Burt Berlin supports the Humanities through his words and deeds
by Micki Panttaja
Growing up on a farm in Minidoka, Idaho in the 1920s and 30s, Burt Berlin (Class of 1947) has always been interested in “what makes things work.” From horse-drawn plows to hay lifting equipment constructed of ropes and pulleys, he had a natural curiosity to figure out ways to get things done.
In fact, it was this fascination that ultimately led him to come to the University of Idaho in 1941 and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, and then go on to have a successful career the Boeing Corporation, from which he retired in 1983.
However when it came to chronicling his life, he did not write about his work at the secret Hanford facility during World War II, or later co-developing the first modern cockpit systems for commercial jet airplanes, or even his most recent career as a professional photographer - which led him to dress in disguise as he documented the gritty street life of Seattle in the 1980s. Instead, he chose to tap into his childhood and recount the everyday of a young boy growing up in rural Idaho.
Originally written at the request of family and friends, Berlin recently donated his book, Some Things That Happened a Long Time Ago to a Kid on a Farm in Idaho, to the University of Idaho Library Special Collections so that a broader audience might enjoy it. Dean Katherine Aiken recently expressed her appreciation and importance of the donation.
“I hope that others will follow Burt’s example and that we might receive more reminiscences from Idahoans. These are so valuable—in fact priceless—and the University of Idaho Special Collections is simply thrilled to have it in its holdings. This is a part of Idaho history that is not well-documented. The photographs of the school and students are terrific. Of all of the topics, I personally am particularly interested in the Great Depression in Idaho. We have not done a good job of preserving information about this period, which—in my view—has such contemporary resonance.”
Beyond the book’s obvious historical importance, it is also simply a great read.
From creating a Mason jar habitat for a black widow spider to embarking on various nefarious escapades with older siblings and pals . . . all which somehow inevitably came to a climax at the “drainage ditch bridge,” Berlin describes a rich yet humble life that helped shape the person who he would become.
Berlin credits his success with the education he received at the University, which included a semester at the Pocatello branch of the University of Idaho, before he and three buddies loaded up his dad’s 1932 Chevrolet Confederate Special four-door sedan and transferred to the Moscow campus in 1943.
“You can’t imagine how much you can learn and put to practical use. What looks for the most as mundane, but there are mechanical installations all around you.” He explains that just as a musician hears music in everyday sounds, he still sees it.
“I’m engineering all the time. It’s in my brain . . . your thought environment. You develop a way of thinking.”
Although an engineer by nature, Berlin’s thought environment has always included the arts and humanities. As an adult this is illustrated by his stunning photographs and vivid storytelling ability, and as a child, Berlin and his siblings studied music or acted in plays. He recalls taking piano lessons, but would have preferred a different instrument because, “cowboys don’t play the piano.”
Even so, as a nod to the sciences and humanities, Berlin has bequeathed his home on Mercer Island, Washington to the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences and the College of Engineering. Berlin moved to the property in 1952. Back then the island was pretty rustic – covered in blackberry brambles, wooded lots and mud roads. Much has changed since then, but he still enjoys its beautiful setting which looks over Lake Washington and has stunning views of Seattle and the Olympic mountains - a remarkable gift given by an extraordinary person.