Published April 17th, 2023 at 5:01 PM
To find Bert Berkley, you push a doorbell set in a ceramic rainbow trout, and the man himself, on the verge of 100, stands at the threshold, beckoning visitors into the ambiance of the life he’s lived.
Those are Colorado River bluffs on the giant painting in his living room. Native American sculptures stand on the fireplace mantle, gathered among other mementos from travels in British Columbia, the American Southwest and elsewhere. Touchstones from Bert’s fishing trips and work that took him around the world.
And in corners of special warmth stand portraits of his beloved Joan — pronounced Jo-Ann — recalling their 64-year marriage in adventurous love.
He is a humble marvel.
Consider that Bert was approaching his 70s when he founded LINC – Kansas City’s Local Investment Commission – which has nothing to do with stocks and bonds but everything to do with investing in children and families. It was right here in his living room, as if in an epiphany, that he drew up the plans for his revolutionary nonprofit.
That was more than 30 years ago.
The civic giant — named Mr. Kansas City in 1971 — and former longtime CEO and president of the still family-owned-and-run Tension Envelope has powered on, seemingly non-stop, while LINC’s Caring Communities mission grew and evolved beyond his early imaginings.
“The secret is exercise,” muses the man born during the Harding Administration. He still works out on a stationary recumbent bike after he had, into his late 80s, practiced a frequent regimen of climbing 600 stairs — 40 times up and down the 15 steps of his staircase.
Not to mention all of his and Joan’s backpacking and high-adventuring.
But he also carries a debt.
So much of it weighs from the consequences of what he calls his biggest mistake. He accepted an offer from the U.S. Army that allowed him to come home one day early from his service in World War II — if he signed up for the Army Reserves.
Four years later, unexpectedly, the Army summoned him back for 17 months of additional service, 11 of which were spent in Korea in combat where, Bert said, he was a First Lieutenant, Infantry, “expendable.”
He remembers clearly, soon after he returned 71 years ago, walking a Florida shore with Joan. They shared a somber ocean view with their friend Louise, the widowed wife of Korean War casualty Dick McKinstry, and Louise’s two small children.
Somewhere along the walk, the boy — 5 years old — stopped his padding through the sand, raised his chin and looked young Bert in the eyes.
This is the salty-aired memory that chokes Bert’s voice.
“He asked me, ‘How come you came back and my daddy didn’t?’”
He knew then what he knows now — that the boy’s father, Bert’s friend, had been in a foxhole hit by a mortar shell and died immediately.
He knew that 11 of the 15 men on the Army plane that had delivered Bert to the war died there.
He knew he had feared for his life the same as his friends and the men under his command and that his own foxhole thoughts to survive the night firefights ached with one desire: “I had to get back to Joan.”
If he could somehow get out of Korea alive, he committed to himself, he would spend his life giving back.
And somehow he’d come home “without a scratch.”
But he could not tell these things to a 5-year-old boy. All he could do on that beach was kneel down to meet the little boy’s eyes and answer the giant question they shared by saying, “I just don’t know.”
That is why it is no trite observation — when someone takes measure of Bert’s fully lived life as a friend, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, innovator, adventurer, leader and community builder — that Bert says, “You’re looking at the most fortunate man you’ve ever met.”
How annoying. That’s how Bert remembers it. He’s recalling the first night that he and his two best friends — Ed Kander and Bud Meinrath — were reunited in Kansas City, 1946, all returned from their service in World War II.
“The three musketeers were once again together,” he said, but first the three of them plus Ed’s little brother, John Kander, had been diverted by an errand to pick up Bud’s little sister arriving from St. Louis by train at Union Station.
The last time he’d seen Bud’s sister was at a farewell dinner at the Meinraths’ home right before Bert dispatched overseas. She was 16 then — five years younger than Bert — a “shy, soft-spoken girl in a little white dress.”
Bert was sent to the Philippines where, because of his Duke University education, the Army thought he’d make an excellent quartermaster, so he ended up managing an equipment and supply depot instead of meeting combat in his first experience with war.
During those 22 months, he gave little thought to Joan: “She was not on my radar.”
At Union Station, he and his friends watched the crowds of arriving passengers coming through the brass doors, Bert impatiently.
That little sister who appeared before them, of course, was Joan — now 18, and suddenly, it seemed to Bert, “a stunning, beautiful woman.”
After quick kisses for Ed, Bud and John — and a prim handshake with Bert — Joan locked arms with Ed, Bud and John and they marched spiritedly across the Union Station floor, with Bert stumbling behind them, “hardly able to breathe.”
But he was saying to himself, “Someday, someday I’m going to ask that girl to marry me.”
He was as sure then of his future love life as he already was of his career plans.
No one was going to have to prod Bert into a role with the family’s successful business. Tension Envelope “was the only job that ever interested me,” he said.
He was enthralled by the habits of his “workaholic” father — E. Bertram Berkowitz — a “mechanical genius,” Bert said, whose 30 patents numbered more than those of the rest of the envelope industry combined.
His father often would work at night at home, drafting letters and plans. He spoke his ideas into a dictaphone to be transcribed and distributed the next day. Bert would listen, just as he listened to the sales and business talk when his parents hosted sales representatives for dinner.
Bert imagined himself stepping into increasingly important roles in the company that his grandfather and great uncle — William and Maurice Berkowitz — started in Kansas City in 1886 as a small, advertising novelties print shop.
The company turned to envelope manufacturing after William Berkowitz noticed most KC businesses were getting envelopes from Chicago or St. Louis. The company bought an envelope folding machine and brought it back in 1894 to be the first such machine as far west as Kansas City, and business boomed.
Machinery and production fascinated Bert the same as they did his father. He trained for big business, first at Duke, then, after World War II, at Harvard Business School. He changed his last name to Berkley at 18 in 1941. He never hid his Jewish background, but in an increasingly anti-Semitic world, he said, he wanted a chance for people to get to know him first.
What a great setup it was.
Bert and Joan were in love. They married Sept. 1, 1948, and Bert returned from Cambridge, Mass., with his Harvard degree in 1950, just starting his Tension dream job and dream life.
Korea was a jolt.
For two hard months in 1952 — 37 years before Missouri Department of Social Services Director Gary Stangler would look to Bert to reimagine the delivery of state services that would become LINC — Bert wasn’t himself .
He was young and battle-shaken. His eyes still held the strain of the commander worrying who was on the next hill, his ears echoing with his urgent radio calls for air support. Yet, at home he found himself mixing with people who didn’t even know where Korea was.
“I was egotistical,” Bert said. It took Joan’s patience and gentle prodding to get him past the arrogance of having survived two wars.
“She cracked my shell…and made me a human being again.”
She was his “nature girl,” drawing him into the outdoors, taking their Scamp trailer to national parks.
When their children arrived – Janet in 1955, Bill in 1956 and Jane in 1959 — nature adventures became a family vocation.
Tension Envelope continued to expand its reputation through an intense commitment to high technology and production.
Bert, as the third-generation leader, moved up to president of Tension in 1962 as his father stepped into the role of chairman. Bert would run the company for 27 years, then follow the same succession plan, succeeding as chairman in 1988 at the age of 65 as son Bill became the fourth generation of the family to lead Tension.
Over the years, the innovative company — now Tension Corp. — diversified into packaging and automation for both e-commerce and pharmaceutical drug fulfillment. The corporation now employs more than 1,100 people in nine plants across the United States, China and Taiwan, with annual sales of more than $300 million.
It was certainly a treat, son Bill says, to have been able to grow into his role as president, working with his father and family. “In a family-owned business,” Bill said, “there is a unique opportunity to create a culture of quality, innovation and high expectations, and an environment that cares a great deal about associates.”
“Bert really believes in listening,” he said.
Along the way, in the civic world, Bert accumulated an enormous record of leadership roles, including head of the Kansas City Civic Council, chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, memberships on library and park boards, roles with the Kauffman Foundation’s entrepreneurial programs and the area United Way..
Enter Gary Stangler.
The DSS director and Bert were strangers when Bert accepted an invitation in 1989 to join Stangler’s proposed business roundtable to explore ways his department could operate more efficiently.
It was a surprising request. Here was a bureaucrat, Bert said, who was willing “to have his kingdom taken apart and put back together.”
For several months the roundtable engaged in fact-finding, process-reviewing, and journeys into the field throughout the state, including a visit to the neonatal ward at a St. Louis hospital. Stangler, in a 2001 interview with LINC, told of the “personal epiphany” he saw in Bert as he cradled a preemie baby in his hands.
“From that moment,” Stangler said, “Bert was committed to the agenda.”
Bert immersed himself in the analysis and he could see the needs for change, but was struggling for an effective approach. He bandied thoughts with a friend, anti-bullying author SuEllen Fried. She mentioned that a state program she worked with in Kansas was putting decisions in the hands of local providers.
Bert said, “SuEllen, you may have just opened the doors.”
For more than two weeks, he composed a plan, drafting and redrafting, shaping ideas. He envisaged a volunteer commission of dedicated citizens, close to their communities. They’d divide into subcommittees by expertise and interests — like welfare reform, school-linked social services, children and families, healthcare and housing.
The commissioners would be the liaisons between state funds and the specific and changing needs of Kansas City-area communities. With the help of an advisory professional panel, the commissioners would make state resources rapidly responsive and creative.
Bert took the opportunity on a couple of business trips to try out his idea on directors of state social services in Iowa and Massachusetts. Both said a citizen commission wouldn’t work.
Undaunted, Bert laid his proposal on Stangler.
Stangler said: Good idea. Let’s try it.
Great ideas can come while one, adrift on a boat, is casting a dry fly on a fishing line across a cold, clear mountain river.
Or while reading notes by candlelight in a tent sheltered against an Alaska tundra night.
Work colleagues and social service compatriots — including Stangler — noted over the years how Bert had a knack for brainstorms born during his escapes to wilder country.
Adventuring became a life-long passion for Bert and Joan, perhaps reaching their pinnacle when they embarked on a 17-day trek across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some days were harder than others with him carrying his 60-pound pack and her with a 40-pound pack. One day, encountering especially difficult terrain of boot-sticking mud, they were brought to their knees when they finally reached the evening campsite and helped each other take off their packs.
They were both exhausted, but 20 minutes later they were helping prepare dinner.
Joan was a skilled photographer and Bert had a video camera. They had friends over to view a film show of the trip and when it was over, after some meaningful silence, one of their friends said, “You paid money to do that?”
In his late 40s, a friend introduced Bert to fly fishing in New Brunswick, Canada. And there began what has become a five-decade love affair with a catch-and-release game of patience and guile in havens of quiet beauty.
Bert loves the contest.
“I fail to understand,” he says, “how a fish with a brain the size of a pea can outsmart me time after time.”
Still, he’s hooked bonefish in the Caribbean, salmon in New Brunswick, and rainbow trout in Montana with dedicated skill – precise and calculated casting, then waiting patiently but queued for the split second a fish bites, hooking the fish, letting it play, reeling it in, letting it run, reeling it in.
Nature delivered humbling lessons in patience, perseverance and adaptability.
And the creation of LINC required all three of those virtues, and more.
He began assembling an experienced and diverse team of original commissioners, including Rosemary Smith Lowe, Herman Johnson, Adele Hall, SuEllen Fried, Anita Gorman, Jack Craft, Oscar Tshibanda and Landon Rowland.
LINC hired Gayle Hobbs to be its executive director, who’d formerly worked the Capitol halls in Jefferson City with the state’s Division of Youth Services.
They went into the community to sell the idea of an intermediary non-governmental organization that was dedicated to listening and learning the specific needs of unique communities and making state resources work for them.
“We met a lot of skepticism and got a lot of negative questions,” Bert recalled. Neighborhood associations and their leaders had seen too many well-intentioned groups come and go with failed, prescriptive plans to help.
LINC proved itself different.
When President Bill Clinton set out during his first term on a federal effort to create welfare-to-work programs, his model was already at work right here in Kansas City.
LINC’s collaboration with the state Department of Social Services and the local Full Employment Council was breaking new ground in putting together case management to help train both welfare recipients and participating employers to make job placements stick.
This Kansas City effort also created an innovative system to allow newly working parents to keep childcare benefits and other supports that welfare-to-work families historically had lost when parents secured jobs.
LINC was fulfilling the mission Bert had described in the commission’s first meeting in 1992 — to think beyond demonstration projects that spent grant funds, earned pats on the back, then faded away.
“What we want to do,” he said, “is change the system.” And the way to do that was to listen to — and trust — each community’s residents and the workers on the ground and concentrate on reforms with outcomes.
And move with urgency.
“Ready. Fire! Aim,” he said that night. Do the research with the community. Make a plan and take action. Then assess and adapt as you go. Keep the work moving and don’t get lost in the typical bureaucratic function of committees and reviews that waste precious time.
Clinton came to Kansas City in 1994 and 1995 to tout his welfare-to-work movement, using Kansas City as a teaching and motivating model.
The work of system change never was a popularity contest, Bert said. LINC was always about the work.
But it was a good moment, Bert said in an interview for LINC in 2001, during Clinton’s 1994 visit as he arrived at an airport hangar, when then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan made some introductions, saying, “Mr. President, this is Bert Berkley, the founder of LINC.” And Clinton beamed, “Oh LINC! I’m so glad to see you.”
Over the next three decades, LINC continued to encompass more and more services.
It took on before- and after-school programming for the Kansas City Public Schools and other districts, connecting thousands of families to the breadth of Caring Communities services.
LINC led the legal struggle that compelled the Hospital Corporation of America to invest in charitable care after it purchased publicly funded Health Midwest, leading to the creation of today’s Health Forward Foundation, which has invested more than $360 million in community health support in Kansas City.
When COVID-19 took a disproportionately heavy toll on some of Kansas City’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, LINC rushed to make state and local partnerships to open a clinic with the Morningstar Youth and Family Life Center that resulted in more than 25,000 life-saving vaccinations and $3 million in rent and utility assistance.
Those efforts and more — unimaginable when he drew up the plans 30 years ago — are what swells Bert’s pride for LINC, the commissioners and their staff.
He’s been involved in so many boards and associations, “but LINC,” he says, “is the organization of which I am most proud.”
Not that Bert is resting much.
The latest: He’s deeply concerned about the state of reading education in America.
In December 2022 he wrote letters to the education directors of every state urging a return to dedicated instruction in phonics. Bert, through his family foundation, has endowed the University of Missouri-Kansas City with $50,000 to recognize educators doing important work in phonics.
Ralph Smith, the managing director of the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading, praised Bert as “among the fiercest and most relentless of champions” of the American literacy campaign, describing him in a word — “indefatigable.”
Almost daily, Bert’s daughter in Kansas City, Janet, and son Bill check in, either dropping by or on the phone. Bert and his daughter in Boston, Jane, talk nearly every night. Bert still enjoys hearing every day what’s happening at Tension, Bill said.
Bill said he’s also hearing frequently from friends and family that they can count on Bert to call on birthdays and anniversaries — all part of Bert’s boundless enthusiasm for life.
“There’s a zest there in everything he does,” Bill said. “He loved his work. He loves fishing. He loves family…”
Bert’s planning his annual major fly fishing excursion. His entourage of family and friends has been alerted. He’ll be 100 and back out to New Brunswick in September.
“Maybe I’ll be able to get myself into the boat,” he says. “Maybe not.”
Bet on Bert slinging his masterful cast, enjoying the contest, holding up another salmon, fully in the moment, then returning the fish home.
“I have been very fortunate through my life,” he says. “I’m grateful I have been able to work with so many wonderful people to try and make positive change.”
This story first appeared on the website of the Local Investment Commission, a nonprofit organization that works with state and local government, businesses, community and civic leaders to improve the lives of children and families in the Kansas City region. Joe Robertson is a writer for LINC.