Becoming a Geologist
Oak Terrace Elementary School
Mr. J. Howard Berry inspired this website. He was the principal at Oak Terrace Elementary School, in North Charleston, South Carolina. The school was later renamed J. Howard Berry Elementary School.
Mr. Berry ran the school with an iron fist. He could show up in any class, any time — he was all over the place. Some people, probably many teachers, thought Mr. Berry was overbearing. My own mother thought he was overbearing. But I loved him. That was because Mr. Berry knew all about the fun things in the world. And those things were science and geology. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had encountered my very first Renaissance Man.
Mr. Berry was quite no-nonsense, and truly was a little scary. But he loved to see kids learn things.
On any given day, we might be studying our dreaded math or history when Mr. Berry would pop into the room. The teacher would sigh, roll her eyes, and sit down. Mr. Berry had taken over the classroom. For the next 30 minutes, he might engage us with an impromptu french lesson, play selections of Sousa’s marches on a rickety old wind-up record player, or describe the gigantic stalactites in some cave in Peru. He knew how to fascinate students, and he put his heart into it. It was fairly obvious he would much rather teach than run the school!
The Science Lab
Mr. Berry established a science lab at the school. Now, this was not just a room with a couple of dead frogs in it. This lab was packed to the gills with the most amazing dangerous stuff I could imagine. Chemicals/magnets/microscopes/bunsen burners/steam engines/gyroscopes/geiger counters/acid/scalpels. For the true science nerds, there was even a cloud chamber! All kinds of curiosities from all over the world. But most of all, the rocks. Hundreds of specimens of rocks and minerals. Mr. Berry loved anything scientific, but he especially loved earth science and geology. And he loved talking about rocks and minerals, looking at them, and handling them. Since atomic energy was a brand new thing, Mr. Berry made great efforts to get hold of anything radioactive!
I have no idea where Mr. Berry got the money to build his science lab. No other schools around the area had anything like it. You just had to show a little interest, and it was opened to you.
Mr. Berry’s Science Camp
Mr. Berry owned a country home called “Ingleside” near the town of Liberty HIll, in Kershaw County, South Carolina. Here he ran a science camp in the summer for interested students. One of the highlights of my life was being allowed to attend this camp.
There were perhaps 12 boys the year I went. Everything was planned out, and everything was about science, with geology being at the tip-top of the list. We slept in tents in a canyon at the back of his large property, with an outhouse for facilities. A couple of boys were singled out at the beginning of camp (perhaps their moms had advised him that their children were “sensitive”), and these unfortunates were quartered in the house with Mr. and Mrs. Berry. They were pitied. I much preferred the smelly old army tents!
I should point out that Mr. Berry was most definitely not anti-female; for some years previously he ran a camp at Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where he had facilities for both girls and boys. But this was his first year of running the camp at Liberty Hill, and the brand-new facilities were limited.
Highlights at the camp included field trips to nearby sites of geologic interest. One trip involved a journey to a dangerous pegmatite mine that gave up garnets the size of of saltshakers. Mr. Berry thought children should be allowed to participate in “hazardous” activities…as long as they were pursuing the cause of science…better to be dead than stupid, he seemed to think. Mixing acids, exhibiting flaming phosphorous globules, and scrambling up death-defying cliffs at abandoned mines was part of his strategy to keep things interesting. I’m afraid Mr. Berry could never get away with his camp nowadays!
Mr. Berry smoked like a fiend at the camp that year, but spent a whole lot of time coughing his lungs out while advising us boys that we should never, ever smoke. Thankfully, I heeded this wise advice. He cussed a little bit, too, which was pretty neat, because that never happened at school!
The best part came at the end of the camp. It was a wonderful camping trip to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where we attended the famous rock and mineral show held there every year. It was the biggest thing for me, ever. Despite Mr. Berry’s dangerous reputation, a 60-year-old man has to be a real sport to haul twelve smelly adolescent jerks to the top of a mountain, sleep in the dirt with them in a floor-less flooded tent, get up in the middle of the night to go outside in a driving rainstorm, dig a rain-diversion trench in his sodden underwear, then apologize the next day because some of our sleeping bags got wet.
I would like to thank Mr. Berry for inspiring my career as a geologist!