Longtime city employee honored for work making lifelong friendships overseas

Arthur Berman stood alone on stage, waiting beside the podium to accept an award honoring over 30 years of service on behalf of his late wife Linda.

It was October, and it had been eight months since she died of a sudden illness at age 75.

Berman smiled, listening to former Mayor Chuck Bennett describe her as a woman who kept everyone in line and who would move mountains to get a job done.

Sometimes those mountains were the stacks of paperwork in her messy office. Other times it was getting a senator on the line to get a city official a passport two days before an international trip.

She was first hired by the city of Salem in 1977, and posthumously received this year’s Special Mayor Award for her work as a public information officer and as a key part of Salem’s sister city programs, especially with Kawagoe, Japan. 

She was someone described by coworkers as essential and ever-present, but never in the spotlight.

Bennett, who called her a longtime friend, said it meant a lot to him to be able to give her a moment of public recognition – and to be handing the award to her husband. 

“The two of them together were really something to work with, really great people,” Bennett said. “She was also just enormously kind and complimentary – just a real light. Someone you looked forward to seeing when she came into the mayor, manager’s office.”

A few weeks after the award ceremony, Arthur Berman sat down with Salem Reporter at a local coffee shop to talk about Linda. He brought with him a tote bag filled with colorful brochures, in new condition despite being over a decade old, of festivals and programs in Kawagoe. 

They provided just a glimpse of a lifetime of adventure for the couple, who spent decades cultivating friendships and local diplomacy overseas with mentorships, exchanges and visits.

“What was her personality like?” Berman said, and took a moment before responding, pausing between each description. 

“Warm. Engaging. Always a friendly smile. Good sense of humor. And had lots of friends,” he said.

They first met as students at the University of Washington in the late 1960s. She was studying business, and he business administration. They were next door neighbors, and he recalled that a mix up with the mail brought them together after he returned it to her place. 

After graduation, they moved to Las Vegas and got married in December of 1970. She worked as a librarian in a local school district and he worked with the phone company.

Berman had grown up in Corvallis and Linda in Yakima, Washington. After a few years in Las Vegas, they moved to Salem when he got a job with Chemeketa Community College. 

Her work in the city started at the public library.

“She liked the people she worked with at the library. Some of the people liked shelving books and not dealing with the public, so oftentimes she would switch with them,” Berman said. 

Her next job was the food editor at the Statesman Journal. She had always been interested in cooking, but Berman said that’s when she started collecting cookbooks. 

“She would sit down for hours sometimes, and read cookbooks,” he said. “We got loads of different magazines that come almost every day, cooking magazines.”

He described her writing style as familiar and informal. He said some of her articles made it into national publications, including one called “The Ubiquitous Zucchini.”

In 1977, Linda applied for a job with the city. Bob Wells, a former city manager who retired in 2007, was on the interview panel and recommended her for the position.

After Linda Berman died, Wells sent a personal letter to Arthur where he described her as one of the kindest, warmest people he ever knew.

In it, he wrote that the supervisor at the time, whose name he can’t remember, decided to eliminate the job rather than hire a woman.

Soon after, however, she was hired as the city’s public information officer, a position she would hold for over three decades.

“One of the things I remember about Linda was her very messy office. There were stacks of stuff everywhere and cupboards overflowing with reports. Several city managers tried to get her to clean it up but she just outwaited them, including Ralph Hanley, Russ Abolt, Gary Eide, Larry Wacker, Bob DeLong, Bob Wells and Linda Norris,” he wrote.

But, he said she was a stickler for details and could find anything quickly. One of her first assignments was to spearhead Salem’s All-America City effort, and she got the city recognized in 1983.

It was in that office where she learned about Salem’s sister city program. She became the sister cities ambassador, where over the years she would nurture relationships in India, Korea and Russia. 

She and Arthur hadn’t been big travelers at that point, but had taken a trip to Europe before.

Salem and Kawagoe, Japan – which is just outside of Tokyo – became sister cities in 1986. The two cities were already familiar, as Willamette University and Tokyo International University had been sister universities for two decades.

The Bermans’ second international trip together was as part of an ambassador group later that year. It included Sue Miller, the mayor at the time, and around 20 other local leaders.

“When we got off the plane, there were a whole bunch of kindergartners all waving US flags as we walked toward the bus,” Berman said.

They met Kawagoe’s mayor, and were welcomed to the local junior high with a band and a kendo martial arts demonstration.

It was the first of many trips they would take together over the years. They went to Kawagoe eight times, and Korea three times. 

Pamphlets from the Salem-Kawagoe Sister Cities program (Abbey McDonald / Salem Reporter)

“We have some good friends in Japan we get to see every time we go,” Berman said.

Berman got in the habit of buying cookbooks in foreign languages to take home and attempt to translate into meals. 

As ambassador, Linda’s job included making reservations, writing speeches and making sure no one from Salem embarrassed themselves.

“Sister cities are very, very difficult to put together. And to keep alive as many years as it has been, and there’s a number of folks that have been involved in it, but Linda was such a standout person,” Bennett said. 

Her work also included accommodating visitors from sister cities when they arrived in Salem, including hosting delegations at their home for a meal. 

Linda retired in 2013, but the Bermans stayed involved with the Salem-Kawagoe Sister Cities board afterward.

Sayaka Mensah interned with the city as a college student in the early 2000s, and worked with Berman. She described her as a life-changing role model.

After college, Mensah returned to Japan and spent over a decade working for the Japanese government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. She now lives in Washington D.C. and is working toward a master’s degree in business administration.

She said everyone in Kawagoe was grateful for Berman’s work. She remembered the small things, like making sure gifts were wrapped nicely and brought to the right places.

“Linda was truly the energy, the power, the strength behind everything that was running smoothly,” she said. “It’s a true, true loss to this society that Linda is not with us anymore. I am sure that she has touched so many lives, changed – positively – so many people’s careers.”

Mensah described Linda as an emotional supporter and mentor, which she said was especially important to her as an international student away from her family. She said Berman helped her get an internship at the Community Development Department which put her on track for the rest of her career.

Mensah said she will always remember the small chuckle Linda would give whenever she came to her asking for advice, as well as her “insane” shoe collection and love of cats.

“Every time when I think of her, I think of her quietly chuckling, and (she) says ‘it’s going to be okay,’” she said. 

Mensah flew out for Linda Berman’s memorial earlier this year. She said her death reminded her not to take it for granted that people will be around forever, and to keep in better touch with her mentor’s surviving husband.

She described the couple as always young at heart, and with a dynamic all marriages should aspire to.

“I do feel like maybe it was Linda’s final lesson, final gift, to bring everyone back to Arthur’s life,” she said.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.