Longtime history prof Berman retires after 44 years at U

A legendary bard of Minnesota history and political analysis said his goodbyes to the University this weekend, leaving an intimidating void to fill in the history department.

Department Chairwoman M.J. Maynes summed up her feelings at Hy Berman’s retirement party Saturday at the Campus Club.

“No one can fill Hy’s shoes.”

More than 200 friends, colleagues and students honored Berman’s 44-year University career. It was a last effort to thank the professor who, College of Liberal Arts Dean Steven Rosenstone said, “made history accessible to Minnesota.”

Berman came to the University in 1961 and was the first professor to teach classes on topics such as the Holocaust, Minnesota history and U.S. labor history.

Long considered an expert on U.S. labor history, Berman taught the subject in countries such as China, India and Germany. He also served as president of the University’s Federation of Teachers, a group that explored the possibilities of collective bargaining.

But Berman’s appearances on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” and on KARE 11 as a political commentator have earned him his most well-known title – that of a “public” historian.

“I’ve always been dedicated to the role of a professor as a public figure in a public arena,” Berman said.

When he’s not bringing history to the community, Berman also exhibits a passion for teaching, history professor Theo Stavrou said.

“He treated his students with respect,” he said.

Nancy Cooper, a history and sociology senior, said Berman drops famous names, like “my friend the mayor, or my friend Rudy Perpich” into his lectures.

“He talks about history from such a firsthand perspective,” she said. “You can’t throw anything at him that he doesn’t know about.”

Berman was a friend and consultant of former Gov. Rudy Perpich, but Stavrou said Berman left his political ideals outside the classroom.

“He trained students and trained them well Ö regardless of their ideological direction,” he said.

Jack Stuart, an emeritus professor at California State University, Long Beach, said Berman should also be honored for his sense of wit and irony.

“He should be recognized as the Zero Mostel of historians,” he said.

The history department has created a graduate fellowship in Berman’s name. The fellowship will provide support to graduate students who study one of Berman’s interests, including Minnesota history, public history, labor history and U.S. Jewish history.

Although he is retiring, Berman said, he will still remain active in his public historian role. The only difference, he said, “I’m thrown out of my office.”