Gerald Berry came to Starkville in the mid-1960s to study anthropology and became a legend.
Depending on who you ask he also became a “landmark,” “master conversationalist,” “superb teacher,” “expert photographer” and “barfly.”
A man whose life and personality led to that many descriptions will have stories floating around him forever. And the Mississippi State University community has stories on Berry.
Here is a true one: A Starkville bar owner once carried a life insurance policy on Berry so that when he died he could, in Berry’s owns words, “pay my tab on the way out.”
Berry died Wednesday. He was 66.
His brother, James Berry, said the cause of death was a heart attack, which Gerald Berry suffered while checking in at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson.
The life insurance policy Daniel Holland, who owned Cheers, had on Berry expired around the time the establishment closed in 2005. Asked Thursday what he would miss about his longtime customer and dear friend, Holland cleared his throat and said, “Everything.”
During his life, Berry was hard to miss.
He was a smiling, short man in flannel with a long, ZZ Top-style white beard who always wore a MSU cap. For nearly five decades he could be spotted riding a bicycle around Starkville. He never had a car.
Recently, as his health failed and his balance wasn’t so good, Berry had discarded the bicycle and walked everywhere. His most common destinations: the Mitchell Memorial Library at MSU and any Starkville bar.
At the library he read and napped. At the bars he drank Budweisers.
He always had a camera with him.
Like many things about Berry, how he came to be a devoted photographer was a mystery. His brother had no clue.
“I don’t know anyone who knew him really well,” Mark Goodman, a professor of communication at MSU, said. “I mean, everyone knew Gerald, but not real well.”
He was a Delta native from Lyon. His father was a farmer. He had a big family but only went home around Christmas time.
“I would say folks in Starkville knew him about as well as we did,” James Berry said.
As an undergraduate at MSU, Berry became something of a radical and nonconformist. He grew his trademark beard and began a lifelong dislike for bureaucracy. That attitude stuck with him throughout his life.
He graduated in 1970 and in the late 1980s began teaching photography in the school’s communication department.
Goodman, a fellow photographer, was Berry’s colleague at the school for a decade. He described Berry as “a fine teacher” beloved by students. This was in the era that pre-dated digital cameras and Goodman said Berry was an artist. He had a rare gift to “capture the essence of people” in his photography, Goodman said.
“His ability to capture people in context as well as he could is something I wish I could do,” Goodman said.
There were unconfirmed rumors that Berry’s evenings spent at local watering holes rubbed university administration the wrong way. Following the 2002 spring semester, his teaching contract was not renewed.
He spent his last decade bouncing around Starkville and became a Cotton District cult figure. He was always supporting local artists, saddling up at bars telling stories and writing obscure sports statistics on notecards he kept in his pockets.
He never met a stranger. He never stopped taking photographs.
A devoted fan of MSU sports, when the Bulldogs had home football games on fall Saturdays and Berry walked through The Junction, crowds would “erupt” when they saw him coming, said Andy Thornton, general manager at Bin 612.
“He was as popular as Dan Mullen,” Thornton said. “He was like part of the family.”
When not at Bin 612, Berry would be at another of his favorite haunts, STAGgerIN Sports Grill.
Jason Roden, who owns that bar, admitted that Berry sometimes displayed eccentric behavior — he sometimes fell asleep in public and could be loud in his opinions. But, Roden said, “he was a breath of fresh air.”
“He was a perfect, imperfect person and he loved Starkville,” he said. “I’m just glad I called him a friend.”
Roden said he is thinking about permanently gluing a Budweiser bottle to the STAGgerIN bar in honor of Berry.
For Donna Echols, a Starkville native and MSU grad who now works as a lobbyist in Jackson, Berry will always be remembered as a local icon with a “timeless,” cheery disposition who photographed generations of MSU students.
“You never saw Gerald without a smile on his face and he took pictures of everyone else’s smiles,” Echols said. “He photographed life.”
Berry, a lifelong bachelor with no children, maintained a website about his photography. Of his passion, he wrote:
“I enjoy photographing a great variety of things, but my favorite subject matter is flowers.”
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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