Her second memory was of being 11 years old, working for a white family who had hired her to do ironing and take care of their baby. One day as she was ironing, she saw some records, took one down and played it.
When the woman of the house got home, she asked how the day had been, and Berry excitedly shared how much she had enjoyed the music of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The woman chastised her, saying that music was not for her.
"That forever clouded my feeling about that symphony. Every time I hear it, I think of that woman," Berry said.
Although she was raised in poverty and her mother had not gone to high school, there was always the expectation that she and her brothers would go to college. "All of our cousins had gone to college, so there was a commitment that we would go. It was something we grew up with."
She and her siblings worked from the time they were very young, one brother landing his first job when he was 6 years old. Even as a graduate and law school student at the University of Michigan, Berry taught at another university, driving 126 miles each way, twice a week, to the other campus. As provost at the University of Maryland, she also taught, and she tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same thing as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The first time she had only one job-one that kept her on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week-was when she worked as assistant secretary of education, which was part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1970s. She worked with President Carter to create the U.S. Department of Education as a separate entity.
Never one to tolerate injustice, Berry became a civil rights activist early, and as a student, was also involved in protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Quoting Ezekiel 3:17-21, she described her desire to right injustice as a "... burning fire shut up in my bones."