Retired SDSU President Sherwood Berg pages through one of the bound “memory books” his friends and colleagues provided for him. The world traveler now spends most of his time at home, reading and keeping up with current events. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
/ SDSU’s ’44 Kings gather in a Brookings bar in fall 1943 to celebrate the wedding of group member Tom Lyons. Photo courtesy Ken Mills
• Seeds for international career of former SDSU president sown at State
BROOKINGS – “You can go anywhere from here” was the university’s message to the world a few years back.
And with Brookings as a starting point, SDSU students have gone on to success in business, careers in public service and leadership posts across the country.
One SDSU student long ago made State his springboard for a lifetime journey that took him around the world and then brought him back again to become the president of his alma mater.
Sherwood Berg’s training in Brookings took him to the Battle of the Bulge, to postwar Yugoslavia as a farm adviser, and on to Denmark and Sweden and Indonesia. It led to his establishing ag-related programs in the Middle East and Africa, from Syria to Senegal, and to his service on two presidential commissions.
Probably most important, the “go anywhere school” launched a remarkable academic career.
Berg’s years at State were critical to his development, but it was his beginnings in the small farm town of Hendrum, Minn. – about 28 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead – that really set the course for his life.
“We had three areas of activity,” Berg says of his family’s agricultural enterprise at Hendrum. “We raised chickens – hatched 400,000 baby chicks a year. And we had kennels. We bred collies and shepherds – tried to sell a dog a day.”
A third part of the business was printing and advertising, and that’s what made the other two go. Berg’s family printed a local newspaper and distributed fliers advertising, among other things, their dogs and chickens.
Berg was an excellent student – so good he skipped the eighth grade – but he was forced to put off college when his father died unexpectedly. Only a high-schooler, he took over the family business.
“I had to be there – I worked out contracts with suppliers, ran the hatchery,” he recalls.
He became the man of the family, helping his mother take care of the five younger children. “College was a little more of an investment than I could handle then,” he stays, but that didn’t stop him from shopping for schools and scholarships. Planning for advanced degrees and a career in higher education – agricultural economics would be his field – Berg set his sights on Minnesota or Harvard or Chicago. South Dakota State got the benefits of his services, however, when he and a friend agreed to come here to play basketball.
When he’d begun his search for the right school, Berg had contacted the ag people at State, and he liked what he saw:
“At State, the program was pretty well set up. They had things organized so the faculty could … exchange ideas, and graduate students would go out in the field with them. They were doing quite a bit of writing, too, about what the program was doing and the changes that they identified. They were helpful to the farmers and the state, too, giving them literature about production and new varieties, about the amount of moisture we were getting.”
War changes everything
Berg came to Brookings in 1940, and he excelled in his studies and did well socially, too – he was on the varsity basketball team and was chosen class president. The war, however, changed everybody’s plans.
Berg was one of State’s ’44 Kings – a group of Class of ‘44 ROTC students whose schooling was interrupted for service in Europe.
“There was a great deal of interest in advanced ROTC, and the Army selected 55 of our group here,” Berg says. The South Dakota cadets were destined for large-weapon duty – cannons, mortars, machine guns. They were first sent to Camp Wolters in Texas for basic training but returned to State in the fall. “The school didn’t know where to put us,” Berg says with a smile.
“The Army told us when we were taking basic training, ‘Don’t worry – we’ll see that you get your (officer’s) training, but you’ll graduate first. Get your degree on campus and then join us.’ Three-and-a-half months later, they said ‘Sorry, we need you now.’”
And the ’44 Kings headed for Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. Before he left for Europe in 1944, though, Berg married his 4-H sweetheart, Elizabeth “Betty” Hall.
Berg is one of the few remaining members of that group of young officers. But the war was kind to them: only two were killed in action, and most returned to the Brookings campus.
“But the first man to walk across that stage to receive his commission was the first man killed in war,” the old soldier recalls.
Didn’t stay with classmates
Berg didn’t stay with his comrades from State. He was assigned to the 78th Infantry, and he was posted as a second lieutenant in charge of three other officers and a 70-man platoon.
Berg had a month in England before his battalion shipped out, headed for what was to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
“That was tough,” he said. “We were in there at 10:30 in the morning, and that afternoon one of my friends went through an opening in the forest. He’d gone about 15 feet when the machine guns took this chap out. There four hours, and he was gone.”
Through foul weather and continuing snowstorms, the forest battle raged for three weeks, and the soldiers’ only rest was in log-lined trenches. It was the largest and bloodiest battle the Americans faced – 89,000 casualties and 19,000 killed.
Berg and his men fared well in the merciless pounding of the German guns, and they soon found themselves pushing into the heartland.
Berg’s Jeep was among the first to cross the Bridge at Remagen – the Ludendorff Bridge, famous because it gave the Allies a point for their final push into the German heartland.
“We went for about a quarter-mile, and there was the company commander, the battalion commander and regimental commander standing in a corner. I said, ‘Where’s the front line?’ They answered, ‘Oh it’s around here,’ and about 300 yards ahead of us, there were German 88 millimeter flak guns, and two dead GIs on the left side, toward the river. We were actually standing on the front line.”
There were continued battles as the troops moved toward the Rhine and Berlin, but as the war wound down, Berg traded his heavy artillery training for something that suited him better. He began working with civil affairs directing movements of foodstores – he became the “food and ag man,” responsible for maintaining and managing the cattle herds, chickens and agricultural supplies that would feed the Army of Occupation.
He returned to the Brookings campus with a Bronze Star for valor.
Ag career overseas
His interrupted studies back on track, he graduated summa cum laude in 1947, acquiring a master’s at Cornell in 1948 and his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1951. That same year he was named an agricultural attaché to Yugoslavia, and after three years there took a similar post as an ag adviser in Denmark and Sweden.
It wasn’t always cushy work. Even though the countries needed the American wheat and the other agricultural assistance the Yanks offered, the American presence – and Berg’s advice – was resented.
Berg recalls a time in Communist Yugoslavia when, inspecting a field, one of the directors from the Department of Agriculture “walked seven or eight steps ahead of me, and each time there was a poor ear of corn on the stalk, he would snap it off in front of me.”
The Bergs returned to home soil in 1957, when he accepted a post as professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota. Six years later, he was named dean of the U of M’s Institute of Agriculture, serving until 1973. That’s when he resumed his international career, traveling to Indonesia to establish an institute of agriculture in Jogjackarta on the island of Java.
Berg returned to Brookings for his investiture as the 15th president of South Dakota State University, a post he held until his retirement in 1984. His presidency came at a turbulent time – the university was beset by budget cuts, and differences with regents and state politics made for some tense moments.
Nevertheless he brought his international experiences to Brookings to create a worldwide outreach: he set up programs in a number of African countries, even establishing a college of agriculture in Botswana.
The Bergs are both credited with “internationalizing” the SDSU campus, reaching out to foreign students and increasing their numbers here.
These days, at age 93, Berg is content to spend his time at his comfortable condo in Brookings, relaxing and reading. Although he uses a walker, he still has the carriage of a college athlete.
He has his memories, too. Near his couch are the bound volumes of letters from friends and colleagues, noting the events and achievements that punctuated their lives. Occasionally, he’ll leaf through them.
And Betty has assembled a display of all the plaques and honors the two have acquired, from schools, honorary fraternities, alumni and civic organizations and groups that they’ve supported like the Nature Conservancy. It’s only a fraction of the awards and honors that have come their way, but the display sweeps across an entire wall in the apartment.
Make no mistake, though, Berg isn’t content to live in the past. He’s spent a lifetime dedicated to the production of food and fiber, and he continues to have a keen interest in national and international developments.
It’s just that these days, his need for international adventure has subsided. He knows there’s no place like home.
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.