By Alan Burke
---- — BOSTON — After 30 years, retiring Sen. Fred Berry of Peabody made an emotional farewell to his colleagues in the Massachusetts Senate last night.
Cerebral palsy makes Berry’s speech difficult to follow and has led to painful, chronic medical problems — yet, as Senate President Therese Murray pointed out, these things did not blunt his wit, his humor or his abilities. Nor did they stop him from rising to the rank of Senate majority leader.
“Nobody believed that someone with my speech impediment could make it in politics,” Berry said. Nevertheless, he rose from the Peabody City Council to the Senate in 1983 and was never seriously challenged after that.
“I wanted to bring change,” he said. “I wanted to make the world a better place. ... For me, every day, you have to feel like you’re doing something right.”
Touching on what motivates him, Berry harkened back to his youth working as a volunteer for VISTA in Corpus Christi, Texas. “I learned a lot in those three years. ... I got a lot more from them than they ever got from me.”
“Freddy was a force for those underserved and overlooked,” said East Boston Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, who spoke prior to Berry last night. He characterized his friend as “a miracle ... when you think about the physical and medical challenges he had to deal with.”
He noted Berry’s even temper, saying, “I’ve never seen Freddy get angry. ... Freddy never complained.”
He then looked over at Berry and declared, “I will miss you dearly.”
Murray next ticked off the contributions Berry made to his district, from flood control for Peabody to the courthouse construction in Salem.
She lauded Berry’s drive to change laws and perceptions that handicap people’s progress. For one, she cited his work in changing the name of the Department of Mental Retardation to the Department of Developmental Services.
“Freddy, you have been an example for all of us,” Murray said.
In a measure of the esteem in which Berry is held, two former Senate presidents, Tom Birmingham and Robert Travaglini, returned for the event.
Berry’s ability to disarm people, despite his limitations, was evidenced when he related the suggestion from his wife, Gayle, a physical therapist, that she could improve his speech.
“Honey,” the senator puckishly recalled his reply, “I’ve won 10 elections in a row. You think I want them to know what I’m saying now.”
Using a written text merely to keep his place, Berry reacted to his colleagues. When Birmingham arrived midspeech (he’d been at a family funeral), the senator joshed, pointing to his text, “Too bad, Tom, you could have learned some new words.”
His respect for the circular Senate chamber, the walls powder blue and white, like a giant piece of Wedgwood china, never left him. He remembered his awe on being sworn in.
“You have to be overwhelmed, and you have to think what a great privilege it is for all of us to get elected and to serve here,” he said.
One by one, he thanked members of his staff, who stood nearby.
His warmest remarks were for wife Gayle and stepgranddaughter Jazmin. Later, the little girl would have fun with the president’s gavel.
“She just exists,” Berry told his colleagues. “That’s all she has to do. And I am tickled pink.”
Murray ended the session with a salute to Peabody Rep. Joyce Spiliotis, who died last week. “She will be deeply missed.”
She added, “The senator from Essex County ends an era here.”
For his future, Berry plans to devote his time to Work Inc., an organization dedicated to getting employment for disabled people.
“Thirty years have come and gone,” a reflective Berry told the Senate. “So many things have changed. ... I move on now to a new life and new challenges.”