by Patrick O'Neill
When James Fant Berry died, the Earth lost one of its best friends.
That's what friends and political activists said about Berry, a war hero turned environmentalist who died Sept. 6 following complications from a stroke.
On Sept. 11, more than 200 family members and friends turned out to pay tribute to Berry during a memorial service and mass at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi.
Berry, 80, was remembered for his kindness toward the poor and his passionate support for environmental causes.
"He would stand up at a meeting and say, 'I speak for the earth,'" said the Rev. Charles Mulholland, who delivered Berry's eulogy. "It was our awareness of his goodness and integrity that insisted that we hear him, not dismiss him."
Berry's life went full circle, from decorated World War II combat veteran to demonstrations against the military at Goldsboro's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Berry was born in Greensboro on April 11, 1917. He attended Mount St. Mary's Academy in Emmitsburg, MD and the College of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN. After graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1940, Berry entered the Army Air Corps. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a B-17 squadron commander in World War II.
Berry retired from the Air Force in 1968 with the rank of colonel. He was a veteran of three wars. Soon afterwards he became interested in labor and environmental issues. In the 1980s he regularly joined peace demonstrations in Goldsboro and at the Pentagon, said Fr. Mulholland, Berry's best friend.
At Pentagon demonstrations Berry would meet his former military colleagues.
Berry never acted as if he "considered that it might be embarrassing for him to be associated with us," Fr. Mulholland said.
Founder of the Raleigh-based Center for Reflection on the Second Law, Berry espoused a philosophy that the Earth's resources are finite and that all life forms must be respected and nurtured.
Berry often quoted the work of his brother, the Rev. Thomas Berry, a renowned author and priest who concelebrated at the memorial service that included comments from the Rev. W.W. Finlator, pastor emeritus of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and Sr. Evelyn Mattern, program director for the NC Council of Churches. The Very Rev. Gerald Lewis, a representative of Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, also spoke.
Mattern said Berry and his wife of 54 years, Mary Berry, would offer space in their North Raleigh home to men being released from prison.
"Jim picked up hitchhikers and he stayed in touch with them," Mattern said, "and he seemed to learn from people like that."
Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth and The Universe Story, said he grew to appreciate his brother more and more for "his nobility of soul." Thomas said his brother had "a great sense of home," both the home of his family and an appreciation of the Earth as home.
"Earth is a mystical presence, an illuminary presence, a sacred presence," Thomas Berry said, "that's the way divinity works. We return to our mother the Earth."
Berry was noted for his baritone voice that boomed loudly when he would make an emotional point. He frequently railed against the corporations that he accused of being "committed to death."
"Stop going to the store," Berry said in a 1992 speech, "Don't buy anything. They're telling the children to buy, buy, buy. You're a shopper. Essentially your function in life is to go to the store and buy stuff. Indulge yourself.
". . . The thing to do is to take as little from the Earth as we can. That's the right thing to do."
In an interview in The Chapel Hill News, environmentalist Mark Marcoplos called Berry "an unrelenting defender of the Earth. You knew he was for real," Marcoplos said. "He just really had soul about it all."
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