Imagine being 17 years old, sitting on a weight machine at the gym for the first time, and turning to your left to see Jerry Berger next to you.
Back in the late 90’s, when I started working out for the first time, I went to the Mid-County YMCA. I was a sophomore who stuttered and was trying to stop himself from becoming overweight too, so I was there twice a day working out. I figured while I was trying to pry the words out of my brain, I could give the ladies something to look at while they were waiting for me to put a sentence together.
Most mornings, I saw and spoke with Berger, who looked like Sinatra as he lifted weights and told stories. It looked like a piece of cake for him. He didn’t sweat and always won the round on the weights. I don’t even know why he carried a towel. It was an exercise class and stand-up routine all at once with Jerry. One day, it was Rich Gould, Berger, and myself lined up on cybex machines talking about the Cards. It was as if we had turned the fitness center into a bar with optional exercise.
Jerry made time to talk to EVERYBODY. He was always gathering material and loved to laugh. Being the gossip king of St. Louis, finding the dirt or juice on any big name in town, it was his job. But it wasn’t hard to tell it was a real passion for him. Berger had an easy going smile that developed into a laugh that sounded like a mix of a gangster and salesman. For however he had your attention, you were in his world-and it was a fun one to be in.
Sometimes, it was surreal. According to KSDK longtime news anchor, Mike Bush, Berger could tell you what awards were coming your way that particular evening. He could also blow up or give a push to local events and restaurants with just a few sentences. There wasn’t an ounce of hyperbole (a shortcut for writers at times), just the facts from a fearless reporter.
He passed away this week at the age of 87. He battled cancer over the years multiple times, and hadn’t written a column since 2004, where he signed off at the Post Dispatch. The final column was an authentic account of where he had been, and where he could be going. Nobody got the scoop quite like Berger, but few could write like him. It was like a Dickens novel with secrets, a page-turner or instant cyber-scroller. Read this excerpt from that final column that ran nearly 17 years ago:
“BUT, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER – except a columnist’s eternal gratitude for the tips, notes, phone calls, e-mails, faxes and cocktail napkins that have made penning this column so effortless and for the editorial tolerance that allowed an old-fashioned gossip writer with a myriad of annoying habits to fill up so much white space on the pages of a great newspaper. A few people over the years have earned the columnist’s special affection for always having an eye and an ear for a good story. Their good works have earned them a pardon from being thrust in to the public eye for naught. But, they, like the rest of you, will not be forgotten.”
He was a well-known writer and it was those conversations we had-same as the ones I’ve had with Bernie Miklasz, Rene Knott, Steve Savard, and Frank Cusumano over the years-that inspired me to grasp the idea that I could be a writer too and have fierce opinions. Professionalism and fortitude are traits won over time in this life, but you felt like the keys were in your hand for a few minutes if Jerry took the time. He did, and I will never forget it.
Berger may be gone now, but I think his impact on thousands of people will be felt for decades. At the end of the day, he was a hardcore reporter, someone who sought out the truth-even if it was ugly-and wrote about it. An entertainment reporter turned city voice, the man was impossible to miss if story hour was on.
Rest in peace. I bet he doesn’t break a sweat during his first trip to the bar upstairs either. I hope there’s a good supply of stories, pens, and cocktail napkins up there.