A Life Remembered: Urbana civil engineer, state rep 'was definitely a doer'

A Life Remembered: Urbana civil engineer, state rep 'was definitely a doer'

URBANA — It's fitting Tom Berns made his living as a civil engineer.

Civility defined the life of the fun-loving, kind man who dedicated his life to the service of his clients and his community.

Mr. Berns, of Urbana, died Monday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis of complications from heart surgery. His wife of 52 years, Jeannie, was with him, as was one of their two children. He was 72.

A University of Illinois graduate, Mr. Berns met his future business partner, Ed Clancy, when they worked for local engineer Chuck Danner during the summer in the mid-1960s.

"I worked with a survey crew, and Tom was a sewer inspector," Clancy said.

Both men took full-time jobs after college with Danner and stayed with him until branching out on their own in 1975, forming Berns, Clancy and Associates.

"We didn't have any clients in 1975. We were out beating the bushes. I think on a Friday morning, a guy called from the sanitary district and said they needed a survey and asked, 'How soon can you be here?' We said, 'That afternoon.' We went on and just grew," said Clancy, recalling that the firm started with him, Mr. Berns, Jeannie Berns as their secretary, a field survey technician and a drafter.

Today, the Urbana business employs about 20 and is regarded as a premier engineering and surveying firm in East Central Illinois.

Among their clients have been more than a dozen area villages and about 75 drainage districts all over the state, he said.

Clancy called his partner and friend the "face of the firm."

"When people called, they asked for Tom. He was the contact. He went to all the meetings and belonged to all the organizations. I was just one of the workers," Clancy said.

"People would ask for Tom because they trusted him. He was a good surveyor, a good civil engineer. They knew if he was involved, he would know a lot about the project, and they could always get an answer."

"He was our quality control. He looked at everything. He read the proposals, he read the transmittals, he looked at the survey plats, he read the legals, the engineering plans, the specifications, the cost estimates. He would know about their project, and they liked that," Clancy said.

For many years, the firm hosted probably the best party of the holiday season right around Thanksgiving, inviting present and former clients, politicians and old friends.

"I suppose that (invitation) list was up to 6,000 people," Clancy said. "Only about 700 to 800 showed up. It was a good time for everybody, I think."

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One of the more recognizable projects that the firm had a hand in was the renovation of the Boneyard Creek from Wright Street to Lincoln Avenue through the University of Illinois engineering quad.

Mr. Berns knew a lot about his community and his craft and shared that knowledge on the boards of several local organizations.

Those included the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, the Urbana Rotary, the Urbana Country Club, Clark-Lindsey Village and the Champaign County Forest Preserve Friends Foundation, to name a few.

Mr. Berns served 11 years in two stints on the MTD board, including one year as its chairman, said his longtime friend and retired MTD administrator, Tom Costello.

"It's cliche, but he really did love this community. He was proud of it, a big Illini fan," said Costello, whose son Joe worked as an intern for Mr. Berns when Mr. Berns served in the Illinois House.

Mr. Berns succeeded state Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, after Johnson opted to run for the U.S. House in 2000. He served only one term before redistricting changed his 104th House District and he was defeated by Urbana Democrat Naomi Jakobsson in 2002 by a 1,489-vote margin.

Costello said his friend was more middle of the road than right.

"What you found was that while he carried the label Republican, he was really very, very interested in the universal good, which is a rare commodity these days. Being an engineer, he was very big on problem-solving," Costello said.

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Former state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego was House Minority Leader when Mr. Berns served. Cross is now chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

"Tom was a class guy to the core and was a gentleman, sensitive and was caring about the General Assembly and serving the Champaign region. People say this all the time, but he really was a good guy. I've kept in touch with him. Whenever I was in Champaign, I'd run into him, and it was always good to see him.

"I remember his orange-and-blue ties. I can picture that guy with that smile on his face," Cross said.

Mary Ellen Wuellner, executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, had a similar memory.

Mr. Berns was still serving on the forest preserve's foundation board at the time of his death.

"One of the things I will always remember about him is how I'd say, 'Hey Tom, it's good to see you.' And he would always reply, 'It's good to be seen,'" she said.

Long before his work with the foundation board, Wuellner said, Mr. Berns was a supporter of the forest preserve district.

"He always had a real interest in ensuring that the garden here at Lake of the Woods was fully funded and that we'd be able to make the repairs needed there. And then when the foundation turned its sights to the Kickapoo Rail Trail, that became a big interest of his, to make sure that we could get that thing built.

"As a longtime Urbana resident, he knew how important that trail would be for the community. He took a great interest in that," she said.

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Mr. Berns served about six years on the board of the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation. Executive Director Gail Rost was a huge fan.

"He had an incredible gift of seriousness and humor. He was never afraid to laugh at something during meetings, but he always asked deep, thoughtful, direction-driven questions on the board. He was ... a perfect board member in what he brought in his commitment and passion for the community and community engagement."

Rost added that Mr. Berns and Jeannie "never hesitated to open their door for a CUSF event. They were always willing to graciously host. That is also the mark of an open, committed person in the community."

Tim Bartlett, a 25-year employee of the Urbana Park District and now its executive director, called Mr. Berns a wonderful mentor.

"As a landscape architect, you're always sort of warned about civil engineers, how they kind of rule the world, that they're a challenge to landscape architects. But Tom couldn't have been more of a gentleman — very gracious and willing to explain things and take his time and make me feel welcome in the community.

"Ambucs Park (north of University Avenue in east Urbana) was a park that was close to his heart, with his grandson's (Braden Berns) physical challenges. I think he really identified with an all-access park. In fact, we were working with the club and with Tom to do some fundraising to get the next trail loop in there," Bartlett said.

Bartlett said Mr. Berns also served on the Urbana Park District's foundation board.

"He had a hand in most everything big that we did," said Bartlett, ticking off the Anita Purves Center, trails and play areas there, the Kickapoo Rail Trail, Weaver Park and Meadowbrook Park.

"He was definitely a doer," Bartlett said.

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