Bruce Berney, who was credited with taking crucial steps to preserve Astoria’s history and to establish a professional library, died on Monday of coronavirus-related complications, his family said.
Berney, 85, served as director of the Astoria Library for 30 years before his retirement in 1997.
His health had been declining for several years, according to his family. They have not received an official cause of death yet, but Berney, who had recently moved to an assisted living facility in Portland, was hospitalized because of the virus.
During his time in Astoria, Berney was active in numerous community organizations, including the Clatsop County Historical Society and the Kiwanis Club.
With his mother, Vera Gault, and his wife, Kristina, he restored several Victorian houses and encouraged the preservation of others. He served as the city’s historic preservation officer and also founded the Friends of MacDonald, an international organization honoring Ranald MacDonald, the Astoria man who was the first English teacher in Japan.
As library director, Berney grew the library’s collection of historic books and documents. One triumph was securing first edition copies of the Lewis and Clark journals.
Berney played a major role in developing, refining and expanding a variety of archives, indexes and inventories that today allow people to delve into Astoria’s history.
“There isn’t anyone who has done more for preserving local history and awakening the public’s awareness of the history in our houses,” Liisa Penner, the historical society’s archivist, wrote in a letter to Berney’s son, Steven.
“There were people interested in different aspects of our history, but he was the one who put it all together in the newspaper index and the historical society’s archives that made it possible for anyone with an interest in history to be able to find the sources they need.”
Berney’s expanded index of newspaper archives — housed at the library and completed with the help of volunteers — remains “the single most important resource for doing any history or family research in Clatsop County,” Penner told The Astorian.
He preserved letters from prominent families and legal documents that describe Astoria over the decades — items that were stored in the library basement and are now being sorted and catalogued by local historian and preservationist John Goodenberger.
Though Berney was born in Walla Walla, Washington, his passion for Astoria’s history “just seemed like it was in his blood,” said Goodenberger, who, as a child, lived across the street from the Berney family.
Goodenberger later helped Berney as he developed an inventory of many historic homes on Astoria’s North Slope.
Today, Goodenberger is a go-to resource for historical information and context about Astoria’s past. But Berney and his mother were the people who helped him begin to understand the city’s story when he was a boy and, later, take what he was learning as a college student in architecture school to another level.
Berney and his mother restored a Victorian home together in Astoria. Berney would go on to restore two more houses with his family while Gault wrote a walking tour guide to the city’s historic homes.
Berney’s daughter, Laura Boughton, remembers being enlisted as child to assist with tours. She would be assigned a room or an area of the house to give a talk about when people came by.
“It was just part of the water we were swimming in,” she said.
She and her brothers, Mark and Steven, believe their father saw the potential to delve deeper into Astoria’s history before many others did — an interest and a foresight that helped grow the city’s tourism industry.
“It became bigger than anybody could have imagined,” Boughton said.
Love of history
In the years before he came to Astoria, Berney served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, pursued a master’s degree in education and taught English for two years in Japan before earning a master’s degree in librarianship. He became director of the Astoria Library in 1967.
“Bruce understood the true meaning of history and its role in our lives,” said Jimmy Pearson, the library director, who shares Berney’s love of history. “Understanding our past provides us with the foundation to create a better present and future for ourselves and generations yet to come.”
The Astoria Library is particularly rich in local history resources thanks to Berney, Pearson said. In 2018, Pearson advocated for the library’s collection of Astoria-specific books and historical documents, the Astoriana Collection, to be renamed the Bruce Berney Archives.
Berney visited McAndrew Burns, the executive director of the historical society, during Burns’ first week on the job 17 years ago and drove him around town. It was Burns’ introduction to the history of Astoria. Burns said the older man’s knowledge and passion helped build his own confidence in making decisions about what was important to Astorians.
When city officials pursued a campaign to tear down many of Astoria’s old buildings and homes in the 1960s and ’70s, Berney was critical to stopping them, Goodenberger said. He continued this work into the following decades, as well.
Goodenberger remembers nighttime journeys with Berney when they went “like missionaries” to houses that had been put on the city’s demolition list. Berney wanted to speak with the owners, make sure they realized the house was on the list, talk to them about the historic significance of the house and ask if they had plans to fix it up.
Berney convinced the city to reverse course in several instances. He also had a way of slowing down difficult or fraught discussions.
“That slowness would allow people to cool off and they realized what they were upset about was maybe not really worth it and he’ll take care of it,” Goodenberger recalled. “He was willing to stand up for what he believed in.”
Goodenberger was among the volunteers Berney assembled to work on an inventory of property data. They photographed historic homes, wrote architectural descriptions and recorded what they could discover about the people who had lived there.
Years later, Goodenberger and others would refine and further flesh out these narratives to help establish Astoria’s historic districts.
“But we used (Berney’s inventories) as the basis,” Goodenberger said. “We’d probably still be working if Bruce hadn’t done that.”
‘A dry, Lutheran humor’
People also remember Berney for his thoughtfulness and his humor — “a dry, Lutheran humor,” Goodenberger said. “He loved words and he loved wordplay.”
At one point, Pearson acquired several items that had belonged to Berney in an estate sale, including a pen set that appeared in photos of Berney at his desk.
When Berney happened to stop by the library one day, Pearson asked if he wanted the pen set back.
No, Berney said, then added, “Do you want my shoes, too?”
Berney’s children say he was an engaged and positive father.
“The fact that he was able to be director of the library, restore all those homes, participate in all these events and meetings while still making time to give his kids attention … being a father myself now, I have no idea how he was able to juggle all those different things,” Steven Berney said.
Mark Berney hopes his father will be remembered as a man committed to service, community and family.
“He wasn’t just chasing a career,” Mark Berney said.
His sister agreed.
“He truly believed and lived his belief in service to the community,” she said.