In Gearhart, much of what people know about this quiet, coastal town’s past comes from William “Bill” Berg.
The author of “Gearhart Remembered: An Informal History,” Berg was a compendium of knowledge about the community and its residents. Whether it was a historical detail, a contested city issue or a celebration, he was at the center of the discussion.
Berg died on May 16 at 82 in a Portland hospital after several weeks of illness.
He lived in Gearhart for 46 years, Mayor Paulina Cockrum said in a remembrance. “As soon as he arrived,” she said, “he started working for Gearhart.”
In 1976, Berg was elected president of the Gearhart Homeowners Association, and subsequently served on the Planning Commission, City Council and the Historic Landmarks Commission. He drafted the final 1978 text of the original comprehensive plan.
Former Mayor Matt Brown called Berg a “great friend, neighbor and mentor.”
“I was honored to be able to serve with Bill on the Gearhart Planning Commission, where he taught me the importance of following the comprehensive plan in keeping Gearhart a quiet residential community,” Brown said.
‘Icon of Gearhart’
Berg’s grandmother, Rebecca Wills, was one of the first to purchase a lot in Gearhart. The home was passed down through generations, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
He was an icon of Gearhart, longtime friend Stewart Schultz said in an email, “an unsurpassed expert on the history of the town and tireless fighter for the preservation of its values.”
Berg was born on Aug. 13, 1938, in Berkeley, California. He attended primary and secondary schools in Washington, D.C., and Boulder, Colorado, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University in 1960. He attended Cornell University for a master’s degree in 1962 and Princeton University for a doctorate in 1966.
Lengthy periods abroad began in Greece as a Fulbright scholar in 1960 and 1961, where Berg pursued field archaeology at ancient Corinth. Over the following decades, he returned to Greece nine times for research in classics.
His career as a professor took him to Tonga in 1989, where he taught classical civilization and American literature at ‘Atenisi University.
It was there he met Mami Kanzaki, a teacher in the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program. They were married in Japan in 2004.
His imprint on Gearhart was profound.
“I remember growing up, riding my bike on my way to Curs Market, going by his house to say ‘hi’ along the Ridge Path, which Bill called the ‘soul of Gearhart,’” Brown said. “Bill once said Gearhart’s primary export was ‘joy,’ which he believed derived from the quiet residential character of our town.”
“Gearhart Remembered,” published by the Gearhart Homeowners Association in 2001 and reprinted in 2013, weaves the story of how the town came into being and its rise to one of the premier destinations in the Northwest.
With photographs, interviews and historical documents, the book has a rich gallery of characters, from Philip Gearhart’s arrival in 1851 to developers Marshall and Narcissa Kinney, philanthropist Lesley Miller and Bill Badger, the first Black American to hold public office in Oregon.
Later figures include James Beard, the iconic chef who roamed the world but whose “heart and soul remained true to Gearhart,” Walton Anderson, who owned the town garage, and Miller, whose “spirit and dedication to the town in the postwar years has left a legacy still to be enjoyed by the citizens of Gearhart today.”
In a 2012 story in The Astorian, Berg recalled when Gearhart was filled with “loggers, fishermen, artists, poets, musicians and practicing nonartists.”
Rent was cheap then and creativity abounded. “The loggers and the fishers understood the poets,” he said. “Now it’s gone.”
“The city, however, can educate to residents the real price that’s often paid — the costs, for example, to future generations when a tradition, a landscape or a neighborhood is lost,” Berg said. “People need to care.”
In 2015, Berg joined others in seeking short-term rental regulation to curb what he saw a disturbing trend away from the city’s comprehensive plan goals.
“It was wonderful to work with Bill once again in 2016 and 2017 where we fought together against unlimited vacation rentals,” Brown said. “Bill helped draft the language that eventually became the common sense rental regulations we have today. Bill fought his entire life to make sure Gearhart stayed Gearhart.”
During the city’s centennial year in 2018, Berg helped introduce a new generation to Gearhart’s past.
Until his death, Berg remained active in city politics through frequent contributions to local publications and online discussions.
“His name will be always remembered with the same stature as Lesley Miller and Bill and Emma Badger in the history of Gearhart,” Schultz said.