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Former state senator Frederick Berry, tireless advocate for the disabled, dies at 68

Fred Berry (center) was a prolific fund-raiser for nonprofits and even marked his retirement from the Legislature with a charitable gala. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2007

Former state Senator Frederick E. Berry, a vocal advocate for the disabled who served in the Legislature for three decades including a stint as Senate majority leader, died Tuesday. He was 68.

Mr. Berry’s family confirmed his passing in a brief statement.

“With great sadness, the family of former Senator Fred Berry shares the news of his passing. Fred died peacefully on Tuesday morning after a brief illness,” the statement said. “The family appreciates all the support and well wishes they have received during this difficult time, and asks for privacy as they make final arrangements to celebrate Fred’s life.”

Mr. Berry was a prolific fund-raiser for nonprofits and even marked his retirement from the Legislature with a charitable gala to benefit food programs in Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Salem, and Topsfield.


He was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that impaired his speech and mobility. In the years leading up to his retirement, he had used a wheelchair. While he was growing up, there were few state services or resources to help his parents, a grocer and a homemaker who had four children.

“I had to rely on the goodness of others,” Mr. Berry told The Boston Globe in 2012 at the time of his retirement announcement.

His charity often focused on children’s causes. He named a scholarship for middle schoolers in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, a political hero.

On Tuesday, tributes poured in from current and former lawmakers. “Sorry to learn former majority leader Fred Berry passed away,” state Senator Joan B. Lovely tweeted. “A #Peabody resident, Fred served our district w/class & distinction for 30 yrs. He leaves a great legacy & will be missed by all fortunate enough to have known him. My thoughts are w/him, his family & friends.”

Senate President Karen E. Spilka also offered condolences.


“It is with deep sadness that I express my condolences on the passing of former Senator Fred Berry,” Spilka tweeted. “Fred was a champion for the voiceless, a tireless advocate for people with developmental disabilities, and an important voice in the @MA_Senate. He will be greatly missed.”

And Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said in a statement that Mr. Berry was a close friend.

He praised his former colleague as “an outstanding Senator, a champion for the needs of his district and people across the state, and a dear friend. He was an extraordinary public servant with a kind heart, and a sharp intellect. Despite a lifetime impacted by cerebral palsy, Fred gave strength to those who needed a champion.”

Mr. Berry attended public and Catholic elementary schools. But in the sixth grade he transferred to the Massachusetts Hospital School, a residential school for disabled children in Canton. He returned to Peabody to graduate from Bishop Fenwick High School before attending Boston College, earning a business degree in 1972.

He joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps now called AmeriCorps, and was assigned to Corpus Christi, Texas. He worked at blood banks, homeless shelters, and other nonprofits.

Mr. Berry earned a master’s degree in education from Antioch College in Ohio and then returned to Peabody. He worked in vocational training programs for the disabled and was elected to two terms as a city councilor-at-large. In 1982, Mr. Berry won a five-way Democratic primary for the Second Essex Senate seat.


The Globe reported in 2012 that The Fred Berry Charitable Foundation, a private nonprofit he established after his election in 1982, had raised more than $1 million to help food pantries, homeless shelters, educational programs, and other human service agencies.

On Tuesday, Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett were also among the public officials who mourned Mr. Berry’s death.

“The Middlesex Sheriff’s Office mourns the passing of former @MA_Senate Maj. Ldr. Fred Berry,” Koutoujian tweeted. “Fred’s skill as a legislator was surpassed only by his kindness, devotion to family & friends and his tireless advocacy for those he served. My prayers are w/ Gayle & Fred’s entire family.”

Blodgett tweeted that Berry’s “passion for his community and the disenfranchised was unmatched. He was a powerful voice for those in need and a humble public servant. I will miss his rapier wit most of all. We are all better off bc of Fred. Rest In Peace dear friend.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.