A Life: Frank Fred Berk, 1951 - 2013; 'They First Thought of Him as a Friend'
Royalton school board member Frank Berk, center, listens to principal Shaun Pickett's response to a question at a May 2008 meeting. (The Herald of Randolph - Tim Calabro)
Frank Berk in January 2013. (The Herald of Randolph - Tim Calabro)
South Royalton — Wearing black, laughing, crying, the four Berk children talked about their dad.
It was drizzling outside as the quartet — Katie, Emily, Alex and Sam — stood, side by side, before the more than 200 colleagues, classmates, friends and family that had gathered for a memorial service for Frank Fred Berk last month at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
“I am so deeply sad that my dad is gone, and I know he would be so pissed missing all of you in one place,” Katie, the oldest of Berk’s children, said as the whole room laughed.
Berk, who was known for his infectious personality, self-deprecating humor and unrivaled intelligence, died at the age of 61 last month, surrounded by his wife of 21 years, Kathy, his sister, Bonnie, and his children. He spent the majority of his adult life in the South Royalton community, attending VLS, opening his own practice and raising his family. A seemingly never-ending line snaked through the South Royalton High School gym and into the hallway during his two-hour calling. Nearly a dozen people, including his children, shared memories, through laughs and tears, during the two-hour memorial service the next day.
“We’re all better people for having known Frank Berk,” VLS classmate and longtime friend Scott Cameron said, turning toward Kathy Berk and the four children. “You are, and always will be, his living legacy. In you, and in our memory, Frank will live forever.”
Before Berk got sick, before he was hospitalized at the Lahey Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., he’d share late night tea and cookies with Emily, watch sports television, the volume always a bit too loud, with his sons, and calculate the total bill at the grocery store before the cash register could.
He’d take 20 minutes to walk the half block from his law office on Chelsea Street to the post office, stopping to chat along the way because he “knew nearly every person in town and felt obligated to strike up a conversation with each and every one of them,” Alex Berk said.
He’d talk about the New York Yankees.
Berk was born and raised in Brooklyn, surrounded by his extended family, and was especially close to his older sister, Bonnie, friends said at the service. He completed high school at 16 and attended Queens College, graduating cum laude in 1974.
He was brilliant and hardworking, friends said, but equally adventurous.
“Along the way he quit his summer job to attend Woodstock, lived in Santa Cruz, Calif., lost his passport in Morocco, followed the Grateful Dead, spent time at the University of Arizona, participated in archaeological digs on the west coast, went to many concerts at the Filmore East, and hitchhiked across the country,” his obituary read.
Vermont Law School brought him to South Royalton in 1975 and he never left. As part of the third VLS class, Berk graduated cum laude in 1978 and formed a “band of brothers,” friends he remained close with throughout his life.
Tavian Mayer, a classmate and colleague of Berk’s, said the “crew” formed during their first year at VLS when school officials put all the left-handed students in the back corner of the classroom, where the left-handed desks were arranged.
“That left corner of the classroom where we practically lived freshman year was this crew of lefties,” Mayer said in an interview.
Berk wasn’t left-handed, but he fit in all right.
The group played basketball together, went skiing and hung out at the Hitching Post Horse Farm in Royalton.
That’s where Berk’s first wife, Rosemary “Rozo” McLaughlin, worked. They married and had a daughter, Katie, who attended South Royalton High School and went on to earn degrees from Stanford and Yale.
The marriage was short, but the two stayed good friends and raised their daughter in South Royalton.
Before Berk married his wife, Kathy, he spent time providing free legal aid through the Vermont State Housing Authority. In 1982, Berk became firm partners with Tavian Mayer, where they worked together for 10 years.
Then Berk took a break from law to sell baseball cards. It began as a money-making weekend hobby and just kept growing.
“We would play lawyer during the week, because we were both single at the time, and we’d go to Rhode Island or Massachusetts or Maine and we’d do a card show,” said Ilerdon Mayer, who was an associate in the firm at the time.
Berk left the practice in 1992 to sell baseball cards full time, trading his interest in the firm for Ilerdon Mayer’s interest in the card selling business.
The lawyer turned salesman started the card selling business in his home, moved it into a rented warehouse in Randolph and eventually ran it out of Woburn, Mass., with a handful of employees, Ilerdon Mayer said.
After half a decade or so, the baseball card market crashed and Berk returned to law. He opened his own practice, the Law Office of Frank Berk, in South Royalton where he continued to work as an attorney until his death last month.
Berk met Kathy while working with the state housing authority, and the two were married in April 1992. The couple built a house on Mill Road in South Royalton, where they spent their 21 years of marriage. Frank and Kathy Berk had three children — fraternal twins Emily and Alex and son, Sam.
Emily graduated high school this June, a year early, Alex will be a senior next year and Sam will be a junior. During their time in the South Royalton school system, all four of Berk’s children have participated in athletics and excelled academically.
In 2002, Berk was appointed to the School Board and served up until his death. He also worked as town attorney since 2005.
“Frank was a longtime attorney and longtime School Board member, but when people saw Frank they first thought of him as a friend, because he was so kind to everyone,” recently-retired South Royalton High School Principal Shaun Pickett said. “With Frank, although he took his job very seriously, he always brought humor with him and had a great laugh.”
Pickett said the first time he met Berk was probably when he brought Katie to kindergarten, and from that moment on he never stopped supporting the school.
“It’s a big loss,” Pickett said. “I was just so happy to have known him, not only as a School Board member but as a person.”
Berk rarely missed his kids’ athletic events and was a positive and energetic fan, Pickett said, and had a great relationship with all four of them.
During School Board meetings, Berk would get text messages from his kids, giving him score updates during Yankees games or asking him to pick up a pizza on his way home.
“Just thinking of Frank brings a smile to my face,” Pickett said.
Although his friends marveled at his ability to calculate complex numbers in his head within seconds, they also said he was somewhat accident prone.
Fender-benders were a regular occurrence, and during the memorial service Alex said he was going to miss the “daily encounters of the challenge of dodging his truck barrelling down Mill Road.”
Once, Ilerdon Mayer said, Berk walked outside his home and his car had disappeared from his driveway. After filing a report with the police, an officer came to his house and found it had rolled down the hill and across a small stream, unscathed.
Berk had forgotten to pull the emergency break.
The trunk of his old car smelled for weeks before Berk finally decided to open it up, finding a rotting watermelon, the Mayer brothers said, laughing at the memory. Once, he put a car battery in the backseat and the acid ate a hole through the material. When they were younger, the “crew” decided to take a hike and Berk brought along Katie, then only six or seven. They got lost, and friends joked that the young Katie was the only voice of reason.
But Berk could always take a joke, and loved laughing at himself.
“He readily acknowledged his shortcomings but we all knew his strengths,” Tavian Mayer said with a smile. “And they far outweighed his shortcomings.”
Once he was hospitalized in Massachusetts, Berk wasn’t able to attend his sons’ baseball games, which friends acknowledged was beyond difficult. Baseball was a big part of his life and an important aspect of his relationship with his children.
The week before he died, the South Royalton baseball team captured the Division IV state championship.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw you cry when I provided you with the game ball from our quarterfinal win versus Arlington,” Alex Berk shared during the memorial service. “But, I know you’ll find comfort with the championship game ball resting by your side for eternity.”
Katie Mettler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3234.