Angelica Berrie’s amazing journey

Angelica Berrie’s amazing journey

The day she stared down tanks helped define philanthropist's life

Angelica Berrie Photos by Jerry Szubin

Very few of us know how we’d react if we were faced with a row of tanks, moving slowing toward us.

Angelica Berrie knows.

She stood her ground.

She was terrified, she said, but also filled with the kind of hope even fear couldn’t quell. So she stood there, in the front line, holding hands with the nuns who had educated her, and backed by several thousands of other Filipinos, waving a Bible and a rosary.

That moment transformed her country, and it transformed her.

Ms. Berrie has lived a life filled with drama, change, and unlikely surprise. The road that took her from Cebu, an island in the south of the Philippines, to Englewood has been an extraordinary one.

The Philippines is in many ways a melting pot – or perhaps a glorious mosaic, or whatever the term of art may be today – much like the United States. Ms. Berrie’s grandparents came from all over the world, and oh do they have stories. Her mother’s parents were Chinese – her grandfather, a salesman, wooed her grandmother through letters that entranced her. She learned, just before her wedding day, that a friend had written them; after they married, the young couple lived with that friend – her grandfather’s business partner – and his wife, until the business relationship ended in bankruptcy and lawsuits. “Very Cyrano de Bergerac,” Ms. Berrie said.

Her grandmother, the brains in the family, according to her granddaughter, came from a family of status and means in China, and therefore was among the last in the world to have had her feet bound. (The centuries-old custom, which involved breaking the bones in a girl’s foot to make keep her feet tiny, was most prevalent in wealthy families, showing that she would never have to work. The brutal custom began to die out in the early to mid-20th century.) She was an only child and her parents doted on her, so although they crippled her feet they fed her mind, allowing her to learn to read and write. In the Philippines, she secured the family fortune by cooking well enough to end up feeding soldiers during the Japanese occupation of her adopted country.

Ms. Berrie’s grandfather was a Spaniard, who went to the Philippines in his early 20s to make his fortune. He did – and lost it, and made it, and lost it again. He married a woman of mixed Filipino-Spanish descent; among their nine children was Ms. Berrie’s father. Her grandfather had a car long enough for all the family to sit in at one time, she recalls; she does not know the make, but she loves the image.

Ms. Berrie, then Angelica Urra, was born in 1955 to Gregorio Urra and Isabel Coleongco. Her father was an engineer who developed a business selling farm equipment.

Her family’s religious background was mixed. Her Chinese grandmother was a devout Buddhist; after she died, the family maintained a shrine to her, and Ms. Berrie recalls going to her gravesite and kowtowing to her. (How often is it possible to use that word literally?)

The rest of the family, though, was devoutly Catholic; although Catholicism is not the Philippines’ state religion, it is by far the predominant one. Ms. Berrie went to a convent school. Her part of the country, where sugar cane is raised, tends toward the joyful kind of religion, with feasting, dancing, and bright colors; although there are parts of the Philippines where the austere, death-centric version of Catholicism predominates, that was not hers.

She loved it.

After high school, Ms. Berrie went to a Catholic college, Assumption, where her classmates included relatives of both the Marcoses – Ferdinand Marcos was the country’s ruler, who had imposed martial law in 1972, just before Ms. Berrie completed high school – and the Aquinos – it was the assassination of Benigno Aquino that led eventually to the People Power revolution and the presidency of his widow, Corazon.

After she graduated from college in 1977, Ms. Berrie became an entrepreneur. “It was a window for women,” she said, a new and exciting time when young women could venture into business. She had ambition, brains, and drive. She succeeded, moving from business to business as opportunities changed.

In 1986, the situation in the Philippines boiled over. Marcos, it was widely believed, stole the election, and a ragtag army of thousands of unarmed Filipinos of all classes, led both practically and morally by Archbishop Jaime Sin, rallied in EDSA, the avenue that connected two military bases.

That was at the heart of the People Power revolution.

Unarmed Filipinos faced tanks, ready to roll, staffed by soldiers who would roll over them – or would they?

Ms. Berrie owned a manufacturing business back then, and her employees were hurting. She had strong anti-Marcos sentiments, and like the nuns who had educated her – and like most of the rest of the country – she was a strong supporter of the revolution.

One Sunday in February, news came out from the Catholic radio station that played an important role in the revolution that a large rally was under way. Ms. Berrie, her brother, a cousin, and a few others crammed themselves into a car and drove toward it. They drove past some tanks, she remembers now; cars can move much more quickly than tanks. Soon they parked and headed off to the center on foot, flagging down other cars as they ran.

“Everyone at the scene seemed ready to react,” she wrote a few years later. “A group of coiffed matrons in a white Benz disembarked, leaving their car parked in the middle of the road. Reluctant drivers were persuaded to abandon their huge buses, which were strategically positioned across the … junction. Passengers scurried out, while someone had the presence of mind to deflate the tires to ensure that the buses stayed where they were.”

They formed a barricade. The scene was set.

The revolution had a color – bright, cheerful, sunshine yellow -taken from the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” which Americans had used to signal their support for the hostages Iran had held for 444 days not too many years earlier.

Now, just about everyone at the protest wore a swatch of yellow. Ms. Berrie had a headband holding back her straight dark hair. At first she held a yellow flag, but soon she exchanged that for a Bible; photos taken then show her holding the book heavenward.

The tanks plowed through the cars and buses that slowed but did not stop them. “Dull thuds signaled a breach as they crashed through the walls” made by the vehicles, she continued.

“With hardly enough time to say a prayer, we found ourselves in the path of the tanks.

“I was shaking with fright, defiance, and outrage” she wrote. “The deafening rumble of the tanks, the hard-bitten faces of the Marines, with their machine guns pointed at us, the menacing sight of large bullets slung across their chests.

“I was convinced they meant to fire above our heads as a warning. I remember praying that if it happened, please let me not be the first to run!”

The air soon was filled with the sound of pleas coming from everyone facing the tanks as the stone-faced soldiers in the tanks stared them down, she said. People held up their rosaries as if they were bullet-repelling amulets. Someone held up a statue of the Virgin Mary, and the protestors knelt to pray. “We sang ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Our Father’ every time we felt the soldiers’ resolve hardening,” Ms. Berrie wrote.

And then – “a mother lifted her child to offer them a flower hastily plucked from the walls of Corinthian Gardens, causing one of the soldiers to break down,” she wrote. “Eyes filled with tears, he slid into the hole of the tank to regain his composure, leaving his companion unable to look at any of us.”

This one story was not the story of how the standoff ended, but many such stories added up. The soldiers could not roll over their fellow Filipinos – the fact that the soldiers knew that the protestors were right would not have made that decision, as it turned out unthinkable anyway, any easier – and eventually, at first one by one and then in larger numbers, the soldiers defected.

By the next day, Ferdinand Marcos was out and Corazon Aquino was in.

Such moments can define a life.

Angelica Berrie’s life was defined by that moment, but she was not finished with transformations.

She became a successful exporter of papier mache angels; it was in that capacity that she met Russell Berrie, the Bergen County-based philanthropist whose business was manufacturing plush toys and other gift items. In 1993, they married, and she moved to Englewood. He died, at 69, in 2009, and for two years she was CEO of his business, Russ Berrie and Co.

Ms. Berrie is passionate about interreligious issues. The Russell Berrie Foundation supports the Center for Interreligious Understanding, a program that Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Tenafly, still its executive director, founded decades ago.

When she and Mr. Berrie married, she was a Catholic; at her first of two meetings with Pope John Paul II, she wore black, covered her head with a mantilla, and sank to her knees before him, as a good Catholic woman should.

The next time she met him, she was no longer as committed a Catholic as she had been; by the time she met the next pope, Benedict XVI, she had become a Jew.

Ms. Berrie chose to become Jewish, she said, because she already had become a committed, connected member of the Jewish community; in fact, most people assumed she had converted some time before she did, simply because they could not imagine such commitment otherwise. She would not have done so, though, had she not felt her soul drawn toward it, and had she not realized that she had left the Catholic world that had nurtured her so well through young adulthood.

She studied with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi who took over from his father, the late Rabbi David Hartman, to head the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

It was not hard to move from Catholicism to Judaism, Ms. Berrie said; she did not make the move until both her heart and her head were ready. “It was when Pope John Paul said that Jews were the church’s older brothers that I felt it was time,” she said.

Because of her family’s history and her own choices, Ms. Berrie is extraordinarily cosmopolitan. Like many Filipinos, she is fluent in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. She holds citizenship in three countries – the Philippines, the United States, and – because Spanish law gives citizenship to descendants of its citizens – Spain. And she has had firsthand experience of three of the world’s great religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism.

By now, the revolution in the Philippines is long over; Benigno Aquino III, the son of the man whose death began it, is president, and the country seems to be returning to a sort of corruption, although not tyranny, Ms. Berrie said. And, of course, it has been back in the news because of the deadly typhoon, Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed more than 5,235 people there, and demolished large swathes of infrastructure.

That devastated country is not the place Ms. Berrie remembers, but she hopes that others will join her in supporting its recovery.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – which the Berries long have supported – is collecting money for storm relief. To help, go to its website,, and click on the link at the top. All the money the federation collects goes directly to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization.

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