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Wish you were here

Norm Berg.

The first time Norm Berg organized a winter lunch gathering for College of Engineering alums in 1995 at his country club in Fort Myers, Florida, the guest of honor had to phone in. John Bollinger, then the dean of the college, got stranded at the Minneapolis airport on his way to Florida due to a weather delay, and ended up having to put in his planned “appearance” at the lunch via speakerphone.

Despite that initial snag, Berg turned the lunch into a tradition, annually drawing about 30 college alumni and their spouses—many of whom winter in Florida. In the years that followed, Bollinger and subsequent deans Paul Peercy and Ian Robertson have attended the event.

Usually, the deans’ talks at the lunches give alumni an inside look into the state of the college and how it’s adapting to changes in education, research and industry. Or, as Berg sums it up, “I tell a joke, and the dean tells the truth.”

A native of Eau Claire, Berg earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UW-Madison in 1963, and says that the attendees generally represent a variety of engineering disciplines. Berg also hopes the lunch gathering will encourage others to give back to UW-Madison. His chosen method of giving back to the college echoes why he decided to turn his engineering degree into a marketing career: “I wanted to get out and meet people.”

After graduating, he eventually advanced from engineering roles to positions as vice president of marketing and then president of American Steel Foundries in Chicago. He retired from ASF in 1995. After that, he bought a business called Railway Research Inc., donating all of that company’s profits to UW-Madison and other organizations he supports. He sold the business in 2008, and now divides his time between Florida and Wheaton, Illinois.

After 20 years, Berg is stepping down from  organizing the lunch, and hopes another alum will take his place.

What’s been in it for Berg all these years? “I knew that it was a good way to support the university by exposing the university to as many people as possible,” Berg says.

And, in addition to allowing him to see old friends, the annual lunch reinforces the bond he felt with other engineers when he was an undergrad. “We had great professors, and the type of people who attended the college were super people,” he says. “We were stuck way at the west side of campus, so it was like we were going to our own separate university.”

The engineering solidarity extends to Berg’s family: His daughter is a Northwestern-educated mechanical engineer, and she married an engineer as well. “Engineering has been very good to me,” Berg says.

Scott Gordon
8/5/2014