Dr. Costan W. Berard 1932 – 2013
In Central Africa — I learned this when I traveled to Uganda for the NIH — the Bantu people have a saying when a person passes away. They don’t say “he died,” or “he is dead.” They say “he stopped.” — Cos Berard
If he had been born in his father’s home town of Monteferrante — a little mountain village high above the Adriatic coast of Italy — his birth certificate would have read “Costantino Berardinelli” just like his dad. Instead, “Costan Berard” was born in Cranston, NJ, just outside of Newark, the last of four children. His mother, Frances Coma (changed to “Comer” when her family arrived in the US), was widowed when Cos was only three years old, and after that she was busy running the family lumberyard business and Cos was raised by his sister Claire. The family knew him as J.R. (and the “Uncle June” similarities don’t stop there…)
Cos’s intellect was a 250 watt bulb in his small house: it was apparent immediately and could not be hidden. He earned a scholarship to a local prep school (Pingry), and then went on to Princeton where he graduated first in his class. He applied to Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School and told his roommate that he would attend which ever school accepted him first. He was accepted to both, but later admitted to a son-in-law that he felt he could “do more good” as a doctor than a lawyer.
Cos specialized in Pathology at Harvard Medical School and graduated in 1958. He completed his residency at the University of Rochester before being snapped up by the National Institute of Health and moving his family (new wife Susan; Alison, born in Rochester) to Bethesda, MD. Leslie was born soon after.
Cos threw himself into the newly energized public effort that would eventually be called the “War On Cancer” with an intensity that is rarely attributed to public servants, though is actually a common thread between most of them. He spent hours of every day in his basement, after work and on weekends, reviewing slides and writing papers. He became a well-known and respected world expert in hematopathology (diagnosing and treating cancer of the blood, like leukemia and lymphoma) traveling and teaching all over the world.
When Cos needed a break, he might drive to see his mechanic, Joe Cupp, and watch him work on whatever car was up on the lift. Or he would take his young girls out to the end of the Washington National Airport runway where they could listen to pilots and control tower chatter on a radio and watch these gigantic modern miracles of flight descend from the skies or lift up into them.
Cos crossed the 20 year mark in his public career just as President Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” Cos took the hint about the future direction of the NIH budget and found an eager new employer in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, just as his daughters headed off to college. His mandate was to turn St. Jude’s department of pathology into a world leader in the fight against children’s cancer, sparing no expense because Danny and Marlo Thomas would raise as much money as it took to do that. Cos was never known for his extravagance, but he still managed to fulfill his charge.
As his department began flourish, Cos developed an interest in golf, especially out at the Naval base in Millington where “the sound of freedom” could be heard every time an F-18 Hornet jet took off from the runway beside the golf course. Cos also co-founded the international Society for Hematopathology while he was in Memphis, something that energized him for the remainder of his professional career.
That career ended, as Cos had meticulously and purposefully planned, when he retired with his wife Susan to Fripp Island, SC in 1998. He enjoyed golf on the local courses, as well as on courses up and down the East Coast which he drove to visit with Susan doing cross-stitch projects in the navigator’s seat of their Honda Odyssey. A few years into his retirement he was diagnosed with throat cancer, which required the removal of his larynx, and he memorably spoke with an electro-larynx after that, using its deadpan monotone to great effect when telling jokes, especially to his favorite waitresses at the Beaufort Golden Corral during his daily visits there.
Susan passed away in 2009 and Cos grieved for a long time while he clung to his routine on Fripp Island and in Beaufort as a comfort. He did not like to travel after her death, so his circle narrowed considerably. Cos’s extraordinary mind was able to grapple with and resolve medical mysteries that had confounded men since we first recognized illness and death as something that was wrong, something we wanted to fix like Joe Cupp could fix cars. However his mind was unable to always grapple with our social niceties and many of the communal expectations of his family and friends. It’s not a secret that he was a difficult man to relate to, but he was, at his core, a good man who loved his wife most of all, loved his family, and to whom his co-workers were devoted. He had a difficult childhood, but he made himself useful to society in the only way that seemed logical to him: helping to fix those of us who were ill. That made sense, it was logical, and he could do that. He did that, and for that he deserves our thanks.
[Comments are most welcome, but you must register (create a user name and password) to enter one. Or send an email to Alison or Eric and they can post your comment. New member comments are delayed until they can be processed by a spam filter.]
11 thoughts on “He Stopped”
Nice tribute! I saw the post that Leslie made on Facebook earlier this week. RIP
When Eric and Alison called to say that He Stopped, I told them that I didn’t know Cos very well, and it turns out I knew nothing; only that he was a pathologist, he liked to order “off the menu,” and he acted strange sometimes around me — like he came to my bookstore and spied on me working. I didn’t see him come or go, but he told me later what I did when he was there.
I didn’t see him come or go in life, either. I met him suddenly at Paula and John’s wedding after Eric and Alison were engaged. I thought we hit it off pretty well, but we saw each other fewer than a dozen times after that.
Thank you so much for telling “the rest of the story” — in such a lucid and lovely way — even at this late date.
Thank you Eric for writing such a lovely tribute to my dad. These are some things Dad taught me: “Always try your best”, “Grab a handshake firmly and look ’em in the eye”, and “Leave the party while you’re still having a good time”. He liked corny jokes (especially if he was telling them), he liked eating a piece of raw pie dough if someone was making a pie, he loved asian foods (“In China they eat Chinese food everyday”). He taught me how to shine my shoes with shoe polish, spit and elbow grease, and how to make my bed so you could bounce a quarter off it. He was an enthusiastic pruner of all things: pruning shrubs and deleting emails and disposing of clutter with gusto. I am his daughter in all these ways. Thank you Dad. Love AB
Stuart Post writes : “Lovely piece. How interesting that his way of helping people was by dealing with slides and plates.”
Thank you Eric for writing such a wonderful summary of Dad’s life. He left a substantial mark during his time here on earth, not just with those of us who knew him personnally but also with those in the medical field.
Like Alison, I feel the need to share a few fond memories: riding trikes on the helicopter pad at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda; looking with fascination at the specimens in the autopsy room next to his office at the NIH; riding with him down snowing hills at the NIH on his old Radio Flyer sled; ice skating on the canal in Washington when it would freeze over; weekend adventures (sometimes on bicycles) to interesting local spots around the DC area (and endless car trips – UGH); riding with Alison in a wheelbarrel (pushed by Dad) filled with leaves; giving Mom hideous gifts that Alison and I thought were gorgious (one particular pair of silk, leopard print leisure pajamas comes to mind) (those of you who knew Mom would understand this one!); and seeing with world (Japan, Europe, Egypt, Greece, Canada, and much of the US).
As an adult, I see that some of my best qualities and strengths as a likeness of him. My career in the public interest law, like his at the Public Health Service; my ability and love for public speaking; even studying nursing at the University of Rochester where Dad did his residency.
As for his advice, my favorites are: “Always do your best” and that how much money you make isn’t anywhere near as important as having a career that interests and excites you.
Thank you Dad for the advice you gave, examples you set, and the lessons you taught me. I love you. Leslie
Alice E. Eckerson writes “I have been thinking about your dad a lot and loved reading Eric’s piece. I have a few memories that I might add.
Just last week we talked about his love of cookies, but they couldn’t be called cookies. They were ‘cakes’.
I also remember he had a fondness for Angie Dickenson. I think her show was ‘Police Woman’. We giggled a lot about that!
The only time I heard your dad raise his voice was when he said, ‘cool it’! You and Leslie would stop fighting immediately. Amy and I thought you and Leslie were much more obedient than we were.
My mother had been corresponding with your dad the last couple weeks. I called them Tuesday night to fill them in and Mom said she had just written to him. I’m sure she will write to you and Leslie.”
Anne and John Elsbree write: “The most time we spent with your Father was when we went to Memphis to visit Sue and Cos. He took us on a fascinating tour of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. And then we visited your parents on Fripp Island. We played a round of golf on their course and we could see that they were very happy there. And I have my special memories of visiting you in Paris and how generous it was of you all to let us come for two weeks. I am sure it wasn’t easy for your Dad to have 4 girls in the apartment when he was working so hard.
One of my first memories of your Dad was learning from Sue what you had for Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey but Chinese because Cos didn’t like turkey and loved Chinese. And she gave me some good oriental recipes I still use. So thanks to your Dad for that.”
Kristi Garrison writes: “I am very sad to know that your Father passed. My sincerest condolences. Thank you for sharing the condition of his passing. It is always helpful to know that someone you care about goes quickly and painlessly. Both of your parents were very kind to me, and always showed interest in my children and my welfare. Since your mother’s passing, I would see your father from time to time. He was so sad about your mother’s death. He told me a number of times that he was very lonely and didn’t know what to do with himself. Maybe you can have peace knowing he is now with your mother and suffers no more.”
Chet Safian writes: “I have spent many hours thinking about the three years Cos and I lived together in Brookline and how much he meant to me.
I recall with much pleasure our visits to Cohasset and the Crampton family. I recall in particular a Thanksgiving meal at the charming home of your grandparents. I remember their traditional punch bowl filled with bourbon and soda and a delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings. If I remember correctly in addition to Cos and Sue and your grandparents, Phebe, Andy and Paula were also there.
Another fond memory I have of your dad was when he was studying for his final exam in anatomy and handed me this enormous volume of Gray’s Anatomy and told me to ask him something. I turned halfway through the book and found a word which was almost unpronounceable for me and asked him what it was. He started to respond, but I could not find everything he was saying and when I told him so, he simply said, “It’s on top of the next page.” I have been fortunate enough to meet many bright people during the course of my life, but none was the equal to your father.
I know he received the Princeton Class of 1955 award in 1984 presented each year to a classmate who has accomplished something of significance. I remember being at the dinner in Princeton when he received the award.”
from Jim and Eva MacLowry:
“Jim and I send our condolences on the death of Cos. Our families have so many memories. Could not have had a better neighbor- raccoons and all! Classic Cos was the Valentine’s Day lettuce on my doorstep. Our thoughts are with you.”
A former colleague writes:
“Please accept my sympathy for your loss. Your father was an inspiration to me and to countless others as I’m sure you know. I remember when I called him Dr. Berard at one of the first meetings that I attended as a trainee, he said “call me Cos”. It was hard for me at my age but he was so emphatic that I tried and generally succeeded. He was such a brilliant man with such a common touch.”