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Bob and Connie Berner

Connie Berner moved from Minnesota to Seattle when she was nine. That’s how she met Bob Berner, who at seventeen moved from Nebraska to Washington State, where he earned his three degrees at the University of Washington in the 1950s.

For many years Connie has done volunteer work, particularly for the Paine Art Center and the Winnebago County Historical Society. Earlier she was kept busy with children, but she says she had the unique good fortune many wives never have, “to gain an informal education latched onto a man who practically exudes wonder for life and zest for learning.”

On the way to becoming the popular lecturer he is today, Bob freely admits that in the process of getting his own formal education he was lucky to learn things about life that he may never have found in the classroom. As a graduate student, he once worked 28 hours a week at two part-time jobs while teaching freshman English as a teaching assistant and taking his own full load of graduate courses. During another year of graduate study, he worked 48 hours a week as a night watchman while pursuing the same academic and teaching schedule.

Bob’s professional career has been varied. He taught in a community college in Washington State while completing his doctoral examinations and dissertation, and he once was on the faculty of a college which later went bankrupt and was acquired by the state of Pennsylvania as a prison for women. But he also taught for four years at the University of British Columbia, at a state college in Maryland, and from 1968 until his retirement in 1990 at UW Oshkosh. During the 1983-1984 academic year, he was the Fulbright Senior Lecturer in American Civilization at the University of Bergen in Norway.

During his university career, he taught a variety of courses, but his favorites were in American literature, literary criticism, and American Indian literature. Bob Berner was the recipient of the UW Oshkosh 1987 John McN Rosebush award for excellence in teaching and professional achievement. Quoted in part from this prestigious award: ” … Few scholars can maintain this diversity in their work, and fewer still devote themselves to the task of bringing their scholarship to the public as well as to other scholars with equal enthusiasm.”

In the early 1970s, Bob joined interests with another UW Oshkosh professor, Neil Eckstein, who, inspired by the example of the Scandinavian folk academies, had established the Winchester Academy to offer lectures to adult audiences. Bob lectured there during the nineteen years the academy was in Winchester. (It has since moved to Waupaca.) As he puts it, “It was refreshing when speaking, for example, on the Second World War, to see the real gut interest from men who had actually been in the Solomons or the European Theater. But I got the same degree of response when I lectured on American literature and history.” His presentations to our LIR group, semester after semester, are a valued extension of his willingness to teach those who really want to be there, as opposed to trying to reach the “for-credit” classroom population.

As it often happens, one thing leads to another. One of Bob’s friends at Winchester Academy was a classmate, at Lawrence University, of Joe Hopfensperger, the director of Lawrence’s Bjorklunden facility in Door County. After hearing one of Bob’s lectures he invited him to offer a course at Bjorklunden, and he started an association there with a week-long course in American Indian literature in 1985. This spring his course in “American Poets” will be his nineteenth annual Bjorklunden course.

Bob’s enthusiasm for adult education is related to his belief that higher education in America, particularly in the humanities, is fatally flawed. “I came to realize, after a while, that American higher education is haywire because it’s based entirely on grades and credits. Most students consequently understand their courses only in terms of grades, preferably acquired with minimum effort. When students evaluated me they usually said something like ‘He knows his subject but he has trouble putting it across.’ What they meant was that because I wasn’t giving them the high grades they thought they deserved I must have been presenting the material badly.”

When asked, toward the end of his 36 years of teaching, if students were as good now as they used to be, he had to admit that except for the few they were not. “It has to do with attitude. Toward the end of my career, I finally realized that most students were only interested in jumping over the hurdles they had to clear in four years to get that piece of paper, which they understood as a guarantee that they could make twice as much money as the kid who drops out of high school.”

Bob appreciates the respect he gets from his LIR audiences. It is common for members to sign up for a class just to hear a good speaker on anything. Several of our presenters, Martin Gruberg and Bob Berner for example, have such a following.

Not surprisingly, Bob’s reading is almost entirely in literature and history, which he considers the core of real education, a different thing, he says, from training. “Training is important because we need professional people and scientists and engineers, but you can be trained as a chemist, for example, without being truly educated.”

Bob says he has more to share with us as these semesters roll on.

Our members appreciate his steady contributions to the club and to honor him, the teaching excellence award was named after him.

Note: Bob has passed away but Connie is still an active member.