Alumnus’ Loyalty to be Honored
September 19, 2008
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. –Raymond Berger’s life has been founded on seeing potential.
The 1970 Illinois Wesleyan University graduate is known professionally for his ability
to rejuvenate a business, which he has done repeatedly over his 40 years in retail.
He has done the same with Illinois Wesleyan alumni, founding both the Chicago and
San Francisco alumni chapters, and connecting countless alumni. “It’s incredible to
attend alumni events and planning meetings,” said Berger. “You meet people from ages
28 to 78 and we all have something in common. I love the people. They are the reason
I attended Illinois Wesleyan and they are amazing,” The University is returning that
admiration by honoring Berger with the 2008 Loyalty Award during Homecoming activities on campus Oct. 3-5.
Berger’s involvement has come at all levels, from attending and hosting alumni events,
to serving on committees, such as the Capital Campaign Committees in both Chicago
and San Francisco, the Class of 1970 Reunion Committee and the IWU Golf Outing Committee.
Since its revival nine years ago, he has served on the Executive Board of the Alumni
Association for Illinois Wesleyan, and is the first co-chair of the new Pride Alumni
Behind his every effort is Berger’s uncanny ability to see the way to make something
right – a talent he fostered while growing up in Manhattan. He combined an amazing
eye for detail with a fearless nature – even sending letters to Brooks Brothers as
a young man when he did not like the layout of their store. “I’m not sure if it was
because of my letters, but they soon changed the layout just as I had suggested,”
Berger brought his distinctive style to Illinois Wesleyan. “I think I was the only
one sporting a jacket and tie who wasn’t required to wear them,” said Berger. That
style opened doors for Berger, literally, when he volunteered for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
[D-New York] in 1968. “A group of us from IWU went to Indiana to campaign for Bobby,”
said Berger. “It was an important primary for him. If he would have lost, it might
have been all over.” Berger said he and his friends differed greatly from the other
college-age volunteers who journeyed to Indiana. “Here we were, a bunch of clean-shaven,
short-haired kids from Illinois Wesleyan, standing alongside kids who looked like,
well, hippies.” While the other young volunteers stayed in university residence halls,
Berger and his friends were placed in the homes of supporters. “We really got to know
people,” he said.
It was his interest in politics that drew him toward his degree in history, even though
Berger knew he wanted to pursue retail as a career. “I always enjoyed history, said
Berger, who had volunteered in high school for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s
campaigns. “You would think I would major in business or economics, but in reality,
fashion has little to do with economics. It takes a passion to understand it, and
I have always had a passion for men’s wear.”
Berger said his education proved beneficial when he became a buyer for Bloomingdale’s
soon after graduation. “For 10 years I would meet with vendors from all over the world,”
he said. “When I traveled to London, Florence and even small towns in France, it was
wonderful to know the history of the people and places and be able relate to them.”
After a decade with Bloomingdale’s, Berger was recruited by Marshall Field’s in Chicago,
where he worked to revamp their home furnishings areas. It was there he began to get
involved with Illinois Wesleyan alumni activities. While Berger was applying his strategic
thinking to revitalizing Marshall-Fields, he was struck by how he could do the same
for University. “It’s all about building an organization,” said Berger. “It’s all
about being a part of something in which you believe and for which you have a passion.”
He helped found the Chicago alumni chapter in the mid-1980s. “We planned events big
and small, from 60 to 600 people,” he said. “I loved meeting the IWU presidents and
working with them to plan the next step for the University.”
It was one of those presidents, Robert S. Eckley, who called on Berger shortly before
he retired, asking him to chair the University’s capital campaign efforts in Chicago.
“That was amazing to know you were helping to guide the future,” Berger said.
Berger worked as a vice president of Merchandising for Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco
from 1990-1992. Returning to Chicago in 1992, Berger became chair of the Chicago Alumni
Association. Serving as chair until 1996, he continued his efforts with the University.
In 1998, his work drew him to California again, taking a job with Beverages and More
that transferred him to San Francisco again. “I was part of a team brought in to turn
the company around. My job was to refocus the merchandise, to find things people would
want and present it in a more exciting way,” said Berger. The company, now called
BevMo, is a household name on the West Coast. During this time, Berger began to throw
parties for Illinois Wesleyan alumni. “It was only 20 or 30 people at first,” he said.
The parties grew, as did Berger’s unofficial duties. The group soon blossomed into
the San Francisco Regional Alumni Association that reaches across northern California.
Berger now lives in Sante Fe, N.M. with partner Alex Shapiro, and has come full circle.
The young man who dressed in Brooks Brothers now is managing a Brooks Brothers store.
“They have done much to reinvigorate their line,” said Berger. He remains active with
Illinois Wesleyan; and teases that he has not had the chance to start another alumni
chapter because there are only three fellow alumni who live in the Santa Fe area now.
“It is a beautiful place to retire,” he said thoughtfully. “Perhaps now is the time
to begin to lure some alumni this way.” Another project in the works for Raymond Berger.
Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960