Retired but hardly retiring Tom Berner remains as active as ever

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Her name was Barbara and to Tom Berner’s adolescent eyes, she was everything — lovely and bright, and alas … just out of his league. Undaunted, not to mention fueled by the throes of a teenage crush, Berner decided the best way to woo Barbara was to travel in her orbit.

At the time, she was the editor of the Tamaqua High School newspaper and so Berner, with zero interest in journalism but lots of interest in Barbara, signed on as a reporter. He even volunteered for the unenviable task of pasting up the paper.

The fairy tale does not contain the traditional happily ever after. Barbara did not fall madly in love with young Tom — in fact, she went on to become a missionary — but that’s not to say there is no joy in the outcome.

From her vaunted position as a high school newspaper editor, Barbara recommended her once-lovesick reporter for a spot on the local newspaper, The Evening Courier. That was the first step in a circuitous path that eventually led to Penn State and Berner’s position as one of the most influential and respected professors in what has become the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Retired from teaching since 2003, Berner is hardly living a retired life. He has turned an old photography hobby into a fledgling career, authored books that combine his old skills with new, and travels frequently to become better at his craft. This surprises absolutely no one who knows Berner well.

“He is a straight-talking, small-town Pennsylvania boy with an incisive intellect,’’ said Kathleen Pavelko, the president and CEO of WITF, a media company based in Harrisburg. That intellect has served as Berner’s North Star, guiding him through various iterations of essentially the same career he tripped on while pursuing his high school love.

Not that he was anywhere near as certain about a future in journalism as he was in his fervor for Barbara. No, even after that brief stint at The Evening Courier — where like all reporters at the local level Berner covered sports, cops, courts and whatever else came his way — Berner was intent on a law career. Finances stood temporarily in the way of dreams and reality, but then Congress issued the Readjustments Benefits Act in 1966, extending the G.I. Bill benefits.

Berner, in his second year as a Navy enlisted, enrolled at Penn State Pottsville (now Schuylkill). The federal government’s money only stretched so far, so recalling his experience from high school Berner took a job at the local paper, The Pennsylvania Mirror in State College.

“I realized I didn’t have blood in my veins,’’ he said. “It was ink. I forgot about law school.’’

An ‘inauspicious hiring’

Technically a general assignment reporter, Berner made himself useful at The Mirror in every way he could. His knowledge of the teletype machine made him a temporary sports editor when the real boss headed with the Penn State football team to the Orange Bowl. The experience and versatility made Berner an attractive postgraduate hire. He finished his degree in 1971, and was immediately brought on by the Centre Daily Times. Berner was working on his master’s degree when Penn State hired him as a part-time instructor in the journalism school, at that time part of the College of the Liberal Arts. Four years later, happenstance intervened again and he was elevated to full time.

“It was a rather inauspicious hiring,’’ Berner explained. “Someone resigned out of season and they couldn’t do a national search. Here I was.’’

Berner figured he’d stick around for six, maybe seven years, at the most.

He retired 28 years later, discovering that he not only had a knack for teaching but he enjoyed how the academic world afforded him a chance to immerse himself into unique and interesting subjects. He wound up teaching a host of courses, developing a reputation for being tough on his students but fair. Berner preferred hands-on education to large lectures, convinced that the best way to learn journalism was to do journalism.

“I wanted them to be ready for the professional world,’’ he said. “I wanted them to be individuals, to be thinkers, to learn how to learn, not to take my word for everything.’’

Some dedicated editing

His students — proteges might be more apt — remain fiercely loyal, appreciative that Berner didn’t soft pedal to save their feelings, but rather brought his razor-sharp editing skills to their work. Berner served as one of three committee members on Pavelko’s graduate thesis about the origin and development of the American newspaper ombudsman. This was in 1979, long before email and the internet, and Pavelko, living at the time in London, had to rely on the good old postal system to get back her thesis edits.

“The first draft was thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, edited and so was the second. I also noted some of the second draft suggestions contradicted the first,’’ she said. “I asked, via postal mail, ‘How long is this going to go on?’ I was told, ‘Well as long as you keep sending us drafts.’’’

Pavelko jokes that her next draft was the final one, but remains grateful for the critique.

“The thing about Tom, he was able to edit without imposing himself on the writer,’’ she said. “It was improving the writing, not changing the writer. That’s meaningful. When one compared the original draft with the edited version, any person with an even beginner’s journalistic smarts would see the qualitative difference.’’

Berner’s touch served Pavelko well long after she finished her thesis. She has worked every rung of the TV ladder — from producer all the way to her current executive position — and has channeled his advice while shaping how she edits, as well as how she communicates.

“As a manager and a supervisor, you’re trying to help people achieve their best work,’’ she said. “It’s about the work, but that said, a lot of times you’re dealing with young and inexperienced staffs. Their personalities and professional demeanors needed to be guided as well. That’s about the person as well. That’s your first and foremost obligation.’’

A fortuitous change and a big impact

Ben Feller similarly hears Berner’s voice ringing in his ears. Now a managing director at Mercury, a public strategy and consulting firm in Manhattan, Feller spent more than six years as a White House correspondent for the Associated Press, part of the press corps that trailed Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 1991 he was a Penn State junior, one year away from graduation and intent on switching majors.

“You could say that was a bit risky,’’ Feller said. Risky, but he believed necessary. Feller began at Penn State as a psychology major, and though he earned good grades, he never felt connected to the coursework. A trip abroad to the University of Exeter in London changed his focus entirely. He realized he wanted more out of his college experience, and to make more of an impact with his career.

An avid writer, he thought that skill would serve him well, researching both English and journalism degrees. Already far down his collegiate path, Feller realized more of his credits would transfer into journalism and selected that as his new major. The only problem? He’d already enrolled in a host of psychology courses for the upcoming fall semester. Undaunted, he decided he’d drop his psychology load and simply add journalism classes. This was back when students had to add and drop classes over the phone, so during a lunch break from his summer job as a bank teller in State College, Feller proceeded to drop all of the courses on his schedule. When he went to replace them with journalism courses, he discovered they were all full.

“I came back from lunch and the teller next to me, who knew of my epiphany, asked how it had gone,” he said. “I told her, ‘I think I just dropped out of college.’’’

With little choice, Feller opted to audit the classes in the fall, showing up at an intro to journalism course in the hopes that some students might drop so that he could add the class. Though not teaching the course, Berner spoke to the students that day. “If you want to be a journalist,’’ he said, “you’d better take it seriously.’’

Berner was trying to weed out the students who thought the job sounded cool or merely wanted to see a byline in the newspaper, and instill the right amount of respect for the profession.

“He also was trying to scare the hell out of people,’’ Feller said.

To Feller’s good fortune, the scare tactic worked. Some students dropped the course and he wiggled his way in, embarking on a career that has since earned him several distinguished awards, taken him aboard Air Force One, to 25 countries, and in front of the most powerful person in the world.

Those, of course, are the stories that people want to hear when they discover Feller’s career path, and he’s more than happy to share the “glamour” stories to people who are merely curious. But when it comes time to speak about the profession — to talk to fellow reporters or aspiring journalists — Feller finds himself repeatedly returning to that first official lesson he heard from Berner.

“Not only does that conversation ring in my head, but it really became part of my whole approach to work,’’ he said. “I wanted people to think about the preparation, the pressure of getting every single word right and the consequences of that. I was so earnest about it, friends kidded me.’’

Ironically, Feller never had Berner for a class and his first actual interaction with the professor came after college, when Feller was working for the Centre Daily Times and Berner was the president of the borough council.

“You don’t have to have a tremendous amount of time together for a person to have an impact,’’ Feller said. “And that was the case for me with Tom.’’

Past perspectives and plans for the future

Berner is still having an impact on the profession as well as his community. He is keenly, and occasionally painfully, aware of the demise of journalism. He believes even more in the importance of the job, but he worries about the business end of the industry and is dismayed at the death of newspapers.

“We watch CNN a lot, and so often you’ll hear, ‘As reported in The New York Times or the Washington Post,'’’ he said. “So often it starts with print. But you have to have substantive newspapers to succeed.’’

He meets monthly at the Red Horse Tavern in Pleasant Gap, Pennsylvania, with a group of CDT retirees who call themselves Young Writers of America Inc. “We’re not young,’’ he said. “We weren’t even young when we started, but we like to get together and gnaw on political issues or journalism issues.’’

Berner also has found new ways to keep busy, as well as stretch his journalistic wings. Upon retirement, he and his wife, Pauline, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, intent on thoroughly cutting the cord from Penn State. Berner counts himself as a lifelong photography hobbyist. He owned a Brownie Hawkeye back in the day, and still has the black-and-white negatives from his first single-lens-reflex camera. With time on his hands and a new part of the country to explore, Berner opted to use his retirement to feed his passion, enrolling in a workshop at a local community college taught by Efrain Padro, a lawyer turned full-time photographer. Enamored of Padro’s teachings, Berner enrolled in another New Mexico-based workshop, eventually joining Padro on excursions to Puerto Rico and Peru.

After eight years in New Mexico, the couple decided to return home, settling in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, close to the epicenter of the University but far enough away to not get immersed in it. Berner was driving back to Bellefonte, up Interstate 40 after visiting his daughter in North Carolina, when he started noticing all of the different barns dotting the landscape. He was seeing them as a photographer, imagining perhaps some sort of book.

He soon discovered his wasn’t an unusual idea. There are, it turns out, plenty of books featuring photographs of barns. “I’m an OK photographer, but not at that level,’’ Berner says. “I figured there had to be something unique about my book.’’ That’s when the old journalism instincts kicked in, Berner figuring each barn must have a story and if he could find a way to tell those stories, he might be on to something.

Three years later he published Pennsylvania Barn Stories, a collection featuring 36 barns in 23 counties. He refuses to name a favorite but does share a tale about a structure in Blair County, a stone barn built by a veteran of the Revolutionary War. The veteran was killed while quarrying the stone to finish the barn. His sons weren’t stone masters as their father was, and had to finish the barn out of wood. Berner found the father’s grave in a cemetery, five miles away. On the day he visited it was decorated with a flag for Memorial Day.

Berner’s original research sent him to his second book — about Pennsylvania quilt barns — and he’s now working on a book about Centre County churches. This summer he and Pauline will visit Brittany, France. He’s hoping they can collaborate on a project through their copyrighted name, Pixels and Bristles, combining his stories and photographs, as well as pictures of her paintings.

If this doesn’t sound a bit like retirement, it sounds entirely like Berner.

“I don’t live in the past,’’ he says of his zest to keep busy. “And the present is gone like that. I live in the future.’’

Even if it is a long-lost friend from the past named Barbara who started it all.

Last Updated July 18, 2018