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Neal Berger

1939 - 2018 Obituary Condolences
Neal Berger

Phoenix Neal Sheldon Berger died unexpectedly on June 21, 2018. He had just turned 79 and had his very first surprise birthday party. He was ecstatic.

Neal was born at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey on May 8, 1939 to Rose and Joseph. He graduated from the Yeshiva University in 1960 and then moved to Belgium to study medicine at the Catholic University of Louvain, where along with medicine, he managed to also teach himself French.

While studying, he was lucky to meet the love of his life, Helena - a stunning Dutch girl working and modeling in Brussels. Throughout their lives together, they continued to speak French, usually at the dinner table to the unending frustration of their children.

Upon his return to the United States, Neal involuntarily joined the Navy as a Lieutenant and was posted to Albuquerque, New Mexico where his inability to swim was considered an asset. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to Bikini Atoll where he was disappointed at the lack of the aforementioned swimwear.

He returned to Phoenix and opened a pediatric practice which grew into a four-physician group. Neal was an "old school" doctor, in the style immortalized by Norman Rockwell, only with less hair. He was truly interested in his patients, treating not just the symptoms or the disease, but the whole being. Neal not only treated them when they were sick, but offered himself and his time when they were well. He was a mentor, a tutor, a sage, and a sounding board. He always made time. Despite a full schedule, he never missed one of his kids' events. Baseball, softball, swimming, tennis - he showed up.

He retired in July of 2009. He picked up cooking and golf, and to everyone's surprise managed not to kill anyone with either activity.

Neal was President of the Maricopa County Pediatric Society during the establishment of Phoenix Children's Hospital and was an active practitioner and contributor to the resident teaching staff throughout his career. He was also one of the founders of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the first non-lawyer to be elected to the governing board. He played an active role in the legislation requiring suspected child abuse be reported by physicians, nurses, teachers, and all others involved in childcare.

He loved sports. He fenced and played basketball in college. He was an excellent tennis player and a horrible golfer. He bowled and counted cards. There are people from college who still owe him money. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of statistics, facts and trivia with which he regularly wowed his grandchildren.

Neal also read. Everything. He wore out library cards. After his death, upon his bedside table was found a pocket notebook with an exhausting list of books scribbled in his Lilliputian handwriting.

Neal was a connoisseur of wine and bolo ties. He was a snappy dresser and wore polyester and pleated jeans before they were cool. He loved to eat and searched the globe for the overlooked hole-in-the-wall. He enthusiastically dragged suspicious friends and family into unsafe neighborhoods and dodgy storefronts on the promise of an amazing meal.

He was a world traveler. Neal and Leny explored the 4 corners of the world on elaborately researched but self-guided trips. He would often begin researching a destination a year in advance, corresponding with hoteliers, museums, musicians, friends, friends of friends, and half known acquaintances - whom he quickly turned into lifelong friends.

Neal was passionate about music, practicing at the piano almost every day. He taught his dog to sing. He was an accumulator of sheet music. He loved the symphony (opera, not so much), but he really loved chamber music. He was an integral part of the Phoenix Chamber Music Society for more than 35 years. He was asked to join the PCMS Program Committee in 1983 and joined its Board of Directors in 1989. Neal served as president for two terms. According to Neal, he was finally given Emeritus status to protect him from voting. He was deeply devoted to the Society and regarded it to be the best rewarding cultural and social relationship of his life.

His irrepressible sense of humor, especially in public venues, terrified his wife and family. Colleagues, too, backed away when he mentioned that he had seen "this Rabbi who walked into a bar". He was the master of the bad joke. The groaner. The horrible pun . . . the hand-puppet made from a sock in the middle of a restaurant.

Neal is survived by his wife, Helena, his son, Joshua and wife Maryanne, and three grandsons, Alexander, Michael, and Niccolo. His daughter, Natasha predeceased him in 2013, survived by his son-in-law Tom Blachowski, his wife Dawn and their daughter Adalynn. His older brother, Martin, his wife Pat and their family and dear close friends Wolf and Sari Safrin as well as their children and family, also mourn his passing.

He will be missed.

A Memorial Celebration will be held on July 14, 2018 at the Phoenix Country Club from 2 to 5 PM. Please, no mourning attire. Neal would have said that it's too hot to wear black.

In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory are suggested to the Banner Alzheimer's Foundation, 2901 N. Central Ave., Suite 160, Phoenix, AZ 85012 or the Phoenix Chamber Music Society, PO Box 34235, Phoenix, AZ 85067.
Published in The Arizona Republic from July 6 to July 8, 2018
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