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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 (1902Martha Berry 1-1942)

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.

Martha Berry 2
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.

Ford CampusMost 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. A major institutional accomplishment during this period was the Century Campaign, which generated $106.1 million in support of programs and facilities (including a state-of-the-art science complex) meant to enhance the Berry student experience. This was Berry’s largest and most successful fundraising campaign to date.

The college continues to move forward under the leadership of Stephen R. Briggs, who became Berry’s eighth president in July 2006. The years since have seen the 2008 completion of the Steven J. Cage Athletic and Recreation Center and the 2009 addition of the Audrey B. Morgan and Deerfield residence halls. In 2008, Berry joined the Annapolis Group, an organization of leading national independent liberal arts colleges. In 2009, the institution began its four-year transition to NCAA Division III, eventually becoming a founding member of the Southern Athletic Association of academically excellent residential liberal arts colleges across the region. The Gate of Opportunity Scholarship was created in 2009, offering highly motivated students with a “can-do” attitude and strong work ethic the opportunity to experience the fullness of a Berry education and to graduate debt free. Berry’s voluntary Work Experience Program has grown significantly, currently employing more than 1,800 students – making it the largest college work program of its kind in the nation. On-campus work opportunities now include a number of student-operated enterprises. In 2013, Berry was recognized by its peers as the No. 1 up-and-coming liberal arts college in the nation.

Suggested Reading

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

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