In Memoriam

Remembering Laurence Berns (HA00)

March 3, 2011
(An obituary for Laurence Berns [1928-2011] was published in the Fall 2011 issue of The College, page 45, copied below.)


Befitting tutor Laurence Bern’s love of music, at a memorial service held in the Great Hall during Homecoming, tutors Eric Stoltzfus and Elliott Zuckerman performed Beethoven’s moving “Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano,” and the Madrigal Choir sang “Aura Lee,” “Mon Coeur,” and “The Silver Swan,” a tribute that captured Berns’s warmhearted, spirited nature.

President Christopher Nelson’s (SF70) opening remarks touched on Berns’s “boundless energy and engagement in the life of learning at the College.” Nelson added, “I will remember Larry Berns for his love of storytelling and his enthusiasm for politics.” When Berns shared stories about current political or social issues, including his personal commentary, Nelson recalled, “his eyes would open wide, his expression intensify, his arms begin waving, and his voice grow in volume, never in anger but with a warmth of heart that displayed his love of conversation, the strength of his convictions, and his sense of wonder at the world.”

Tutors Harvey Flaumenhaft, Joseph Cohen (A56), and Eva Brann (HA89); and former students Jerrold Caplan (A73), Theodore Blanton (A75), Sharon Portnoff (A85), and Daryl Li (AGI10) shared stories about Berns’s scholarly contributions, storytelling, generosity, and their admiration for a friend who passed too soon.

Excerpts from remarks at the service:

• “He was especially generous with what he devoted his life to; not only did he love to learn, but he also passionately loved to share what he had learned. Larry’s generosity was expressed not only in his eagerness to share his learning, but also in his freedom from any propensity to suffer anguish from wounded pride. That freedom was rooted in his very cheerful temperament and in his quite modest view of himself.” --Harvey Flaumenhaft

• “When Larry retired from teaching in May, 1999, it was his intention to think through the unifying themes of his many writings with the aim of publishing a book to be called Politics, Nature, and Piety. Although this intention was not fulfilled, his writings had already planted the seeds for others to respond to them. This they did through the project of producing a Festschrift in Larry’s honor, conceived in anticipation of his 80th birthday.

Because of an abundance of contributions, the Festschrift is being produced in two separate volumes with different editors and publishers. One, titled Fruits of Friendship: Seven Essays in Honor of Laurence Berns, of which I am the editor, has been published in Annapolis by Free State Press and made available for the occasion of this memorial service. Although, sadly, it cannot now be presented directly to Larry, I am gratified to invite Gisela Berns to the podium to receive this volume, in which her own contribution appears. The other contributors are Eva Brann (HAXX), Joseph Cohen (A56), Michael Fried (A82), Joshua Parens (A84), Michael Platt, and Martin Yaffe.” --Joseph Cohen

• “I think that it is fair to accord Larry the one title he would, in all modesty, have savored most – that of nobility, the nobility not of family, breeding, or station, but that peculiarly American patent which Jefferson bestows on those who are of the ‘natural nobility.’ Larry’s nature was morally fine, and sound mindedness was its natural intellectual mode. Yes: decency of soul and solidity of mind – those are the virtues that ennoble Larry in my memory.” --Eva Brann

Berns’s wife, Gisela, read “L’Envoi,” the final section of “The Seven Seas,” a long poem by Rudyard Kipling:

When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it – lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair;
They shall find real saints to draw from – Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame;
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

This year, tutors Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (A77) published a translation, with an introduction, glossary, and essay, of Plato’s Statesman, dedicated to their friend and colleague Laurence Berns.