articles, films, and even in the physical renovation of the buildings that surround them. These activities received a powerful stimulus from the observance of the Minnesota Territorial Centennial in 1949 and was reinforced nine years later by the celebration of the Statehood Centennial. Also helping to create a favorable climate were two laws enacted by the State Legislature.
A 1953 statute permitted county boards to make a special tax levy for the support of historical work, and in 1957 the Legislature enabled them to provide physical facilities and maintenance for historical societies. Ultimately, however, the values and uses of history and tradition must not be judged by the number of organizations and buildings, by the size of commemorations and displays, or by the quantity of money spent. Rather, they will be determined by the individuals who accept or reject the past as a meaningful and vital force in their lives.
The relevance of history to today’s world has been widely questioned. Some argue that the traditional interpretation of American history is, in fact, only the history of the dominant ethnic group—or a glorification of the lucky winners in a vast free-for-all of exploitation that we have traditionally looked upon as building civilization in a wilderness.
In meeting the challenges posed by a new generation of relentlessly honest young people, we must be prepared to look at the past through fresh eyes. We may be startled at some of the insights that appear if for a moment we reverse our field of vision and look at the story of a town, county, or region through the eyes of its vanquished.
We may see Indians driven from their homes and told by a chorus of well-meaning voices that nowhere in the future is there a place for their holy beliefs and cherished customs—that to survive they must deny their identity and become white men. We may see immigrants, torn between hope for the new world and homesickness for the old, watching their children slowly weaned from the old ways and the old language to become foreigners under their very roofs. We will see towns dead or dying along with the hopes that built them when the railroad located elsewhere. We will see farmers driven under by drought or debt or grasshoppers, packing up their few belongings and sadly moving on. We will see game destroyed, forests leveled, hillsides eroded, and streams polluted by careless greed.
And inevitably the question will arise: What have we now, and is it worth the cost? For some the answer may be yes, for others, no—but if history is to have meaning for the present and future, the questions must be honestly faced.
Preservation of our historic environment should be one of our major objectives. We must be sure that the bulldozer does not serve as a substitute for historic planning and preservation in the guise of progress.
For history is a humanized force in our increasingly impersonal and technological world. A sense of history can anchor us firmly in our own identity which will enable us better to understand our neighbors in the state, the nation, and the world.
Since 1849, when the first Territorial Legislature chartered the Minnesota Historical Society, our state has been one with a strong sense of respect for its past. It is imperative that we continue and expand this tradition to preserve and interpret our history. Because a community without a knowledge of its past is like a person with amnesia. It can exist and function from day to day, but its lack of memory leaves it without a feeling of purpose, direction, or identity.
A sense of history is recognizing the influence of the past in the very web of our daily lives—in our habits of thought and speech, in the streets we walk through, in the ways we earn a living. It is in the touch of humility that comes with knowing that wherever we are in life, we stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before. For, as I have said, history is all of us."
Jay Weiner served as a speechwriter for seven years for former U of M President Eric Kaler.