On Wed. May 3, a memorial tree dedication and plaque unveiling ceremony was held to honor beloved Newman professor and friend Suzanne Berg.
In February 2018, Berg died at just 36 years old. The news came as a campus-wide shock to those who knew her as a professor, co-worker, advisor and friend, but rippled far beyond the Newman community. Berg was also a beloved daughter, wife, mother of two young children and friend to many.
Associate Professor of English Susan Crane-Laracuente, Ph.D., organized the memorial tree and plaque dedication ceremony. Around 50 guests were in attendance on-site, while others watched the ceremony virtually. Students, faculty and friends gathered around the redbud tree planted outside of the Dugan Library and were invited to share memories and reflections of Berg, and also tie purple yarn to the tree in her honor.
“She was the embodiment of our mission: empowering students to transform society,” Professor of Communication Audrey Hane, Ph.D., said. “She was an outstanding role model because she, herself, was a transformer, tirelessly working to support marginalized students and the important societal causes they championed.”
She added, “Not only did she impact students, but she made me a better professor through her example.”
In addition to Hane’s remarks, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Kristi Barton Edwards and Director of Theatre Mark Mannette shared their tributes in knowing Berg as a co-worker and friend. Newman alumnae Emily Larkin, Ariana Esparza and Amy Emerson all shared reflections about their experiences with Berg as a professor.
“I had goosebumps multiple times while listening to former students share the impact Dr. Berg had on them,” Hane said. “I enjoyed listening to them recount the wisdom she shared and the life guidance she offered.”
Berg was gifted in helping students feel comfortable sharing their challenges and insecurities, Hane added. “She met them where they were in order to encourage and inspire them on their personal journeys.”
The Gardening Club Board led the ribbon-cutting and unveiled the solid bronze memorial plaque, complete with a photo of Berg. Father Adam Grelinger, Newman University chaplain, blessed the tree. Participants were invited to take a flower and tie purple remembrance yarn on the tree’s branches in honor of Berg.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to have known Dr. Berg as a mentor and a professor while she was alive,” Larkin, class of 2020, said. “With every class that graduates, I see fewer students who know of her legacy on campus, so this tree and plaque mean everything in preserving her memory and her place here on campus for so many years to come.”
Making the Memorial
Those who knew Berg described her as “passionate,” “committed,” “fierce,” “lovely” and “an advocate.” Touched by the impact Berg left on them, the community pooled their efforts to ensure that her legacy lived on.
“Dr. Crane, the other executive board members, and myself decided on a tree in a location to honor Dr. Berg,” Micah VanderGriend, former vice president of Gardening Club, said. “We were very meticulous in our search, ensuring that the tree we picked was her favorite color purple, and that it could survive the erratic weather of Kansas. Thanks to Dr. Crane’s extensive background in botany, we ultimately decided on planting a redbud tree in honor of Dr. Berg.”
As for the location, the students selected an area outside of the Dugan Library both because it was Berg’s favorite Newman spot, and so that “all would be able to remember Dr. Berg while visiting the campus.”
Students VanderGriend and Samantha Rader composed and presented a bill to the Student Government Association (SGA) to plant a tree in honor of Berg. Student Dania Jump worked with Lee Reed Engraving to design a bronze plaque to be placed in front of the tree.
In spring 2020, a few Gardening Club members spent an afternoon planting the redbud tree. Digging into clay-filled soil posed a challenge, however “the difficult process was well worth the time and energy,” VanderGriend said.
“The tree, a purple redbud, is a living memorial,” Crane-Laracuente said. “The plaque is an accompanying reminder of Suzanne’s life and the life she brought to campus with her each day in her steady devotion to the people of this place.”
With the redbud tree planted firmly in place, Paco Gonzalez and Darrin McKim of the Newman Facilities Management team installed the final step of the project: the cement mount for the bronze plaque.
“I’m overjoyed that even with the limitations of the pandemic, a ceremony was held in memorial of Dr. Berg,” VanderGriend said. “I am honored to have been a part of creating her memorial garden, and I am deeply saddened that I was unable to meet Dr. Berg during my time on campus. However while I was on campus, I had heard wonderful stories about her kindness, fun loving attitude and her energy.”