Robert Berne CC’60, BUS’62, a loyal Lion since arriving on campus in 1956 — from his five years suiting up as Roar-ee as a student to his extensive leadership and generosity toward Columbia as an alumnus — died on January 24, 2023. He was 84 and lived in NYC.
Berne’s support for Columbia, and especially the College, benefited students and faculty in countless meaningful ways. After graduation he volunteered his time as a class officer and reunion organizer, then becoming increasingly involved with the Columbia College Fund. He was its chair from 1998 to 2000 and a Class Agent from 2002 to 2023.
Berne was a member of the Columbia College Board of Visitors from 1990 to 1996, with ex officio status from 1998 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2006; he held emeritus status after that. He also was a member of the Columbia College Alumni Association Board of Directors from 1998 to 2004, president from 2004 to 2006, chair from 2006 to 2008 and president emeritus starting in 2008.
“When I met Bob in 1995, the College was receiving the lowest number of applications in the Ivy League,” said Austin E. Quigley, dean emeritus of the College and the Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature. “It is now comfortably positioned among the finest colleges in the land. Many people helped this happen, but a much smaller number played an indispensable role in envisaging the transformation and bringing it about. Bob was one of them. He led by example, and no one who knew him will ever forget the example he set.”
Berne received numerous honors for his service to Columbia: an Alumni Medal in 2001, the Alexander Hamilton Medal in 2006 and the President’s Cup in 2010, for work on his 50th reunion. The Hamilton Dinner was capped off with a visit from Roar-ee and an a capella performance of “Roar, Lion, Roar,” a nod to Berne’s 2000 donation of a new lion costume to Athletics and his longstanding support of the program.
A Lion Gives Back
Raised in Great Neck, N.Y., Berne began a lifelong career in real estate after earning an M.B.A. from the Business School. His work at government agencies was some of his most rewarding. In the 1960s, while at the NYC Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, he assisted in the financing for renovations of low-income housing. In the 1970s he worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, managing the financing of Operation Breakthrough, a demonstration program of modular housing. In the private sector he built one of the first luxury apartment houses in the Lincoln Center area, developed property on the west coast of Florida and spent more than 40 years as an associate of the Milstein family, creating several thousand apartments in New York City.
His philanthropic support of Columbia was deep and wide-ranging. Berne was an avid supporter of the Core Curriculum and in the late ’90s established the Gustave M. Berne Professorship in the Core Curriculum in honor of his late father, a member of the Columbia College Class of 1922 and the Law School Class of 1924. He also was the lead donor in creating the David Rosand Professorship of Italian Renaissance Art History in memory of the legendary College professor who was not only a fellow alumnus (CC’59, GSAS’65) and friend, but also a fellow art history major.
“Bob was a Lion, first and foremost, wearing the costume of Roar-ee as a student and providing for the costume renewal of Roar-ee and the installation of The Scholar’s Lion sculpture as an alumnus,” said James J. Valentini, dean emeritus of the College and a professor of chemistry. “He was ferocious in his dedication to the College, and to me personally he was a great and true friend on Morningside Heights and on the slopes of Alta, Utah. His roar will be missed by all who knew him.”
Beyond the College, Berne was a board member of The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, Columbia/Barnard Hillel from 2000 to 2016 and a member of the MBA Real Estate Program Advisory Board for the Business School.
He also happily supported many NYC not-for-profit institutions, as well as his beloved Knicks. He had a small version of the Madison Square Garden basketball half court in his apartment and was a season ticket holder.
Berne is survived by his wife of 56 years, Steffi (née Mokotoff); son, Alexander; daughter, Lizzie Berne DeGear (Tony); grandchildren, Daisy DeGear and Freddy DeGear; nephew, Michael Bonine; and niece, Sophia Mokotoff. For information on the planned memorial, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.