In the 1950s, there weren’t many expectations for a daughter of poor immigrants who lived on a secluded farm and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. But Sydelle Berger proved to be an exception.
At 11-years-old, Berger remembers her school’s superintendent at the time, Gladys McCallum, asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I want to be veterinarian but I’m going to be a secretary,” Berger remembers saying, explaining that there would be no way her parents could afford to send their only child to college.
“She (McCallum) said, you know, someone as talented as you can get scholarships or loans, and she said, if that’s what you want, go for it,” Berger said. “Little did I know that everyone thought that would be an impossible dream for a little girl.”
That impossible dream, however, came true for Berger, now 74, who has been a practicing veterinarian at the same location, 310 Allen St. in Howell, for 52 years.
When she was 13, Berger began attending Hartland High, on the corner of School St. and Avon, where she continued to receive support and encouragement from her teachers and administration, including superintendent Frank Hartman who Berger says went above and beyond while trying to help a young girl.
“There was no money for a prom dress and I told the superintendent,” Berger said.
Prom dresses at the time were $30 and her family only had $15, according to Berger. She then explained that if you were willing to drive to the "city" you could find dresses for cheaper, but her father would never drive to the city.
“So on Saturday, Mr Hartman picked me and my mother up from the farm and drove us to Lansing,” she said. “And sure enough there was a Nile green dress for $15 and so I ended up going to Prom.”
Berger said it was the caring and the concern for her and her family by the people in Hartland schools that she remembers the most and to this day, still appreciates.
Sydelle Goes to State
In 1955, Berger headed off to Michigan State University to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian. With the help of scholarships and loans, including the Hartland Area Educational Loan Fund, Berger was one of three women who graduated from her veterinary class.
The Hartland Area Educational Loan Fund, or the Crouse Student Loan, was started in the 1930's by J. Robert Crouse as part of the Hartland Area Project, an intiative designed to help Hartland residents and enhance the social, cultural, educational and economic aspects of their lives.
The loan, according to Berger, was what made her college opportunity possible.
"To have achieved what I have achieved would have been impossible without it," she said. "And the teachers and the superintendent and everyone who guided me and encouraged me."
Berger also credits her parents, who "suffered" along with her as she commuted to East Lansing on a daily basis to go to classes and return home to help care for her invalid mother and other animals on the farm.
"You can be anything you want."
It was also the unconditional support she says received from her father, a Hungarian butcher, that made Berger determined to succeed.
"My father said, that in Hungary, if your father’s a butcher, you’re a butcher," Berger said. "But in this country, your father can be a butcher and if you work hard enough at it, you can president of the United States. You were born here, you can be anything you want."
As soon as she received her diploma, Berger officially opened her practice at the age of 23 in the home where she and her parents lived.
The road was not easy, however, according to Berger, who says many farmers refused to hire a young female to treat their animals. She also said concern for her safety as a woman was always a priority.
Proving herself capable, working hard and being determined is eventually what helped establish her practice and sustain Berger over her long career.
“You have to go after your dream,” she said. “And myself, I was looking for a trail to follow and there was none, so I blazed one.”
As for the people and support that helped her achieve her dreams, Berger says she is grateful for the opportunity that was given to her.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that they did for me,” she said. “The people of Hartland took a chance on a little girl to see what she could do with that money. And that’s what enabled me to get my education and come back to the community and be a contributing, professional person and it has changed my entire life.”
Dr. Sydelle Berger will be speaking at the Hartland Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Dunham Hills Golf Course on Thursday, June 14 starting at noon.
She will present a speech called "A Half-Century of Business Insights".
The public is welcome and the cost is $15 in advance with RSVP's submitted by noon June 11. After that time, the cost is $20. Call Jana at 810-632-9130 for more information.