Eugene Alfred Berg

WESTBROOK – Eugene Alfred Berg, 77, of Westbrook, passed away the morning of Jan. 11, 2022. Gene (“Skip” to family) was born on August 22, 1944 at the Richardson House in Boston, the son of Eugene and “Gini” Virginia Alice (DeNormandie) Berg. He grew up in South Portland, Scarborough, then Westbrook, the oldest of the six Berg siblings.

As a young man and throughout his life, Gene felt that if you claimed to believe something, then you should support it with your actions. After graduating from Cheverus High, he spent three years in seminary before choosing a different path to support his values. The traits by which he is so well remembered – kindness to all, good cheer and humor, thoughtful integrity, and a twinkle in his eye – led him to his life’s work as an educator. On his way, his love for family and friends, his passion for music, art, and literature, his curiosity about people and the world, and his desire to serve his community and those he loved, made for a rich and beautiful life.

It was at one of his mother’s variety shows at St. Mary’s Church in Westbrook that Gene, backstage with a banjo, met his future wife, Claire Giguere of Gorham, as she performed with her folk trio “The Windbuyers”. The couple married in 1972, and their mutual adoration – so apparent to all who knew them – only grew over their more-than 50 years together.

In 1968, during the Vietnam War, Gene was drafted into the army. He petitioned for, and eventually obtained, status as a conscientious objector. During this turbulent period, he obtained a B.A. in English from the University of Southern Maine, then an M.A. in Teaching from the University of Maine.

In 1970 Gene became a founding faculty member at Skitikuk, an alternative pre-K through 12 school in Orono. Students remember how Gene taught using games and musical story telling, making math fun and comprehensible. He was the main lyricist for the school’s unique annual musicals, in which he also acted, and a frequent cartoonist for the school’s weekly newspaper, The Intensement. Gene fondly recalled the camaraderie and “good ol’ days” at Skitikuk, including the unique challenges of teaching at a “hippie” school – such as the time Raymond the school goat ate the school’s quarterly financial paperwork.

In 1976, Gene and Claire moved from Orono to Westbrook to be closer to their families, and Gene became teaching principal for the George C. Soule School in Freeport. The Soule program and community would become Gene’s life work, and he stayed with the Soule program until his retirement in 2005.

At Soule, Gene championed a progressive approach that promoted personal choice and responsibility, creativity and curiosity. Under Gene’s wise leadership, the Soule experience was transformative for so many students. Soule School was a family, and a happy place, where teachers were as enthusiastic as the kids. The program morphed over many years, but Gene’s commitment to kids and their highest good never wavered. Gene will be remembered for his kind, friendly style, leading Big Meeting with his guitar and all the favorite Soule School songs “Jailhouse Window”, “The Battle of New Orleans”, “Leroy Brown”….

After retirement in 2005, Gene contributed to the community in many ways. For 13 years he was a volunteer member for Maine Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board, a government-mandated group to oversee biomedical research. He was a committed and conscientious member, devoted to the board’s mission to protect people who volunteer for research studies. He also volunteered at Westbrook’s food pantry and My Place Teen Center. In addition, he worked for the U.S. Census in 2009-2010.

Love of music was a constant Gene shared with those in his life: singing perfect Everly Brothers’ harmonies with Claire, cranking WBLM with daughters Emily and Bessie on the morning drive to school, re-writing song lyrics to celebrate friends’ birthdays, and of course leading family hootenannies and school sing-alongs with his Martin guitar. He played in bands ranging from Psychedelic Syndrome to Tin Ceiling to Cool Water, idolized the Beatles as well as Chopin. Even in his last several years when life with Alzheimer’s became progressively more difficult, music continued to connect him directly with love and joy and family and friends, and made for many shared happy moments. In Gene’s own words (from a writing course he took in 2000): “The first things I learned from music – about love, comfort, connecting – these continue. The cheerful, irreverent, whole-hearted dining-hall singing of summer camp stays with me, and is a model for the spirit I want to support in my school. Through music I’ve met addicts and frat boys, priests and intellectuals, best men and brides and grooms, political organizers and Portland’s well-to-do, Portland’s urban poor, Buxton’s rural poor, and the love of my life. Music connected me with all of these people in some way, and has greatly influenced my life.”

He was a voracious reader and could tear up from happiness upon reading James Joyce or Dr. Seuss.

Gene was a devoted, loving, thoughtful, and FUN dad – the kind who made pancakes shaped like animals, invented (and illustrated) magical stories, mowed the lawn into a croquet course, initiated adventure walks, curated family mix tapes, delightedly attended high school marching band competitions in freezing temperatures, and always renewed his daughters’ AAA memberships.

In the words of his lifelong friend, Bob Noonan, “He was a unique combination of a child at heart and an unusually mature, compassionate, perceptive man.”

Gene is survived by his loving wife Claire; his two adoring daughters Emily Berg and Bess (Berg) Jacques (and Tom); his beloved siblings Valerie Strehlke, Ray Berg (and Louise), Christine Berg, Pete Berg (and Pat), and Tom Berg (and Khanh); and many dear nieces and nephews.

The family extends special heartfelt thanks to the staff at the Adult Day Program at the Barron Center and the staff at Piper Shores’ Holbrook Center.

Gene’s remains were cremated, and there will be a Celebration of Life with family and friends when the weather is warm. He will be profoundly missed.

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