Reflections: Berenice Elkin Kleiman ’59

In the Reflections series, the School of Education asks alumni to look back on their distinguished and fascinating lives and careers.

I believe that each of us should have at least nine lives. I certainly have had, and I look forward to at least half a dozen more before I hang up my spurs. During my first two, I navigated from a small Upstate New York village to Syracuse University on full tuition scholarship and worked as a waitress for room and board.

Berenice Kleiman headshotAlthough I loved political science and the Maxwell School, the School of Education served as my Plan B throughout, beginning when my mother passed away, in 1959, a month after graduation. Rather than attending law school, I returned home to care for my 10-year-old sister and family, which meant also teaching fifth grade for one year in Ellenville, NY.

Afterward, I headed toward New York City to be a secretary for RuderFinn, the largest PR firm in the world. My boss found my secretarial skills so abysmal that he shared his writing assignments with me. When he went into business with a client, I followed and became his assistant director of PR for The Wolper-Sterling Television Company.

By life stages three through five, I gave up my battle with the glass ceiling, moved to Baltimore, enrolled in the University of Maryland’s evening law school, and resumed teaching to cover tuition. I taught sixth grade in Baltimore County for a year and a half. Interrupting my law degree was a handsome young man—Herb Kleiman, also from NYC. When he changed jobs, we temporarily moved to Ohio and then to Northern Virginia.

In Virginia, no school would hire me because I was pregnant. So instead, I edited a manuscript for a gastroenterologist. When my first child was a toddler, I returned to teaching, this time in Arlington, VA, to assist my husband toward completing his doctoral degree. Moving to Columbus, the Ohio State University College of Law turned me down in 1970 without reviewing my grades or LSAT. They said I was too old at 32, and besides, I was a homemaker, and a woman.

In stages six and seven, now with three children, I completed a master’s degree in American-Jewish History from OSU and returned to work in PR. Later Herb and I, as co-partners, combined both our backgrounds and formed our own firm specializing in strategic marketing and positioning for high tech firms, including several in Silicon Valley.

“I have great appreciation for the School of Education for opening so many doors for me to live my life fully.”

In stages eight and nine, following a very successful almost 15 years in business, Herb suffered a massive stroke in 2001, and I became his full-time caregiver for more than 19 years. During this time, I wrote two books about stroke published by the Cleveland Clinic—One Stroke, Two Survivors and Lessons Learned: Stroke Recovery from a Caregiver’s Perspective. Both challenged prevailing medical pessimism about stroke and shared lessons I had learned.

I later wrote a third book for my family titled Life Is the Sum of My Choices, along with six full length plays. After my husband’s passing in April 2020, I wrote Widowhood 101: Next Steps, published in January 2021.

During these intervening three plus years, I’ve traveled to Croatia, Greece, and Uzbekistan; written a series of short plays; and now I am working on my fifth book. I have an upcoming trip planned to the Czech Republic in fall 2023, and I am a member of a playwriting group affiliated with a local theatre and a member of the Civilian Emergency Rescue Team (CERT).

I have great appreciation for the School of Education for opening so many doors for me to live my life fully. “Plan B” allowed me to use my educational training as I could, when I could. I should also add that my three children have had excellent educations and are successfully involved in their lives and careers.

What is your fondest memory from your time at the School of Education?

My most treasured memory of SOE was participating in the Washington Semester Program in 1958, the second semester of my junior year. As one of 90 students selected from throughout the country, I combined programs from SOE and the Maxwell School, choosing a topic for my original thesis on Federal Aid to Education in the 85th Congress, still unable to pass through Congress. Permitted to research in the Legislative Reference Service, I also interviewed four senators about their concept of “separate but equal”: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Herman Talmadge of Georgia, Jacob Javits of New York, and Clifford Case of New Jersey.

In addition to several graduate courses from American University and the thesis, I had seminars with cabinet heads, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and leading members of the US Department of State. This program was thoroughly simulating. When I returned to SU and faced the final teaching qualification—a piano tools exam (impossible for me since I couldn’t play the piano)—Dean Virgil Rogers asked me to play music for Congressmen exiting for lunch.

What is something from your career that makes you most proud?

Teaching in Arlington, VA, in the mid-1960s I ran into the John Birch Society because I presented a James Thurber political cartoon to my sixth graders and asked them to interpret the message. My purpose was to build cognitive reasoning and evaluation. The mother of one student demanded that her child be removed from my classroom and that I be dismissed. The child refused. She enjoyed being in my room. The principal supported me, and the furor died down rapidly. It was hard not to be intimidated but I stood up.

What is the biggest change you have seen in education during your lifetime?

As an onlooker now, I am most shocked and disappointed at how too many states are burning books, limiting teachers, and pigeon-holing what teachers can teach. The coronavirus pandemic did a vicious number on children’s education, but today’s restrictive parents and governors have made teaching a dangerous field. Too many teachers I know here in Cleveland have taken early retirement.

What gives you hope?

When I am most disappointed, I prefer to remember the Greek mythology course I took at SU and, most particularly, the story of Pandora’s box. After all the terrible threats had jumped from the box, hope remained huddled at the bottom. We’ve survived through many challenging periods and divisions in our American history. Somehow, even surprisingly, our country has effected positive corrections, often after the most difficult periods. I still believe in good people, promising leaders, and reasoned changes.

What advice do you have for an SOE student just starting on their career path?

Get the best education you can from multiple disciplines and take challenging courses that force you to read, evaluate, and reach to the sky. Liberal arts right now seem to be given a back seat to tools. But liberal arts skills will provide you flexibility and discipline to meet new challenges and demands throughout your life and careers.