Alumnus remembers Sherwood Berg

Tom Lawrence Collegian Allumnus

 There was heated statewide debate about higher education in the 1970s in South Dakota. Govs. Dick Kneip and Bill Janklow; both proposed sweeping changes and met considerable resistance.

 In 1979, Janklow, in his first year in office, issued what was termed a “gag order” to university leaders. In the midst of all this, South Dakota State University’s president was giving a speech on campus, and was greeted with loud applause. It was a sign of respect, and a protest against Janklow’s heavy hand.

 The president smiled, and brought the house down with his wry response: “Not bad for an old SOB.”

 That “old SOB” was just that, but in name only: Sherwood O. Berg.

 Berg died Sunday at 94. He was SDSU’s president from 1975-84, and I was there, as a student journalist, for much of that time.

 Sherwood Olman Berg — his middle name was a popular Hobo Day question — loved SDSU and Brookings. He came to South Dakota State College, as it was then called, in 1940 after two years at the University of Minnesota.

  He played varsity basketball for the Jackrabbits, and was a class president. But as with so many other young men, World War II interrupted his education. Berg and 54 other ROTC students in the Class of 1944 — dubbed the ‘44 Kings — were called up, and Berg ended up a second lieutenant who served in the Battle of the Bulge. He earned the Bronze Star while also helping feed people as an agricultural and food officer.

     Berg retired from the Army Reserve in 1975 when he took the reins at SDSU. He always carried himself with a dignity and bearing of an officer but lightened that with a ready smile.

Berg came home and graduated with honors in 1947. He earned a master’s from Cornell and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

From 1963-73, he was UM’s dean of the Institute of Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics after leading the the university’s Department of Agricultural Economics for six years and then led the Indonesia Project of Midwest Universities Consortium for two years.

Berg was the kid from Hendrum, Minn., who helped run the farm after his dad died, but he had a long interest in other nations. In the 1950s, he had served as an agricultural attaché to Yugoslavia, Norway and Denmark. President Lyndon Johnson named him National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber chairman in 1965.

Berg was even was considered for secretary of agriculture at one point by President Richard Nixon, but he wasn’t exactly a fan of Nixon and had his eye on Brookings instead.

His decade at SDSU’s helm was noted for battles over the budget and a proposed single-university system. But enrollment grew steadily, outreach programs to other nations, including Syria, Botswana, Senegal, and Mauritanian were forged, and he was very popular on campus. 

SDSU twice honored its former president, naming a residence hall for him in 1994; I covered the dedication. In 2011, the main Ag building was renamed the Sherwood O. and Elizabeth A. Berg Agricultural Hall, and the dorm was later renamed. Agriculture was closer to his heart, so it was a wise choice.

I got to know him a bit better in the 1990s, and his son Brad told me several stories about his dad, whom friends called “Woody.”

 He might have been an old SOB, but he wasn’t a dumb one. He will be greatly missed. 



Brookings native Tom Lawrence was a Collegian reporter and editor from 1978-1982