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Margaret Berry

Not even threats against her immortal soul could keep Margaret Berry away from The University of Texas. The co-valedictorian of the Dawson High School Class of 1933 knew exactly where she was headed. Come graduation day in tiny Dawson, Texas, Berry’s college plans seemed to fall into place. The commencement speaker — a university president and former governor of Texas — was so impressed by Berry and her co-valedictorian that he offered them full scholarships on the spot.

The offer was sweetened by the fact that Berry’s classmate was her best friend, a boy she’d dated throughout high school. There was just one problem: Former Gov. Pat Neff was president of Baylor University.

“I said, ‘Oh, thank you, sir, but I’m going to The University of Texas,’” Berry recalls. That wasn’t the end of it. The family’s minister thought she should pick a religious school over a state school, and he appealed to her father to set her straight. “Our minister told my dad that he was sending me straight to hell to send me to The University of Texas,” she says with a laugh. “My dad said, ‘Well, it’s her own choice.’”

That was her parents’ style, allowing their daughter to take responsibility for her own future. Berry appreciated it so much that she dedicated her book UT History 101 to their memory because “they permitted me to choose The University of Texas.” Berry has chosen The University of Texas repeatedly throughout her 91 years. Besides being her alma mater, the University has been her employer and the subject of her doctoral dissertation and four of the books she has written. It is also where she is leaving her legacy; her will includes a bequest to UT for scholarships in religious studies.

Berry sees no irony in the fact that she turned down a scholarship from a religious school seven decades ago. Her gift is meant not to strengthen students’ religious convictions but to help them understand others’. International unrest between people of different faiths underscores the need to learn about one another, regardless of the career a student chooses, Berry says. “It’s good for someone going into medicine, law, or anything. They learn about people all over the world and what they believe.”

Berry was born in 1915 in Dawson, 20 miles west of Corsicana. She was the only child of Winfred Berry, a rural mail carrier and landowner; and Lillian Berry, a former teacher. The girl who grew up to be the unofficial historian for The University of Texas at Austin knew early on she wanted to be a history teacher. After graduating from UT with honors in 1937, she taught high school history in El Campo, Freeport, and Galveston. During summer breaks she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City.

She began her career in higher education in 1947 as a dean and history instructor at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana before accepting a similar position at East Texas State University in Commerce. In 1960, a doctorate beckoned, and she returned to Columbia University, where a professor suggested she write her dissertation about student life at UT during its first 50 years. She returned to Austin in 1961 to conduct research and never left. “I always thought I would eventually come back here, but I didn’t know how,” she says.

In 1962 she accepted a job as UT’s associate dean of women, the first of many administrative positions she would hold at the University. The next year her mother’s health began deteriorating rapidly. Berry moved her parents from Dawson to Austin in 1963, and the family was once again under one roof. Berry cared for her mother, continued her job at UT, and worked on her dissertation sporadically, finally finishing in 1965. Her mother died in 1967, and Berry continued to live with her father until his death at age 100.

Berry’s UT career was as an administrator, but she found a way to continue teaching history through her books. Her first book about the University, UT Austin: Traditions and Nostalgia, was published in 1974. She went on to publish The University of Texas: A Pictorial Account of Its First Century, Brick by Golden Brick: A History of University of Texas Campus Buildings, and UT History 101: Highlights in the History of The University of Texas. She has also written books about University United Methodist Church, the Texas Mental Health Association, and Westminster Manor, an Austin retirement village.

Berry officially retired from UT in 1980 but returned from 1995 to 2002 to teach freshman seminars about University history. She may have retired, but she hasn’t stopped working. At age 91 she is writing her 10th book, this one about Scottish Rite dormitory, a private women’s residence near campus where she lived as an undergraduate.

These days Berry chuckles at her minister’s long-ago prediction that attending The University of Texas would land her in hell. She didn’t fret over it 70 years ago, and she doesn’t fret over it now. The Berrys and the minister’s family were lifelong friends, and he saw for himself that she turned out all right. “I don’t think he worried too much,” she says with a smile.

—Angela Curtis

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