Ray Berry recently passed away in his home in Happy Hill. He died peacefully with his family in a home he helped to build over the years and in a community far from the professional life in public education he led for so long. He was my mentor, my friend and my role model for many years, going back to when I was a young assistant high school principal in Riverside, through my years as superintendent in Coast Union, and well beyond.
Ray Berry changed my life. When I came to Riverside in 1972, I had no idea what a superintendent was or did. Then I met Ray and, from that point on, decided that was the work I wanted to do and that Ray was the person I would aspire to be like. I remember going to board meetings just to watch him work and interact with others.
Among other things, I learned to keep the focus always on the success of children, to take a stand on the right issues, and to challenge practices and policies that deprived some children of their chance to succeed, especially those whose economic or racial/ethnic backgrounds caused them to be treated unfairly.
Ray Berry taught me what it meant to be a professional. He helped me to learn how to make decisions that were based on the principles of fairness, honesty, equity and respect.
He gave me the opportunity to become a principal and he placed me in a major leadership position at a young age. I have always tried to show in others that confidence he showed in me.
I always remembered even the little things — that maybe weren’t so little after all. He taught me that the work was never about me but about the children we served.
Whether it was the kind of car one drove (never expensive), what to wear (never flashy; never overstated — or understated) and, most important, that wherever I was or whatever I did, people would see me as a representative of education.
“You can never take off that hat,” he told me. Whether you are at home, in the community, at work, or even traveling, people will say, “that’s the principal, or the superintendent” and judge your school(s) by your behavior.
I can’t tell you how many times I have told that to others who aspire to be a superintendent.
Ray left a lasting imprint on the culture of Riverside Unified. Whether he was leading the fight to desegregate the district at a time when most ran away from that battle; empowering schools to make good decisions about what they needed to do to serve all children well; or establishing a vision, mission and core values that reminded all of us what we should do to help every child succeed, he left a culture that embraced innovation but avoided trendiness and kept everyone focused on student success.
Long before others realized the power of data to drive improvement, he established the Riverside Instructional Support System.
I’m not sure Ray ever really knew how many of us who worked there went on to become superintendents in other districts, principals or involved in other education leadership endeavors.
I’m not sure I know, but I can tell you it was a whole lot of people. He helped build the capacity of all of us to become better leaders by living his values and being a person of principle and conviction.What he stood for and how he led have lived on well past his personal contributions and now even past his own life.
As an example, he was one of the founders of the Southern California Superintendents group whose work continues to this day and now has a Northern California counterpart.
What a truly remarkable person he was. And how blessed our family has been to have known Ray and Phoebe and much of his family all these years. I will always speak of him in the present tense because he remains a part of my life and that of so many others in educational leadership roles who believe in the value of public education and its impact on the strength of our country.
Ray Berrys widow, two of his children and grandchildren live in Cambria. Jim Brown is a former superintendent of what was then known as the Coast Joint Union High School District and Cambria Elementary School District, now Coast Unified School District. He now lives in Novato.