Berry College History
The seeds of Berry College were planted in 1902, with the opening of the Boys' Industrial School, a boarding school for boys located approximately three miles north of Rome, Georgia. The school's creation was the result of the vision and devoted efforts of Martha Berry, the daughter of a prosperous local business owner, who had come to believe that education could provide a path from poverty for local children.
The Early Years (1902-1942)
Martha Berry first became sensitive to the impoverished condition of many of the people who lived in the area's mountains when some young boys stumbled upon the private cabin retreat where she had gone to read her Bible. Martha was shocked to learn that the children attended neither church nor school and that they were unfamiliar with basic Bible stories. Her willingness to offer them rudimentary instruction soon developed into a Sunday school that attracted numerous children from neighboring families. She then established four day schools, but after these schools appeared ineffective Martha decided in 1902 to use the 83 acres that she had inherited from her father to found the Boys' Industrial School. Eventually, her endeavor grew to include a girls' school (1909) and a junior college (1926). The junior college later expanded into a senior college, Berry College, which graduated its first class in 1932.
Martha wanted only rural children to attend her schools; she refused to admit students from urban areas, including nearby Rome. From its inception the Berry program emphasized the regenerative power of work. Diligent labor, she believed, would promote character in her students by encouraging responsibility and a sense of self-worth. Beginning in 1914, students at the schools would work each week for eight hours on two consecutive days and attend classes on four other days. The work program helped to keep operating costs low, as students constructed the campus and maintained its facilities, and allowed students to use their labor to pay all of their tuition and expenses.
The academic curriculum followed Martha's declaration that the schools
should promote an education of "the head, the heart and the hands."
Courses were offered in arts and sciences, but the boys' and girls'
schools both emphasized training in industrial, agricultural and
domestic arts. The college offered advanced courses in these fields,
along with teacher and business training. In accordance with Martha's
faith, students were required to take courses on religious topics and to
subscribe to a strict moral code. They also attended three weekly
chapels and an interdenominational service on Sundays. Though a
conservative Protestantism defined Martha's beliefs, the schools'
religious teachings placed greater emphasis on service than on theology,
as reflected by the adoption of the biblical admonition, "Not to be
ministered unto, but to minister," as their motto.
Self-help ideals and Martha's relentless
fund-raising efforts made the schools an attractive cause for the
nation's political and social elite. Substantial contributions —
including the donation of several buildings by the automobile
manufacturer Henry Ford — helped to keep the schools in operation
despite tight budgets. Martha also approved land purchases in Floyd
County as a way to promote the institution's long-term financial
security. By the 1930s the schools owned nearly 30,000 acres and
possessed the largest campus of any educational institution. Martha
Berry, meanwhile, gained national renown for her schools, including
recognition in 1930 from Good Housekeeping magazine as one of the nation's 12 most influential women.
The College since 1942
Martha Berry's death in 1942 deprived the schools of their central figure as they entered their most difficult period. Without the founder's personal appeals, contributions declined. After World War II economic development and expanding public education facilities led many to believe that the schools' mission had become obsolete. Declining enrollment and high costs led to the closing of the girls' school in 1955. The college and boys' school likewise wrestled with these problems, and unstable leadership — five presidents served over a 12-year period — proved unable to satisfy alumni and supporters' concerns that changes would signify a departure from the founding vision.
Ultimately, the trustees concluded that the best hope for Berry's legacy lay in the development of the college. Under the leadership of John R. Bertrand, who was appointed president in 1956, the college continued to offer vocational training but concentrated on improving the liberal arts and professional programs to competitive levels.
After gaining accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges
and Secondary Schools in 1957, the college eliminated the existing
work-study schedule in order to place greater emphasis on the academic
program. Soon afterward it opened admission to qualified students from
urban areas, and as more nontraditional students and commuters with
off-campus jobs were admitted, the work requirement was gradually phased
out. Through the 1960s and early 1970s the college enacted several
other reforms, including paying student workers rather than crediting
their accounts, modifying the strict code on student behavior,
abandoning uniform dress and mandatory religious services, and holding
national searches for faculty members. By the late 1980s several
publications regularly ranked Berry College as one of the Southeast's
top five regional liberal arts institutions. Meanwhile, the boys' school
— renamed the Berry Academy in 1964 — became coeducational in 1971 but
continued to struggle with high costs and low enrollment until it closed
in 1983. Through these years the college continued to operate on tight
finances, despite the sale of some of its lands for local development.
This money was invested in restricted funds that helped build the endowment to approximately 185th among educational institutions nationally by 1999. Gloria M. Shatto, who succeeded Bertrand as president in 1980, continued to work on securing the institution's financial stability. By the 1990s Berry College annually enrolled approximately 1,800 undergraduates and roughly 200 students in its business and education graduate programs.
Most students continue to work on campus for experience and spending money, and the Bonner Center for Community Service program encourages them to participate in volunteer service activities. In 1998 John Scott Colley assumed the presidency with the stated goals of improving the college's national academic reputation, increasing diversity within the faculty and student body, and improving classroom, laboratory, and student life facilities. Dr. Colley realized these goals during his tenure at Berry and retired in 2006. Stephen Briggs became Berry's eighth president in July 2006. Dr. Briggs aspires to prepare students for meaningful
lives, to be entrepreneurial in spirit and have a sense of purpose.
The college continues to move forward. In 2008, two new
residence halls were opened, Audrey B. Morgan and Deerfield, along with the
Stephen J. Cage Athletic and Recreation Center. And July 2009 marked
Berry’s move to NCAA DIII and the college became a founding member in 2010 of
the Southern Athletic Association, along with seven other highly selective
private higher education institutions in the region. The Gate of Opportunity
Scholarship was created in 2009, enabling students who are willing to work hard
in exchange for a first-rate education to graduate college debt free. Berry’s
voluntary work program has grown significantly, currently employing more than
1,660 students and making it the largest college work program of its kind in
Jonathan M. Atkins, "Philanthropy in the Mountains: Martha Berry and the Early Years of the Berry Schools," Georgia Historical Quarterly 82 (winter 1998): 856-76.
Dickey, Ouida and Doyle Mathis, Berry College: A History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
Carol Anne Guthrie, "Education and the Evolution of the South: A History of the Berry Schools, 1902-1970" (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1994).
Harnett T. Kane with Inez Henry, Miracle in the Mountains (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956).
"Berry College," New Georgia Encyclopedia, Retrieved Aug. 28, 2006, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org