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Allan Berube remembered

A tribute for a groundbreaking writer and local organizer

By FRITZ MAYER

FERNDALE, NY - He was remembered as a writer, a historian, a fireman, a village trustee, a good friend to many and a man who had a smile for almost everyone.

More than 100 friends and relatives turned out to the CVI Building in Ferndale on January 5 for a tribute to Allan Berube, who died on December 11, at Catskill Regional Medical Center, from complications related to stomach ulcers. He was 61.

Former Town of Liberty Supervisor Frank DeMayo, who acknowledged Berube’s contribution to efforts to revive the Village of Liberty, said, “He was a true friend. We’ll miss him, but he’ll always be here.”

Dara Smith, the wife of the mayor of the Village of Liberty, choked back tears as she said, “He had an amazing knack for putting a positive spin on everything, always looking on the bright side.”

Although Berube had been a trustee of the Village of Liberty, and was well-known locally for his work in revitalizing the village and organizing the effort to move the Munson Diner from Manhattan to Lake Street, he was also well known among academics and social activists around the country for his groundbreaking book about the history of gays in World War II called “Coming Out Under Fire.”

An obituary in The New York Times said, “Mr. Berube’s book was invoked frequently during the debate that simmered in the 1990s around President Bill Clinton’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, which officially allowed gay people to serve in the military if they kept their sexual orientation secret.”

Jonathan Ned Katz, a fellow historian, spoke at the memorial about that part of

Berube’s life. Katz said the book was sparked by the discovery of a cache of letters found in an apartment that was being cleared out. The letters were written by gay men during World War II, who described to each other the conditions they faced being gay at different locations throughout the war. The letters were discovered in the late ’70s. By 1990, the book, which had greatly expanded beyond the original scope, was published.

Katz recounted his reaction to a quote from a review of the book by noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The review was essentially a rave, but she also called it “remarkably evenhanded.” Katz said he and Berube often laughed at that line because it implied that a gay person couldn’t be expected to write objectively about gay history.

A film version of the book was produced in 1994, and in 1996 Berube won a $300,000 MacArthur Award for his work.

John Nelson, Berube’s companion and partner in Intelligent Design, the antiques store they owned on Main Street, said in a subsequent conversation that through all the acclaim Berube received for the book, it was almost never mentioned that he was a pacifist and was active in the ’60s to end the war in Vietnam.

The book Berube was working on at the time of his death was about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which was made up of men who worked as waiters, cooks, laundry workers and other service workers on ships. At the tribute, Katz said, “They were straight men and gay, they were black, Asian and white. It was an amazing getting together of people from different backgrounds, and I think that’s what interested Allan about it so much.” The union of 20,000 ultimately did not survive, in part because in the early ’50s, according to Katz, “the U.S. Coast Guard was ordered to screen out left, black and gay men from jobs aboard ships, and unions in the country took a sharp turn to the right.” Even though the union did not survive, Berube still found the story inspiring.

Katz pointed out that not all of Berube’s writings were political. He said Berube re-wrote and re-organized “A User’s Guide to Recycling and Trash Removal in the Village of Liberty,” which drew a big laugh from the audience.

The last person to speak at the memorial, and the one who organized the tribute, was Maurice Gerry, a Town of Liberty councilman. Gerry, who, like Berube, lived for years in San Francisco, CA, said he, Gerry, came back to Liberty because he was born here. Initially he wondered why on earth Berube would choose to make his home here in 2001. Ultimately, however, Berube’s choice turned out to be a good one. Gerry said, “He really found a home here, and he found a life here, and he was extremely happy here.”

Contributed photo
The late Allan Berube poses with his dog Pitou in a picture taken by Berube’s partner, John Nelson. (Click for larger version)