At Ground Zero: Publisher Reevaluates Life After Attack

On Sept. 11, 2001, Paula J. Grant Berry ’79 received a phone call that she will never forget.

David, Berry’s husband of 10 years, worked as a director of research for the brokerage firm Keefe, Bruyette and Woods on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center and was in the South Tower that morning.

“I was at home and he called me, and I spoke to him just before the second plane went in and then the line went dead,” recalls Berry.

Berry’s husband lost his life on Sept. 11, leaving her a widowed mother of three children at the age of 44.

“On that day I kept expecting him to come home. My Sept. 11 was assuming the first couple of hours that he would arrive home and when that didn’t happen I went into New York to look for him,” Berry says.

While Berry is still coping with the tragedy, she has been able to find some solace in taking a leading role in planning the Sept. 11 memorial.

Last summer Berry was selected to be one of the 13 jurors—and the only representative of the victims’ families—who would ultimately choose the winning design for the Sept. 11 memorial.

“People handle these situations in a variety of different ways, and I happen to handle it this way,” says Berry.

Despite the enormity of the tragedy, Berry refuses to define herself as a victim, citing her children as a her primary reason to remain upbeat.

“You know you have to be there for them,” Berry says.

DAYS OF INNOCENCE

Although projects relating to Sept. 11 have come to be the central theme in Berry’s life for the last two and a half years, she pursued a very different career prior to that cataclysmic day.

Berry was born in 1957 in New York City, but she spent the better part of her high school years in Eugene, Ore. Despite growing up in Oregon, Berry says she was still quite familiar with Harvard, having spent her summers in Cape Cod.

When she enrolled in 1975, Berry, who would become a history concentrator, took part in dance and experimental theater at the Loeb Drama Center. She also worked at the Phillips Brooks House and wrote theater reviews for The Crimson’s weekend magazine, then entitled, “What Is To Be Done.”

During her years here, Berry cultivated an interest in publishing, and she was offered a job from Doubleday while still an undergraduate. After graduation, she enrolled in a Radcliffe publishing course to learn more about the business, and following her completion of the class she was hired to work full time for Doubleday in New York City.

Berry says that although she had become interested in publishing during her undergraduate years, going to work for Doubleday was not part of any master plan.

Berry’s publishing career would take her from Doubleday to the magazine world, where she helped launch the American version of The Economist, worked for Newsweek and evaluated prospective magazines for the German conglomerate Gruner Jahr to purchase.

“Book publishing is slow and you are working on titles that aren’t going to come out until the following year. The rhythm is very different if you are working for a weekly magazine,” says Berry.

Later on in life, she changed jobs again, working at Scholastic as the director of marketing for a national reading program used by elementary school teachers to teach children how to read.

“It was one of the classic stories of ‘what else is there to do?’” she says.

In 1989, Berry attended what she refers to as a “Harvard-Yalish” party in New York City. At this party, she met her future husband, David Berry—a young Securities Analyst who had graduated from Yale and received a graduate degree at the London School of Economics. The two started dating soon after.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry proved no match for true love and the two were married in 1991. One year later they saw the birth of their first child, a son named Nile.

In 1994, Berry had her second son Reed, and decided to cut back to part-time work at Scholastic. Two years later, Alex, her third son, came along. For the next five years, Berry continued to balance her part-time work at Scholastic with her motherhood responsibilities.

But then Sept. 11 happened and it changed her life forever.

A NEW LIFE

Berry says she has never watched the video of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers.

“I never saw either of the planes of going into the buildings, and on that day I kept expecting him [David] to come home,” Berry said.

But once Berry came to terms with the fact that she would not see her husband and the father of her three sons again, she began to focus on a new way of life.

Berry immediately quit her job at Scholastic and focused on raising her sons as a single mother.

“I had three kids, and it was triage at home so going back to work has never been something that I question,” Berry says.

Her involvement with the Sept. 11 memorial began with a phone call from John Whitehead, a close family friend.

Whitehead, who is the chairperson of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, asked Berry to participate in the family advisory council, a branch of the corporation that was formed in January 2002.

“The first months that I participated in these meetings, I felt like more of an observer of how the drama of this was unfolding,” says Berry.

As time progressed, however, Berry became more and more interested in the incredible impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and how important the reconstruction of lower Manhattan was to so many different constituents. She began to take on a more active role in the council meetings, and started receiving requests to serve on smaller, more specialized committees.

At one point, two special committees were formed—one charged with writing the mission statement for the Sept. 11 memorial and the other with drafting bullet points of elements that would be absolutely essentially to the design. Berry was selected to serve on the latter committee.

In addition to working on this committee, Berry toured various national memorials as part of another group. Then, last summer she was asked to represent the families of Sept. 11 victims on the design selection jury.

Berry says that she was at first hesitant to accept this responsibility, citing her concern over the ability of one person to represent the interests of all of the families of the victims. But ultimately Berry says she realized that it was crucial to have such a person on the jury.

“It occurred to me that I am not representing the families, but I am among the families,” Berry says. “I realized how important it was to have a family member on the jury.”

The jury began weeding through 5,200 different designs last August before narrowing the field to eight finalists who were then asked to construct actual models of their design. The entire process was anonymous, and the jurors met with various interested parties throughout the process to solicit their opinions.

“It had to meet many needs as there are many stakeholders and constituents,” says Berry. “You can’t forget the people who are down there, and you want it to be a place where people feel comfortable to contemplate.”

The jury came to its final decision in January, selecting “Reflecting Absence,” the design of an Israeli-born architect, Michael Arad.

Berry says that she has no reservations about the winning design and that the final decision was the product of a long and involved process.

“It was a consensus,” Berry says. “Nobody could have chosen this design at the beginning. It is part of the process.”

While the design for the memorial has been selected, Berry’s involvement in the planning and construction of the site is far from complete. At the present time she is helping to choose a design for a cultural space on the site, currently dubbed the “Freedom Center.”

Berry describes the plan for the Freedom Center as “a world class institution that promotes the concept of freedom and is international in its focus.”

Berry says that she has found her work on the memorial site to be incredibly rewarding and unparalleled in its healing power.

“It’s so addictive and interesting. In many ways it has been incredibly cathartic to get myself engaged in something like this. This is how we respond to something like this and it is a very noble response,” Berry says.

Berry also says that working on the memorial with so many dedicated individuals has strengthened her faith in the potential of human beings.

“You see the best in people in their effort to rise to this situation. I have seen human capacity in the most wonderful of ways,” Berry says.

But the planning of the memorial is still just one part of Berry’s life, as her children are her number one priority. As she discusses the plans for the Freedom Center, Berry says her seven-year-old son enters the kitchen donning a sticker on his stomach that reads “put food in me.”

Berry also says that her three sons have already expressed interest in attending either Harvard or Yale, or “the two best schools in the country.”

As Berry begins preparing lunch for her son, she says that she no longer makes long-term plans but prefers to take things one step at a time.

“I see into the future, but I don’t make long range plans anymore,” Berry says. “It’s a day by day kind of thing.”

—Staff writer Evan M. Vittor can be reached at evittor@fas.harvard.edu.