When state Senator Frederick E. Berry decided to retire at the end of this year, the Democratic majority leader did not make his announcement on the grand staircase that leads to his well-appointed office on the third floor of the State House.
He chose the ballroom of a Route 1 hotel in his hometown of Peabody, where last November he hosted “Thanks Giving . . . A Berry Special Event,” a charitable gala to raise money for food programs in Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Salem, and Topsfield, the communities of the Second Essex District he has represented for 30 years.
It was a fitting scene for Berry to announce his retirement from politics. Over his career, Berry has spent as much time raising money for nonprofits as he did for his campaigns.
“I felt I could use my notoriety to help others,” Berry, 62, said during an interview at his Senate office. “Nonprofits always need money, but never have the time to raise it. . . . To be honest, it hurt fund-raising for my campaigns. People said, ‘I already gave to Fred.’ ”
Berry’s empathy for people in need reflects a life of personal struggle.
He was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that impairs his speech and mobility. In recent years, he’s used a wheelchair. While he was growing up, there were few state services or resources to help his parents, a grocer and a homemaker who had four children.
“I had to rely on the goodness of others,” he said.
His charity, in turn, often focused on children’s causes. He named a scholarship for middle schoolers in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, a political hero. “I wanted to recognize kids who were civic-minded,” Berry said.
Berry attended public and Catholic elementary schools. But in the sixth grade he transferred to the Massachusetts Hospital School, a residential school for disabled children in Canton. He returned to Peabody to graduate from Bishop Fenwick High School before attending Boston College, earning a business degree in 1972.
He joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps now called AmericaCorps, and was assigned to Corpus Christi, Texas. He worked at blood banks, homeless shelters, and other nonprofits. His pay was $96 every two weeks.
“At that time, we all had a desire to change the world,” Berry said of the early 1970s. “I wanted to see, and learn, about helping people out of poverty.”
He earned a master’s degree in education from Antioch College in Ohio, and then returned to Peabody. He worked in vocational training programs for the disabled, and was elected for two terms as a city councilor-at-large. In 1982, Berry won a five-way Democratic primary for the Second Essex Senate seat.
He recalled a tough campaign, where he was the only candidate to express a pro-choice stance on abortion rights. “I just believed in it,” Berry said. “The most influential people in my life were women, my mother, my sisters.”
The Fred Berry Charitable Foundation, a private nonprofit he established after his election in 1982, has raised over $1 million to help food pantries, homeless shelters, educational programs, and other human service agencies. An annual golf tournament and special events have raised most of the money.
“Fred recognized early on that the resources nonprofits could get from government were going to be limited,” said Jerry McCarthy, executive director of Northeast Arc, a Danvers agency providing services for people with disabilities. “He knew he could be helpful raising money in the private sector to help some of us out.”
On Sept. 13, a tribute dinner for Berry at the Danversport Yacht Club will raise money for his foundation. Tickets are sold out. Proceeds will be used to help local food programs in his district buy equipment. Berry also has been working with the programs to equip their websites for online giving. Hunger awareness became a priority for Berry’s charity after the recession hit in 2008.
With people losing their jobs and homes, demand at pantries spiked. Berry organized a food drive in a movie theater parking lot in Danvers, and also issued a challenge to municipal leaders in his district to collect food or funds for pantries in their community.
“I felt it would be good for the mayors, and other community leaders, to really understand the needs these groups were facing,” Berry said. “I felt we could all be a great help to the community.”
Berry and his wife, the former Gayle Lotito, run the charity from their Peabody home. “We would find out quickly that the need was more than we could keep up with,” he said.
Human service leaders appreciate Berry’s help.
“His voice booms a little louder than the rest of ours,” said Sue Gabriel, executive director of Beverly Bootstraps, a nonprofit human service agency that runs a food pantry. “He meets with us, to learn about our needs. Then he communicates to the general public about it, and people listen.”
Alyse Barbash, director of Haven From Hunger in Peabody, said Berry’s interest is not about politics. “He really cares about what happens to people in downtown Peabody and Salem,” she said, referencing her service area. “He’s genuine, he’s warm, and he’s approachable.”
Berry is a stepfather to a son and daughter, while another stepdaughter died. His spacious Senate office is decorated with family photos, most notably his step-grandchildren, Jazmin and Jackson Frederick.
“I am lucky to have a wonderful family,” he said, a smile stretched across his face. “And my staff has been tremendous, too.”
Berry’s path to Beacon Hill power broker was hardly certain. Some critics said his disability would put him at a disadvantage. Others questioned if he could survive the rough-and-tumble politics. Still others predicted the disability would claim his life. “People were saying ‘Fred will probably die in office,’ ” he said. “A lot of people thought I had MS [multiple sclerosis]. They said I would last one or two terms.”
He was elected to 15 consecutive two-year terms under six governors and four Senate presidents. He served as assistant majority whip, majority whip, and as vice chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, which exerts significant control over the state budget.
“I never wanted to be seen as the senator who only worked on disabled issues,” he said. “I knew if I could show [legislative leaders] that I could be a team player, I could get things done.”
Human services, health care, and education were among his priorities. He played key roles in the expansion of Salem State University and North Shore Community College in Danvers, where the main building is named for him. More recently, he steered a bill through the Legislature to allow construction of a regional vocational technical high school on the Danvers-Middleton line.
In January, after Berry retires as the Senate’s longest-serving member, he plans to work as a consultant at Work Inc., a Boston nonprofit that provides job opportunities for people with disabilities. He has endorsed Salem City Councilor Joan B. Lovely as his successor.
“I always said I wanted to be here 30 years,” Berry said, smiling. “What else could I accomplish?”