A Rural Texas Upbringing
Berry was a migrant to the Pacific Northwest from Texas. He was born in 1919 and raised on a 160-acre farm in Ropeville, near Lubbock, with five brothers and a sister. A rural rearing during the Great Depression, he understood poverty and the terrible impact it had on good people. This early upbringing may have affected his later fiscal conservativeness and social liberalism, which made him a lifelong Democrat -- unusual in banking circles.
Following graduation from high school and a brief sojourn in Washington D.C. with a low-level job at the Federal Housing Administration, Berry began his banking career, first in Fort Worth as a general clerk and then in Lubbock.
Like so many others of the World War II generation, the war interrupted Berry’s career plans. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1941 and was sent to Ladd Field in Fairbanks, which provided a critical link in the Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease route. The Lend Lease Program enabled Russian pilots to pick up fighter planes from the United States to ferry to the Soviet Union for use in the struggle against Germany. Berry, a supply sergeant, saw more than 8,000 aircraft fly out of Ladd Field during the war.
While stationed in Alaska the young staff sergeant met an native Alaskan high school graduate from Cordova who was working on the base. A romance began, and three years later, in 1944, Claire Schroeder and Mike Berry began a 57-year life together that would eventually produce four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Back to Banking
The couple returned to Lubbock after the war, and Mike resumed his position with the bank. However, by 1947 they had moved to Olympia to be near Claire’s parents, who resettled to the “lower 48.” Berry took a job with the Seattle First National Bank branch office as a collector in the installment-credit department. Plans to pursue a college education at one of the state’s universities were dashed by the cost of out-of-state tuition.
With sights on the big city, he next became a $100-limit loan officer at Seattle First National Bank. Nine promotions later, in 1975, he became president of Seafirst, serving in this post under CEO William Jenkins until his retirement at the end of 1981.
Although Berry never earned a college degree, he was nevertheless a skilled banker. His greatest strength lay less with the numbers and more with his personal understanding of the business people the bank served and his ability to build lasting relationships with his high-end clients. He possessed boundless energy and spent much of his time in the field. He was an avid listener with a disarming personality. It seems that everyone like him.
During his tenure as bank president Berry traveled to the Soviet Union (1976) and China (1978) as part of trade delegations to stimulate exports from Washington state. He also helped found Pacific Northwest Bank (purchased by Wells Fargo, Inc. in 2003), a locally owned commercial bank originally designed to focus on the needs of smaller business concerns.
Berry’s volunteerism and commitment to his adopted community began with Seafair in 1967 and continued for the rest of his life. A Methodist, he received the national Institute of Human Relations Award for 1978 from the Seattle Chapter of the American Jewish Committee honoring him for human relations work “based on the universal recognition of the individual and the value of human dignity.”
The banker’s December 1981 retirement came in part from philosophical differences with Jenkins, who would resign his own position the following year. But retirement brought new challenges to this man with a strong work ethic and moral code. He began a financial consulting business in Seattle, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. And his volunteerism headed in a new direction.
Nuclear Power Problems
In January 1982 Berry became vice-chairman of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) executive board. He was brought onto the board as an outsider to help guide the financially troubled utility through a severe crisis during construction of its five nuclear power generating plants in Washington state. The presence of outside directors was mandated by the state legislature to help oversee day-to-day supervision of the massive nuclear program. He was one of four such outsiders to join the executive committee.
During his first month at the WPPSS board round table, construction at Plants 4 and 5, at Hanford and Satsop, was stopped when total cost projections for the two reactors exceeded $24 billion. This forced the system to default on $2.25 billion in bonds. Construction on Plants 1 and 3 was halted, as well, leaving only one plant, near Hanford (Columbia Generating Station) to ever generate power.
Berry knew accepting this position would bring on a difficult task. He chose it over seeking public service opportunities in Washington D.C. in order to “give something back to the state” that had been so good to the migrant from Lubbock, Texas. But saving WPPSS proved an impossible, not a difficult task. Berry resigned his position in August 1983 in frustration over the board’s impasse dealing with the financial crisis. In departing he suggested the executive board and the entire board of directors be abolished and replaced by three full time directors appointed by the governor.
This frustration did not end Berry’s civic commitment to Seattle, however. Two years later, in June 1985, he was appointed to a three member ad hoc panel to mediate a lease dispute between King County and the Seattle Mariners, then owned by Southern California real estate magnate George Argyros. Argyros was threatening to break his longterm lease with the Kingdome, through Chapter 11 bankruptcy if necessary, unless significant concessions were made to assure the club’s profitability. Within a month the mediators hammered out a less stringent lease, with reduced rent provisions and an escape clause based upon low fan attendance. Argyros, an unpopular owner with the fans, sold the club in 1989.
By the time of Berry’s 80th birthday anniversary his strength was waning. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2000 and went to the operating room. Miffed that he had to share a post-operative recovery room, Berry snipped his fluid lines and walked home in the rain from Swedish hospital to his condominium on Seattle's 1st Avenue.
Along the way a sympathetic homeless man gave him an umbrella. His family returned him to the hospital the next day -- and a private room -- where he began follow-up treatment. The self-taught banker passed away nine months later, on July 2, 2001, while at home with his family He had beaten his doctor’s prediction by three months.