According to many in the industry, the human resource profession lost one of its most influential leaders when Robert L. Berra died on May 9, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Berra was a longtime member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and served as its board chairman in 1968. His career in HR management spanned nearly 40 years, most of which he spent at Monsanto Co. in his hometown of St. Louis. Berra retired from Monsanto in 1989 as senior vice president of administration and advisor to the board of directors.
According to Ron Pilenzo, SPHR, former president and COO of SHRM, Berra’s vision helped to reshape the profession and business leaders’ perceptions of what HR management was and could be.
“What really made Bob unique was his grasp of where personnel or HR management was at the time and that there was tremendous potential to grow the profession and the Society,” Pilenzo said. “He saw what few people saw looking forward—that ‘personnel’ would rise in stature and gain the recognition that HR professionals sought.”
Berra graduated from St. Louis University with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and finance; he earned his master’s degree from Harvard Business School in 1947. He joined Monsanto in the early 1950s as an assistant training manager. From 1970 to 1974 he worked for Foremost-McKesson as vice president of corporate personnel and public relations. Berra returned to Monsanto in 1974, where he remained until retiring.
“When I was president of SHRM, I noted that we had more than 38 members who worked with Monsanto,” Pilenzo recalled. “I called Bob and asked him why. He said that the number represented all the HR staff at his company, and the reason he required them to be members was that ‘You can train them cheaper and better than I can at Monsanto.’ ”
Berra was president of the Industrial Relations Club of St. Louis. His honors include receiving the Alumni Merit Award from St. Louis University, in 1977; winning the American Society for Personnel Administration’s (now SHRM) Award for Professional Excellence, in 1982; and being elected to the inaugural class of fellows for the National Academy of Human Resources, in 1992.
Berra was an emeritus member of the board of trustees of Maryville University and a former member of the finance committee of the Mercy Health System. He also served on many corporate boards, including those of Fisher Controls, Venture Stores and NutraSweet.
“Bob was a giant in our profession,” Pilenzo said. “He worked very hard within and outside of SHRM to create a profession that needed leadership and guidance. He was a model for me to follow, and his advice was always useful and correct. He will be missed by those who knew him, and it is unfortunate that those who practice HR today might never know just how much he did for the profession he helped create.”
Berra is survived by his wife, Vivian, daughters Kathy Schrage and Patti Babcock, and grandaughter Sarah Boyce.
A funeral service was held May 18, 2013, in St. Louis. Memorial donations can be made to the American Cancer Society.