Obituary & Remembrances

Maribeth Berg

I met Rena 32 years ago. She and Gus were at Purdue at the time. I had recently received my bachelor's degree in liberal arts, and I had only the highly-marketable job skill of pizza waitress. So I felt incredibly lucky to be hired as the secretary for a wonderful group of creative and wacky people in the Medical Illustration Unit of Purdue University's Veterinary School. Rena was working in that group as a graphic artist. She and another artist shared a small office with me in the basement of the Veterinary School. We were so squeezed for space that if I rolled my chair back from my desk, I bumped into Rena's drafting table. I guess it's a good thing that we hit it off right away.

I loved watching Rena work, using Rapidograph pens and drafting tools and all kinds of art supplies I never knew even existed. She was a perfectionist in her work. I can still see her shaking her bottle of white-out, as she prepared to correct even the tiniest blip when her pen went astray. And she ruined me! To this day, I cannot look at a piece of matted art without scrutinizing the cutting of those right-angles of the matte that frame the picture. Rena believed in perfectly cut mattes. Anything less was unacceptable!

When I met Rena, she had already begun to explore feminism. I read my first Ms. magazine when she lent me hers. I watched in awe as she politely corrected anyone who dared to refer to use as "girls," giving them a quick education in the power of words. She introduced me to the writings of Gloria Steinham, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer.

We had both been brought up in traditional, conservative Midwestern families—Dad worked, Mom took care of home and the kids. Rena opened my eyes—there were other possibilities! We were in Indiana, in the middle of cornfields--not exactly a hot bed of feminist activism. So we held our own consciousness-raising sessions across the coffee table in her living room, just the two of us. I was single and childless then. I didn't appreciate the "magic" it took for Rena to make Gus and Bruce disappear, for hours at a time, while we talked, shared, and challenged the expectations we'd inherited from our upbringings. And in those early years, we forged the most powerful friendship I've ever experienced.

Rena was instrumental in so many other changes in my life. Once, she dragged me to a graduate student party that she and Gus were attending. There I met my future husband. When Rena noticed that we were hitting it off, she quickly circulated through the crowd and invited everyone over to their house the next night, so she could be sure that Jim and I would be thrown together again.

She introduced me to bluegrass music. Jim and I would go with her and Gus to a local restaurant/club that had live bluegrass bands, and we would sit up front by the stage, enjoying the music, and talking to the band members during their breaks. Rena even took banjo lessons for a while.

Rena was one of my biggest supporters when I decided —with a lot of apprehension—to tackle an MBA degree at a time when it was still a program dominated by men. And when—at the age of 40—I decided I was finally ready to be a mom, she and Gus wrote wonderful reference letters for us—twice—so that we could adopt our two beautiful daughters.

The past ten years have been far too busy. I had two young children, I switched careers, and my elderly parents came to live with us. Rena was incredibly busy too, getting involved with the community here in New Brunswick and rediscovering her fine arts roots. Rena and I didn't talk as often as we once did, we didn't see each other as often as we once did, but the bond between us was always strong. I could pick up the phone after months of being out of touch, and we could still talk and talk, like no time had passed at all.

Rena was the most amazing woman I have ever known. I am so grateful that she was a part of my life. She was my best friend; she was my sister.