Benjamin James Yerger (December 8, 1930 -February 5, 2014) lived in Berkeley for 38 years and was a dean at what is now known as Berkeley City College. He was the first African American admitted to the University of Arkansas’ School of Medicine, studied at UC Berkeley, and was involved in making Merritt College the site of the country’s first organized department of Black Studies.
Ben died peacefully after being ill for several years. He was born in Hope, Arkansas to his parents Chester H. Yerger Sr. and Naomi L. Reddix Yerger. Ben graduated from Henry Clay Yerger High School, named after his grandfather who was the first teacher (in 1886).
Ben’s grandmother, Ella J. Yerger, left her home on a Choctaw reservation to teach in the school, and later married Henry Clay. Together they inspired Ben’s lifelong devotion to educating others. Ben’s mother and aunts all taught at the school which was the center of his educational and cultural life.
After graduating from high school with high honors in 1948, Ben entered Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, on a music scholarship. He was also an avid football player in college. Ben graduated from Philander Smith in 1951 with majors in biology and chemistry.
After finishing college, Ben went to work in Malvern, Arkansas as a science teacher and the football coach. Although he had intended to practice medicine, like his uncle John Yerger, and was the first African American admitted to the University of Arkansas’ School of Medicine, the sudden and tragic death of his twin brother led Ben to change his plans and travel to California.
He moved to Richmond where his older brother, Chester, lived with his wife Willie Mae and their three children. Ben worked for the Richmond post office from 1953 to 1955. He attended graduate school at San Francisco State in 1955-56 where he studied genetics.
In 1956 Ben left school to become the first African American employed at the Chevron Research Laboratory (formerly California Research of Standard Oil) where he worked on the team that developed multi-viscosity oil and other projects until 1963.
He met Bobbey Walker at SF State and they were married in 1957 and had two children, Valerie and Benjamin Jr.
After being inspired by a Malcolm X speech and talking directly with him in 1962, Ben decided to return to SF State and go into education, which he had always loved. He completed his master’s program in molecular biology, educational research, behavioral sciences and genetics in 1963.
An active participant in the War on Poverty Program in the 1960s, Ben worked with disadvantaged minority youth. Ben worked for the California Employment Services Department and then joined the Parks Job Corps Center in Pleasanton, as a teacher, supervisor, counselor, and curriculum developer (1965-66).
He enjoyed working with disadvantaged students often from the South, and he made lifelong friends with other teachers. After losing confidence in the Job Corps because of its placement of its graduates in the military, Ben taught science, mathematics and history at Stanley Junior High School in Lafayette, and then worked at the Far West Lab on a National Science Foundation project on the “new science curricula” in public high schools.
In 1968, Ben served as a consultant at the Merritt College campus, located on the Old Grove Street site in Oakland, where he helped develop the first organized Black Studies course in the U.S. (except for courses at Black Colleges in the South).
With his experience working at Merritt Community College, Ben became the special assistant to Dr. Norvel Smith, who was the first black president of a California community college (Merritt). Ben served as a student ombudsman and became Director of Community Services (1969-73). He was the school liaison with a number of student groups, including the Black Panther Party and the Students for a Democratic Society, and he was responsible for keeping the peace and guns off the campus.
In 1969, he was involved in making Merritt College the site of the country’s first organized department of Black Studies.
In the fall of 1970, Ben was recruited to the Ph.D. program in higher education at UC Berkeley, where he worked with his mentor, Professor Dale Tillery. In his doctoral class, he met Charlene Harrington. After both finished the doctoral program in 1975, they married in 1976 and made their home in the Berkeley hills for next 38 years. Ben won the California Association of Community Colleges dissertation award of the year for 1976.
After the Peralta Community College District decided to move Merritt College to the Oakland hills with Dr. Norvel Smith as president, student activists demanded that the Grove Street campus remain open with Ben as president. In 1971, Ben was appointed president of the Grove campus by the Peralta board.
Ben was quoted in the UCB Alumni report (1990): “I found it an exciting period in which to be involved. It was the era of student expression – a time when students were directly involved in campus decision-making. Schools were examining their institutions and trying to accommodate needs expressed by student unrest.”
Ben’s efforts in working with students and developing a plan for North Peralta College earned him praise from community college organizations and the local media, as well as the 1971 Outstanding Educators of American Higher Education Award.
After the Peralta board changed its mind about keeping the Grove Street campus open, Ben returned to his position as Director of Community Services, Student Ombudsman, and Administrative Assistant to Dr. Smith at the new Merritt campus (1971-1976).
In 1976, Ben became the Director of Community Services and program developer at the Peralta College for Non-Traditional Study (later called Vista College and now Berkeley City College). Working with President Dr. Nancy Tapper Hanawi, he supervised the Fruitvale Community Education Center and became Dean of Student and Community College Services (1978-85).
Ben moved to a position as Dean of Student Services at the College of Alameda (1985-88) and returned to Merritt in student services and counseling until his retirement from Peralta Colleges in 1997. In 2002, he won the Philander Smith College Golden Alumnus Award with highest honors. He said at the time he wanted his epitaph to read: “An Educational Servant Who Did the Best He Could.”
After retirement, Ben returned to his lifelong passion of studying classical piano. Ben was actively involved in establishing the Henry Clay Yerger Museum in Hope, Arkansas, to honor his grandfather’s work. He also regularly attended the symphony, opera, and plays and loved to travel with his wife Charlene.
Those preceding Ben in death are: his parents Chester and Naomi Yerger; brothers Henry and Chester Yerger, Jr and his wife Willie Mae; his sister Ruth Ella Yerger; nephews Ronald Chester Yerger and Ralph Grant; and niece Ruth Yerger Coleman; and his first wife Bobbey Walker. Ben is survived by his wife Charlene Harrington; daughter Dr. Valerie B. Yerger and her former husband Craig Long Sr.; son Benjamin Yerger, Jr.; granddaughters Shannon Long (Phil Jackson) and Ainye Long (Saterah Moore); grandsons Craig Long, Jr. and Justin Long; great-granddaughter Tuesday Long-Jackson; sister-in-law Rita Harrington and husband Fred Schultz; niece Gloria Jean Grant; and cousins Rowena Reddix and Judy Smith.
A celebration of Ben’s life will be held in the Drawing Room at the Berkeley City Club at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 2, at 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley 94704. Friends are invited to attend and a reception will follow. Gifts may be made to the Ben Yerger Fellowship in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become educators, or by mail to: Office of Development & External Relations, Graduate School of Education, 3615 Tolman Hall, #1670, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1670. Gifts may be sent to the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, 339 11th St, Richmond, CA 94801.
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