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Prof. Doris Desclais Berkvam [French 1975­–2001]

January 27, 2022, in Paris,  France.

Professor Berkvam taught French at Reed for 26 years, from 1975 to 2001. A native of Paris, France, she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and at C.E.L.G. She got her master’s in French from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a PhD from Indiana University Bloomington.

A specialist in medieval French literature and society, she was the author of Enfance et maternité dans la littérature française des XIIe et XIIIe siècles (Librairie Honoré Champion, 1981). Prior to coming to Reed, Berkvam taught at École St. Marcel, in Paris and at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She had come to the United States after marrying an American, but when the couple divorced in 1979, she had to decide whether to stay in the U.S. or return to France. Everything seemed to indicate she should return home, and she tendered her resignation. But Reed President Paul Bragdon [1971–88] urged her to remain, and she agreed to stay because teaching was deeply important to her and she had a strong commitment to her students.

Graham Jones ’98 said she was “a pillar of one of the most extraordinary departments Reed has assembled,” and fondly recalled Berkvam’s wisdom. “Her indomitable, irreverent laugh endeared her to countless students,” he said.

Berkvam spent her summers and sabbaticals in France, which afforded her two completely different lives. But when she was at Reed, she was passionate about giving all of herself to her students.

“Reed is exceptional,” she said. “I’ve taught in other places, where you have to pull, carry, and prod students to get them to think. With Reed students, all you have to do is say something that awakens their curiosity. Reed students are more open-minded, more curious, more tolerant.”

After retiring, Berkvam returned to France to spend time with her children, David Michael Berkvam ’94 and Stephanie Berkvam ’88 and her grandchildren.

“Doris came to the U.S. as a young woman and became a highly praised professor at Reed College,” her daughter-in-law Rachael Short ’94 said. “At the same time, she raised two children on her own in a culture that was not her own. She was usually the smartest person in the room. As she got older, she did not dive into intellectual arguments with quite as much vigor, but the last time I visited, someone made an asinine assertion in her presence and she rose up to skewer them. She was a loving and remarkably wise mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law. I was very lucky to have her in my life.”

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2022

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