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Helen Berg, Corvallis' first woman mayor, dies at 78

Helen Berg, Corvallis' first woman mayor, dies at 78

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Corvallis' first woman mayor, the first to have been married to a former mayor and its longest-serving mayor died Friday in Portland.

Helen Berg, 78, was a retired Oregon State University statistician who knew both the cost of city government - and how to cut through jargon and red tape to put a human light on the complex issues of politics and governance.

But even when it meant listening to lengthy repetition of the public testimony on contentious matters such as approving the location of a Home Depot in Corvallis - or cutting down trees to make way for riverfront improvements - Berg believed in letting people have their say.

"We are the squeaky wheel capital of the world," she once said, with a note of pride, about Corvallis' attitude toward public participation.

But when Howland Plaza at Riverfront Commemorative Park finally was dedicated in May of 2004, she noted, "We've designed and debated every square foot of it; some of it twice. Now we have a park that everybody likes."

She also believed it was never the wrong time to do the right thing, or too late to begin again.

Berg earned her master's degree in statistics from OSU in 1973, when she was in her 40s. She then became the director of OSU's Survey Research Center in 1975 and worked there until she retired in 1993.

Long active in civic affairs such as the Monroe Avenue improvement project for the strip between campus and downtown, she had a close look at city politics during the public service of her third husband, OSU forestry professor Alan Berg. He served on the City Council from 1973 to 1978 and then two terms as mayor, from 1979 to 1986.

The couple was married in 1983; Alan Berg died only six years later, in 1989.

Helen Berg kept his legacy of leadership alive. She sought election to the council and served from 1991 through 1994. In a 1994 article about her decision to seek the mayor's job at the age of 62, Berg said: "I think city government is very important; Good government can really improve people's quality of life."

Former Corvallis Mayor Charles Vars said Monday that he'd known Berg since the late 1970s, when as an OSU economist he turned to her for help with projects.

"Both (she and Alan) served as presidents of the League of Oregon Cities (as well as on the council and as mayors). Nobody was as focused on enhancing community livability for everyone. She worried about doing well, not just in good land-use planning but even more in terms of applying social services to the disadvantaged."

Vars said that he urged Berg to run for mayor - and he was never sorry. (See sidebar, Berg highlights in office).

Mayor Charles Tomlinson, who lost to Berg in the 2002 election, succeeded her after she retired at the end of 2006. He was generous with his praise Monday.

"She was a grand lady," Tomlinson said. "She worked really hard for this community, she loved this community, and we'll miss her."

City Manager Jon Nelson, who was hired during Berg's time in office, said Monday that she had the talent for being magnanimous and generous with her public life - but was intensely private about her family and personal life.

Nobody knew whether her health had anything to do with Berg's decision not to seek another term in office as mayor. In a December 2006 interview looking back over her term in office, she declined to discuss her future plans.

But soon after leaving office, Berg also left Corvallis. She moved to Portland in early 2007 to be closer to her family.

The ailment that claimed her life - mesothelioma - is a rare cancer of the lining that covers the body's internal organs. It is most often associated with exposure during someone's lifetime to asbestos. But it can lie dormant and and flare up years after that initial exposure.

Nelson said that Berg's son called to inform him Friday and gave an OK to release the news to the public. However, details of all funeral arrangements are private.

City officials are now considering a public memorial service to be given in Berg's honor, with details to be released as they become available.


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