Visit to area shaped speaker

March 29, 2012

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Dr. Bertice Berry, a sociologist and author who has hosted her own talk show and chatted on air with Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno, said Wednesday that a trip she made to Martinsville as a high school student taught her a valuable lesson she hasn’t forgotten.

Berry spoke to about 600 people Wednesday at Patrick Henry Community College.

Now 51, Berry said she first visited Martinsville when her high school choir came to perform at a concert. This was the first place she ever visited outside of her hometown of Wilmington, Del., she said.

Berry said she grew up poor as the sixth of seven children in her family. But while she was in Martinsville singing in that concert, “no one saw my poverty. Instead they felt the power of the song,” she said.

Berry’s music teacher at the time, Dr. Leander Morris, grew up in Martinsville, so he arranged for his students to stay in local residents’ homes during their visit. The home in which Berry stayed had no air conditioning, the shower didn’t work and there were holes in the walls, she recalled.

Berry remembered complaining about the condition of the home and how hot she was lying in bed. But the next morning, she awoke to find that the elderly woman who lived in the home had fixed the students a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and more. The woman also fixed “the best pound cake” that Berry had ever eaten, she said.

As the group was leaving Martinsville to return to Delaware, other students bragged about the nice homes they had stayed in, but that didn’t matter to Berry. She said that during that trip to Martinsville, she learned to believe in herself and her abilities and that “great things and people come from the most humbling places.”

One of the main points that Berry made Wednesday was that everyone’s life must have a purpose that will drive them.

“Even when you’re not working on the job that you wanted to be working on, that purpose will keep you going,” she said. “Your purpose is not your job; it’s your calling.”

The question that everyone should ask themselves is, “What am I made to do,” she said.

Throughout school, Berry had a bad attitude and didn’t focus on her schoolwork, she said. But singing kept her out of trouble.

At the end of her junior year, she began improving her grades, and her English teacher, Karen Denton, began helping Berry to get into college.

However, the high school guidance counselor didn’t believe that Berry was college material and told Denton not to waste her time. But Denton didn’t give up and sent an application to a college that Berry had never heard of. She was accepted there.

Berry didn’t know how she was going to afford college. But to her surprise, the day her application arrived at Jacksonville University in Florida, a wealthy benefactor called the admissions department looking for a student to support. Berry’s name was mentioned, she said.

At that moment, Berry said, she realized that when “you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.” Also, she learned that “hard work beats money and brilliance every day of the week.”

Berry was the first person in her family to go to college. She graduated magna cum laude from Jacksonville University and earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Kent State University when she was 26.

She urged those present never to listen to people who say, “you can’t do this.”

Berry’s life has had its ups and downs, which include being a single mother and raising five children and, a few years ago, losing one of her children to a tragic accident, she said.

“I am not the things that happened to me; I’m the success on the other side,” she said. “The outcome will always be greater than what we go through.”

As an example of triumph, she shared the story of her youngest son, who was diagnosed with autism when he was young. Many people told Berry he never would graduate from high school.

However, her son went on to graduate and receive an academic scholarship to college, she said.

Berry also advised listeners to learn new things every day.

It’s important to step outside your comfort zone, your groups and cliques, because “the more you experience, the more you evolve,” she said.

Throughout your life, no matter what, make sure to show gratitude as well, she added.

She suggested making your bed each morning because it is an act of thanksgiving and shows that you’re grateful to have a place to sleep.

Another tip that Berry gave was to “stop taking yourselves too seriously and laugh more.”

Sometimes, “you have to laugh to keep from crying,” she added.

Berry’s background includes:

• Teaching sociology and statistics at Kent State and becoming an award-winning entertainer, lecturer and comedian.

• She was the host and co-executive producer of her own nationally syndicated talk show, “The Bertice Berry Show.” She also has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and more recently on ABC’s “20/20.”

• She has written 11 best-selling books. Berry donates all of the royalties from the sales of her books to organizations that help families in transition, raise funds for scholarships and provide resource information to low-income families.

Berry’s visit to PHCC was sponsored by the college’s Progress Initiative, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MDC Inc. The initiative is designed to help improve the success rate of community college developmental education students and ultimately increase the number of American college graduates.


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