How to Mark a Family Legacy
Burned out from the strain of Hegel and Kant, Matt Bergman ’86 left Reed after the fall semester of his junior year and paid a visit to his uncle, Eli Bergman ’50, then the executive director of Americans for Energy Independence in Washington, D.C.
It was 1982, and with his uncle’s encouragement, Matt went on to pursue his youthful ideals—working for the Young Social Democrats in New York, the Israeli-American Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., and a minority voter registration group in Virginia. All the while, he kept in touch with his uncle.
Eli’s encouragement came from experience. He had taken a two-year, mid-college break to work—and fight—for causes he believed in. He left Reed during his junior year in 1946 to join the U.S. Army, then helped to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine by boat. Twice he was captured and sent to prison camps—in Cyprus and Palestine—when refugee ships he was on were captured by the British. Eli later returned to Reed to complete his degree, went on to earn his M.A. at the University of Chicago, and pursued a career in foreign aid. He worked for several federal government agencies, taking time out to earn his doctorate at the University of North Carolina.
So when the uncle who first urged Matt to find his own way later encouraged him to return to Reed, Matt took that advice as well. Eli told him, “Look, I have a Ph.D. and people listen to me.”
After Eli’s passing in November 2005, Matt established the Bergman Family Scholarship as a memorial. “Eli had three loves: his children, Israel, and Reed College,” Matt says. “One of the greatest things I could do to honor him was to establish a fund to enable other students to benefit from Reed as he had.” The scholarship also honors the Bergman legacy at Reed, including Matt’s father, Abraham Bergman ’54, and Eli’s cousins Norman Bergman ’49 and Jacob Kind ’62.
After his own sojourn from Reed, Matt returned in the spring of 1984 with his fiancé, Rebecca. The two married in the Cerf Amphitheatre that summer. Matt describes himself as a disciple of John Pock, now-emeritus professor of sociology, who, he says, “imposed the same expectations on his students as he did on himself.” But, adds Matt, “I was one of Pock’s failures because I went on to become a shyster lawyer instead of a true academic.” Still, Bergman later worked with Pock to publish articles in several legal journals based on work that began at Reed.
“Reed did nothing to prepare me for law school—with its intellectual drudgery—but it did everything to prepare me for a career in law,” Matt says. Along with intellectual confidence, he says, his Reed education taught him to analyze an argument, think creatively, and see another side of an issue.
Matt graduated magna cum laude from Lewis & Clark Law School, clerked for a federal appellate judge, then became a corporate defense lawyer. When he later began suing corporations for asbestos-related injuries, he found himself in a good position to resolve conflicts. “Being able to analyze questions dispassionately and sit down with someone on the other side will get you through a difficult situation,” he says.
Working on a team of seven lawyers, he helped negotiate a $4.3 billion asbestos settlement with Halliburton, representing 250,000 clients nationwide. But he says he also realized that not all deals can be done. When activists tried to block a gravel mine on Vashon Island, Washington, where he lives, he supported their cause, but couldn’t help broker an agreement. “I was trying to facilitate a dialogue with the company,” he says, “and the opposition wasn’t willing to have a negotiation. In law and in politics, you usually do not achieve victory by bludgeoning your opponent into submission.”
Looking back, Matt sees Eli’s “cult-like devotion” to Reed as “more than academic snobbery or alumni boosterism.” He says that for Eli, Reed represented liberation, the freedom to pursue ideas, and the security of an intellectual base from which to venture forth and then come home.