Berne Smith '62
Berne Smith's first sight of Wooster came from the back seat of his parents' car at the end of a long drive from Camp Hill, Pa., where his father was pastor of the Camp Hill Presbyterian Church. He'd spent much of the journey studying French in preparation for a placement test at the college where he was about to enroll.
The search process that had led to this moment, Berne recalls, was not one in which he had been deeply engaged.
"Dad took much more of an interest in where I went to college than I did. He read every single catalog that arrived. He was impressed that one of the members of his former congregation, a man with the means to afford any college, had sent his daughters to Wooster. When we arrived at Douglas Hall, the first two people we met in the parking lot were my father's old classmates from Princeton [Theological Seminary] and I thought, 'My gosh, what am I doing here?'"
Fortunately, that feeling wore off, as Berne found himself learning from some of the legendary faculty of that era—professors like Clayton Ellsworth ("a brilliant, brilliant man who knew every person on campus by name"), Helen Osgood ("she gave the most wonderful lectures and knew her subject inside and out"), and Vergilius Ferm.
"Vergilius Ferm was my favorite professor," Berne says. "Of all the people I met at Wooster, he was the single most interesting one. His mind was just so lively. I had three or four courses with him, and I really learned how to learn."
Berne became president of Eighth Section, where he crossed paths with the sons of Presbyterian missionaries who had lived in China, India, and the Middle East. Attending mandatory chapel four times a week, he heard thought-provoking talks by the likes of Paul Tillich, William Orr, and Howard Lowry. "If I'd had the presence of mind to take notes," he says ruefully, "it was the best liberal education you can possibly imagine. We all griped about it, but it was quite interesting."
With a degree in history from Wooster, Berne headed to law school at Duke University and then joined a large law firm in Harrisburg, Pa., where he practiced public utility law. He married a hometown girl from Camp Hill and they raised three children, including a son who went to Wooster (Michael Smith '91).
After 30 years with the firm in Harrisburg, Berne opened his own practice doing estate planning. It was then that he first encountered the charitable gift annuity, which allows the donor to make a gift of cash or securities in exchange for a fixed-dollar return guaranteed annually for the donor's life and that of a survivor beneficiary, if desired. The donor receives a charitable income-tax deduction for a portion of the gift in the year the annuity is acquired. The gift is considered an investment and, just as with a commercial annuity, part of each payment the donor receives is treated as a return on that investment and is, therefore, income-tax free.
So when Berne began working with the Class of 1962's 50th Reunion committee, he decided to establish a deferred, two-life charitable gift annuity that will begin paying out when he reaches 72—the age at which he determined the income would be most useful—and continue to do so for the rest of his and his wife's lives. He is planning to set up a second annuity before his reunion in 2012 and is encouraging his classmates to consider doing the same.
"For people of modest means," Berne says, "it's one way that we can give, still retain the income, and make a significant contribution to the College."