From The Driver’s Seat: Bill Berman always enjoyed the ride

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An earlier portrait of Bill Berman in his backyard

To a man like Bill Berman, who had a sea of friends, I may seem like the most unlikely person to shed light on who he was as a person. However, I was fortunate to have a somewhat unique relationship with Bill during his later years.

At 69 years my senior, Bill was a close friend. Not shockingly, he was, in fact, my oldest friend. I know he considered me a friend, too. Perhaps among his youngest.

In 2012, I was attending law school at Wayne State University and was approached by the director of Hillel to see if I would be interested in helping an older, prominent man in the community who may be in need of a driver from time to time. What started out as a small side job turned into a gift of life lessons for me.  

It started with countless trips together, covering hundreds of miles and hours upon hours of conversation. Bill became my friend, my mentor and, later, together with Mrs. Berman, my wife’s and my favorite double-date couple.

I drove Bill often while I was in law school — sometimes three or four times a week — to award dinners, shows Downtown, trips to Ann Arbor and, my favorite, his date nights with Mrs. Berman.

Nearly every time I walked into their house, Bill would say, “Madge is running a few minutes behind; let’s have a drink. Do you like vodka?”

I’d say, “Bill, I don’t think that’s a good idea; I’m here to drive you.”

He’d reply, “Right. That’s right … Do you take ice?”

Talking And Questions

I began to suspect Mrs. Berman was, in fact, never running late, but rather he just told his assistant, Pam, to have me come early so we could have a drink and talk.

Talking. That may have been one of Bill’s best qualities. I don’t think he ever met a stranger. But what set Bill apart from others who liked to talk were his keen and genuine interest in others and a desire to also listen. At 99, he continued to be both curious about people of all ages and about the world. He wanted to know about you; he asked questions.

“How’s that big dog of yours?”

“How’s that Jaffe law firm doing?”

A few times, his questions made me a bit nervous, like when he persisted in knowing when and even if I planned to propose to my wife, Hannah — while she sat in the backseat with Mrs. Berman. “What are you waiting for? Don’t waste the opportunity,” he’d say.

He asked questions just as much as he told stories.

For two people from as different of generations as we were, our conversation topics were as endless as they were unorthodox. We talked about his advice on marriage, how he made his fortune, the many trips to Israel he made with Max Fisher, and his regrets and failures in business.

He told me the story in detail about his meeting at the White House with President Bush and Max Fisher in 1989 to help free Russian Jews.

And one of my favorite stories was about his time at “that small school in Cambridge” where he lived down the hall from a man he described as a “privileged ass” who “liked the girls as much as his mirror …” After a brief and calculated pause, he would go on to lament, “but I suppose he did OK for himself.” That man, of course, was President John F. Kennedy.

He gave me stories, too. Once I picked up the Bermans at The Max following an event. As I saw them both come out the front entrance, I got out of the car to help Mrs. Berman. When I turned around, Bill had vanished amidst the bustling crowd, nowhere to be seen. I had several moments of concern and panic. Then I saw him, again emerging from The Max. This time with a small bundle in his hand.

“I went back to get you cookies,” he said. “You’ve got to try these. They’re delicious!” That was Bill, always thinking about others.

Advice And Good Choices

Bill loved to give me advice, especially when it came to my legal studies and law career. While I was in law school, the routine was that I would typically drop him off Downtown, go study in the law library and then pick him up when he was ready to go home. If it was exam season and I was slightly rattled, Bill loved to share what he viewed as the most efficient way to obtain a law degree.

“You know, if you were rich and important like me, they would just give you a degree,” he’d say. “You do know that they gave me a law degree from Wayne? I never had to take those tests like you — you’re doing it all wrong.”

Quite honestly, he would know. Over 99 years of life, Bill seemed to do it all right. This was especially true when it came to choosing his bride of 66 years, Madge.

About two years ago, with more than 64 years of marriage under his belt, there was no doubt Bill still appreciated the wisdom of his choice.

Hannah and I received a chatty call from Bill, who was in Florida at the time. It was Valentine’s Day and he shared his plans for a dinner for two in a beautiful restaurant with his bride, Madge. When he told us he had made calls to a half-dozen places to find a suitable reservation, my wife started to cry.

This was incredible — a 97-year-old man determined to find the right place to take his bride of 64 years for dinner on Valentine’s Day. It was beautiful.

I often chuckle when I think about my initial reaction to driving the Bermans. I had it all figured out. A couple in their 90s would make for an early evening, giving me plenty of time to take my girlfriend (now wife, Hannah) out afterwards. There was one problem — neither Bill nor Mrs. Berman knew the concept of “early bird special.”

My nights with the Bermans didn’t end at 7 p.m.; that’s when they started, and I wouldn’t be dropping them off until after 11 p.m. Eventually, Hannah just started coming with us. After we would drop Bill and Mrs. Berman off at whatever event they were attending, Hannah and I would go out to dinner ourselves, and then, remarkably, would still have time to kill before we would get the call that they were ready to be picked up.

Adam Kessler, Madge and Bill Berman, and Hannah Kessler

Eventually, they loved Hannah so much that we just started going out as a foursome, double dating. Looking to also give her some advice, Bill never failed to ask Hannah what she was “doing with a fella like [me].”

After we were married, he started telling her, “I tried to warn you — you should have listened to me.”

Hannah and I are eight months into our own marriage now, and there are no two individuals better fit to be role models for a long and loving marriage than Bill and Mrs. Berman. 

I asked Bill if he had advice for Hannah and me before our wedding. After a brief pause, Bill’s response was “make sure there is film.” Apparently, at his wedding to Mrs. Berman 66 years before, the photographer had forgotten the film — there are no photos.

I’ve come to appreciate Bill’s response more than he may ever have known. While he may have meant it literally, I think it serves well as a Bill Berman life message: Don’t forget to capture the moment.

Zest For Life

So how is it that after nearly a century, Bill’s passing has come as such a shock to so many?

Bill was the closest we’ve ever had to a real-life Energizer Bunny. His philosophy on life was as simple as it was straight-forward: “Wake up early, go to bed late and work your tail off in between.” At 99, he lived each day with an inspiring intensity of unparalleled work ethic.

In our many rides together, what I came to love most about Bill was that he seemed to always add to that work ethic a heavy dose of laughter and sarcasm. I loved that about him — he always made sure to enjoy the ride.

What really exemplifies the essence of Bill was his zest for life and his ability to defy age while also embracing it. If you would run into him in any given October, he was sure to tell you Nov. 18 was just around the corner and that meant he would be getting another year under his belt. When I spoke with him just a few weeks back, he was already talking about the centennial.

“How many 100-year-old friends do you have?” he asked.

Bill Berman was a giant among the truly legendary giants in our community and beyond, yet somehow he always seemed to be the youngest and most approachable person in the room. At 11 months shy of seeing that 100th birthday, Bill made an impact on others, on our community and on the world that will be felt far longer than his short life.

I will miss my friend.

Adam Kessler is an attorney at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss

 

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