This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 Harker Quarterly.
To honor beloved former faculty member Jason Berry, who unexpectedly passed away last summer, this year’s graduating class has dedicated their senior gift to creating an orchard in his memory.
“The Berry Orchard is this year’s senior class gift. It will be a beautiful orchard located in the space between Dobbins and Nichols halls, in memory of Jason. The seniors have raised most of the money to fund it, to pay for trees, a statue, a pathway, a bench,” said Melinda Gonzales, Harker’s managing director of advancement.
Through class fundraising and their senior donations, the students rallied together to raise $8,414. A donation from the graduating class also will be made to The Jason Berry Endowed Scholarship Fund.
An initial tree-planting ceremony heralding the coming of the orchard took place at the end of April, with many students participating, including Berry’s former advisees, soccer players he coached, English students he taught and members of the senior class.
According to Gonzales, Modern Woodmen of America also donated and took part in the planting of four fruit trees for the planned orchard. In past years, representatives from Modern Woodmen of America have donated trees to the upper school campus, in conjunction with Earth Day and National Tree Planting Day, as part of the group’s charter to give back to the community. Founded in 1883, Modern Woodmen of America is a fraternal society that provides financial services and other benefits to its members, which number more than 750,000 nationwide.
Berry was an English teacher and athletics coach at Harker. He died suddenly on Aug. 24, 2013 of a pulmonary embolism resulting from a blood clot in his leg. A memorial was held Aug. 29, and family and friends filled nearby WestGate Church to say goodbye. Heartfelt memories of his childhood and early years as a teacher were shared; the loss to his family and the community was mourned.
A large group, many of whom were alumni, then proceeded to Harker’s upper school campus for a reception. Family members joined the group shortly thereafter, and Head of School Chris Nikoloff and two of Berry’s colleagues briefly addressed the group, followed by more memories exchanged, and more tears shed for the life cut short.
Born in New Hampshire and highly regarded by students during his five-year run at Harker, Berry wrote as a critic during his time as a member of the American College Theatre Festival and was honored for excellence in teaching by the Clemson University PanHellenic Council. The Harker Class of 2012 selected him as the faculty speaker for the 2012 baccalaureate ceremony, during which he said to the soon-to-be graduates, “Be who you want to be, and if that doesn’t agree with you, then find, once again, your center, your inner voice; don’t settle for an imitation of yourself. Bend the rules, but try not to break them.”
During his high school years, Berry was a decorated All-American soccer player, an experience he later applied at Harker as a head coach of the girls’ soccer team, leading the team to record seasons during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
“Jason’s life reflected his wise counsel, and he was always, authentically, himself,” said Nikoloff. “He impacted many with his wisdom, wit and warmth, and is deeply missed.”