Monroe attorney and former long-time city councilman Kenneth Berger, 60, died the afternoon of Saturday, May 24, during a failed takeoff in an amphibious plane from the surface of Banks Lake in Eastern Washington.
Witnesses say the plane, a two-seat SeaRey LSX he built himself from a kit and started flying last year, attempted to take off but barely cleared the surface of the water before crashing back in nose-first.
Nearby boaters dove to try to save his life and managed to get him out of his seatbelt but CPR was not successful. He had been submerged about seven minutes.
A friend told press that Berger had flown with his wife to stay at Steamboat Rock State Park. He was alone in the plane when it crashed.
Ken Berger was an influential person in Monroe, a man whose small stature and quiet mannerisms belied an adventurous nature, a widely varied set of interests, and a taste for civic life.
According to his friends and family, Berger had been much as Monroe knew him for all of his life.
He was raised with his sister Judy in Studio City in Los Angeles, the son of a native Los Angeleno attorney who designed the family’s house, a skill Berger inherited and frequently employed through his life.
He might have been a city boy, but his love of the outdoors and nature started early.
“In early high school he was cycling long distances, and he was an active member of the Sierra Club,” said Judy. “And he led Sierra Club trips while he was still a teenager.”
College at Evergreen State in Olympia brought Berger to the Northwest, and while there, he met another person whose love of the outdoors matched his own; the internationally renowned mountaineer Willy Unsoeld, who helped found Evergreen State.
Berger was already an avid rock climber, and his interest in mountaineering grew and never waned; he climbed Mt. Rainier 29 times and had planned to climb it again this year, in celebration of his 60th birthday.
After college, he started a business making specialty paper.
“He was an art major, believe it or not, and made beautiful lithographs,” said Judy. “But he wanted to expand his business, so he bought an old press.”
All his life, Berger was talented at fixing things, and he repaired the old press. He decided that Monroe would be a good place for a print shop, and named it Calico Press and Paper Works, after a family calico cat. Berger went on to do some printing for local newspapers among other things.
His long-time friend and mountain climbing partner, dentist Richard Lowell, remembered meeting him in 1979.
“We immediately started climbing,” he said. “He discovered the old Scenic Hot Springs. He explored the area and heard there was a hot springs, and he found it and hauled all the timbers up there and built the first pool.”
In about 1984, right after finishing the Seattle to Portland bicycle race with Lowell, Berger met his wife-to-be Deb.
They married soon after and had two children, but family life didn’t put a halt to Berger’s adventuring.
He kept mountaineering, and also completed the Bike Centennial Trail, a bicycle route across the entire United States, in six segments. He would do a length of the trail, fly home, work, and then fly back to do the next.
He also kept several businesses going most of the time; for a while he built and repaired computer systems.
“He started my oldest son coding computers,” said Judy.
Berger was first elected to the Monroe City Council in 1989 and was re-elected four times. But those terms weren’t all in a row; he moved his young family to Florida for two years to get a degree in law from Nova Southeastern University.
“When he was in law school he could live on five hours of sleep, which is how he got through in two years instead of three,” said Judy. “And he managed his business from afar the whole time, with the help of his employees.”
As a councilman, parks were top among his priorities, and he was instrumental in the creation of the park at Lake Tye, particularly the playground area there.
“When it came to things like Lake Tye, he was pretty much a visionary,” said former mayor Donnetta Walser, who worked with him for two terms. “I never heard him raise his voice. But he always had something to say. When we were developing North Kelsey, he insisted on extra amenities, like lighting. He also promoted recreation. Ken was into biking and all kinds of things, and he tried to bring that view to the city.”
Berger stepped down following a PDC fine against him over a $1,500 campaign donation that the state decided he’d had a friend pass to another friend’s campaign.
It was a painful time for his family and a charge he always disputed, but through the entire process, he never lost his unshakeable equanimity.
Lowell said that Berger maintained that poise even in death-defying circumstances.
“He saved me on Mt. Shuksan once,” said Lowell. “My crampon malfunctioned. He climbed up unprotected beneath me, took off my crampon, repaired and put it back on. Otherwise, I’d have had to stand there until I was exhausted and then slipped and fallen off the mountain. He saved my life.”
But it was Berger’s persistence that stood out most to Lowell.
“My favorite story about Ken was when we spent three weeks kayaking in Glacier Bay and climbing along the shoreline,” said Lowell. “He dropped his Walkman in the ocean. He took three nights with a flashlight working on the Walkman. I said, ‘Ken, give it up.’ But he he got it working. Nothing stood in his way. He knew if he worked on it long enough, he would succeed.”
Berger was also a long-time pilot, and made news when he crashed in a six-seat Helio Courier into Lake Isabel, high in the Wild Sky Wilderness, in 2006. He had been attempting a takeoff from the lake, but wasn’t able to gain critical altitude, and had to make an emergency landing. Although it was October, he and his passenger swam to shore, climbed a cliff out of the lake, and hiked out.
The plane settled in 230 feet of water, but over subsequent summers, Berger hiked back to the lake with equipment, until he and friends, one of whom was an accomplished diver, were able to attach inflatable airbags to the plane and raise it to the surface.
Berger then painstakingly restored the plane, renamed it “Isabel” after the lake, and resumed flying it in 2010. He was given the Best in Class Spirit of America award at the OshKosh air show in 2010.
Berger spent many hours in the air, and sometimes offered scenic flights as prizes in charity auctions, especially for the Lion’s Club, of which he was an active member.
His interests and memberships remained strong through they years; his family was a member of Temple Beth Or in Everett, he was a vegetarian, a lover of jazz music, a conservationist who drove a Chevy Volt, a woodworker who joined two historic homes into one to house his law office, a family man, a landlord, a mentor to young people, a telemark skier, and many other things.
Late last year, Berger was once again in the news for his love of aircraft; he had completed a three-year project of building a small two-seat SeaRey LSX amphibious plane from scratch. By then he had a decade of experience in the cockpit, and tested and flew his new plane successfully.
It was in that plane that he crashed. It’s still not known what went wrong on that flight.
But it ended a life that was remarkable in its richness and depth, said Judy.
“What he could do in a day most people hope to do in a week,” she said. “I said in his eulogy that he was able to achieve more in his 60 years than what many folks could do in several lifetimes.”
Lowell agreed, saying that Berger would have stood out at any time in history.
“A couple hundred years ago, he’d have been the guy taking the ship to see if he could discover America,” he said. “He’d have built the ship, too, and hired the people. And then he’d have been the calm, cool captain.”
There was a service for Ken Berger last week; another memorial celebration of his life will be held at Wagner Community Clubhouse, 12920 Wagner Road, Monroe, Saturday, June 28, 1-4 p.m.