This was written by Charles McNair
Alumnus Harold Berkman fought for his country … and the Student Veterans Resource Center will remember him for it
On Friday, November 19, 2021, the University of Georgia’s Student Veterans Resource Center (SVRC) will proudly dedicate a new display – a waist-length wool jacket spangled with World War II combat medals.
The Eisenhower jacket perfectly fit UGA alumnus Dr. Harold Berkman (BBA ’49) from 1945 until the day he passed away in 2020 at age 94.
“Dr. Berkman was very proud of that jacket and what it stood for,” says Steve Horton (ABJ ’71, MED ’85) of the UGA Alumni Association Board of Directors. “He only wore it around fellow veterans and on special occasions.”
Horton first met Dr. Berkman around 2016. Horton, retired Associate Director of Athletics at the University of South Florida (USF), was serving as scholarship coordinator for USF’s Office of Veteran Success. After retiring in 2007 from the University of Miami, Berkman had started a charitable foundation that awarded scholarships to combat veterans at a number of universities, including both USF and UGA.
Naturally, two men with UGA degrees became friends.
“He was a Bulldog,” Horton says. “He was proud of it, proud of his family, and proud of his military service.”
Berkman’s jacket exhibits that service pride. It bears the elite Army Combat Infantryman Badge, a Bronze Star, the Chevalier de las Legion d’honneur from France, and three campaign stars for action in the Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe campaigns.
After Berkman’s death, Horton worked with his family to find a natural ‘fit’ for the jacket. He looked at a number of military museums, then decided (with the Berkman family’s approval) on the University of Georgia and its SVRC. That organization supports military-connected students by easing their transitions into civilian life, improving their educational experiences, and preparing them for civilian careers.
“Dr. Berkman would be proud to know the university and its veteran resource center displays his jacket and medals,” Horton says.
A girl in the Catskills
Berkman’s illustrious life – and his path to UGA – began in New York.
His parents, first-generation Belarus Jewish immigrants, carved out their version of the American Dream. They did well enough to vacation in the Catskills where, one golden summer in his childhood, Harold met an attractive young girl named Muriel.
She never left his thoughts.
Berkman graduated from high school in June 1944, the same month as D-Day. He got a draft notice, went through basic training, and shipped off to Europe. The 18-year-old rode with 22,000 other GIs aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a gigantic Cunard luxury liner recommissioned for the war as a troop ship.
Berkman reached France in early January 1945. Manning a machine gun, the young man spent his first 55 days in unrelenting combat as part of the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division, units in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
As the Allies drove Hitler’s German forces back through France, Berkman won a Bronze Star for valor. He lived through the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last offensive against Allies on the western front. Near the war’s end, the Jewish kid from New York was among the first soldiers to liberate Buchenwald, the notorious German concentration camp.
After the war, Berkman joined a wave of returning soldiers attending college on the GI Bill. He chose the University of Georgia, and he raced through school in less than three years to get back to Muriel, that girl from his Catskill summers, as soon as possible.
In an interview with the University of South Florida Foundation, Berkman explained, “If I didn’t get home, she would have been lying on the beach with somebody … and it wouldn’t have been with me.”
Muriel, now 92, lives in retirement in Florida.
“When Harold came back, we started dating,” she says. “He lived in Monticello, New York, and I lived in Brooklyn, so he would drive three hours to take me on a date. We married in 1950 in Brooklyn. We went on a cruise for our honeymoon.”
A rising academic star
The couple cruised into married life in Far Rockaway, New York, where the enterprising Harold opened Valencia Liquor in nearby Jamaica, New York. He grew that entrepreneurial venture into a prosperous chain of 10 storefronts in New York and Connecticut.
Berkman wanted more in life, though, than a retail chain. On the side, he studied at St. John’s University and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in business. He then entered academia at C.W. Post College, a Long Island university where he taught business and sociology.
He became a rising-star academic – Berkman would eventually write or co-write 18 textbooks and publish many articles, mostly on marketing. The University of Miami picked him up by creating the new position of Vice Dean of its MBA program. Berkman spent 30 years at Miami, where he finished his career. He continued to be academically entrepreneurial, founding and leading the Academy of Marketing Science and the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.
He and Muriel started a family. A son was born in 1951 and a daughter, Karen, blessed their lives in 1954.
“Dad was very organized and tidy, a personality trait rather than one related to his military career” Karen recalls. “In fact, he never spoke of the military when I was growing up. It was not until he retired at 81 that we started hearing about the war experiences. It became his new identity until he died.”
Karen carved out a distinguished academic career too. She became Dr. Karen Berkman, serving as USF’s Executive Director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. She also launched USF’s LGBT Student Scholarship – the first at any state university in Florida.
This kind of goodness characterizes the Berkman family, which oversees the Harold and Muriel Berkman Charitable Foundation, Inc. That organization awards some 60 student scholarships a year, at $1,000 each, to various institutions of higher learning. It also funds marketing research. Many military veterans benefit from its scholarships.
In his 80s, as Berkman began to talk more about the war years, he reached out to other veterans. He considered his most notable achievements for veterans to be leading efforts to create a custom CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge) Florida license plate and creating the Battle of the Bulge Association to honor those who fought in that historic WWII episode.
At a memorable oral history recording with The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Berkman talked about Buchenwald.
“This was the first time Americans had seen a concentration camp,” Berkman said. “I was one of the first GIs in Buchenwald. When I walked in, the ovens were still warm. The inmates weighed 75 pounds, and bones were stacked high where the furnaces were. [It’s] a thing I’ll never forget.”
Berkman told how General Patton drove in to see the camp. Patton notified the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight Eisenhower, and the two generals walked through the grim concentration camp together.
Happier times lay ahead for Berkman.
“My father liked to play tennis and golf,” Karen remembers. “He was very good with his hands. He could fix or build things. He enjoyed family and friends. He spent most hours working – he didn’t have a lot of down time – but we took vacations to Florida or upstate New York when we were young.”
Muriel, the girl he met in upstate New York, still adores the handsome young man she met in the Catskills.
“Harold was determined, diligent, hard-working, and loyal,” Muriel says. “He was generous to others and expected respect. Whenever he set a goal, no matter how difficult to achieve, he would pursue it until he accomplished it.”
That’s the formula Berkman used to woo Muriel. That’s the formula that quickly earned his UGA degree and made multiple businesses succeed. That’s the formula that brought him a long and successful tenure in academe.
Harold Berkman was a man in full with a life in full – a life spangled in medals and honors, worthy of its proud place of remembrance at UGA.