The Berry Center Archivist

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John M. Berry, JR.: Outstanding Public Leader

There would be hope in effective public leadership if we had it. But ecological degradation is not a political issue in Kentucky; it is not much more a political issue nationally. And I don’t see help coming very soon from leaders in education. What I do see, and I see great hope in it, is what we could call leadership from the bottom: individuals and local groups who, without official permission or support or knowledge, are seeing what needs to be done and are doing it. Admirable work in sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, local economy, land preservation and restoration, and other kinds of conservation is being done all over the place, unofficially, by concerned people. Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s Natural Heritage (University Press of Kentucky, 2010)

As I was cataloging newspaper articles about the career in the Kentucky state legislature of Senator John M. Berry, Jr. from Turners Station, Kentucky, I came across an article that vividly illustrated his effective public leadership.

Mr. Berry served in the Kentucky State Senate from 1974 – 1981. He was in the Senate during the administration of Gov. John Y. Brown, Jr. During that time, Mr. Berry was on the opposite side of an issue from the governor, though they were both Democrats and personal friends. The issue was gubernatorial succession and a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution to allow it.

Senator Berry opposed amending the state’s constitution to allow a governor to succeed himself; Governor Brown supported it. The two men, as well as political, community and business leaders on either side of the question debated the Succession Amendment, as it was called, throughout the state.

In Henry County in October of 1981 Senator Berry, amendment opponent, together with an amendment supporter were invited to speak at a meeting of the Rotary Club. The program was “Success of the Upcoming Amendment”. When the succession proponent could not come to the meeting, Sen. Berry gave his own presentation, and then very ably presented the position of the opposite side. He told the gathered audience what the advantages were of having a governor able to succeed himself.

The headline of the article in the Patriot Statesman of Campbellsburg, Kentucky was, “Berry delights Rotary Club”. The newspaper reported these comments: “It is interesting to find someone who is obviously on the anti-side, who would present both sides of the argument” and ”We could never have heard anyone who would present both sides of the argument.” and finally this, “This is one of the finest programs we have had the privilege of listening to for many a year.”

Thus we find Sen. Berry, instinctively doing what Wendell Berry wrote about years later in the foreword to the book, Kentucky’s Natural Heritage: “What gives hope is actual conversation, actual discourse, in which people say to one another in good faith, fully and exactly what they know, and acknowledge honestly the limits of their knowledge.”

Forty years ago people hungered for this type of leadership and responded to it. I believe the same can be said for people today. This is the sort of leadership that is sorely needed in the state and country now.

His very effective public leadership is just one of the legacies of the distinguished life and work of Senator John Berry, Jr.