If a life can be measured by the number of accomplishments, Ron Berman might have broken a record. Here’s a sampler: Berman is the guy who wrote a popular C&H Sugar jingle (“C&H, C&H, mommy uses it to bake her cakes”), mentored scores of up-and-coming marketing executives, oversaw a nationally recognized ad campaign to rescue Soviet Jews and renamed this newspaper in 2003.
And he wrote children’s books — including one about a bagel-and-lox-loving sea lion who wore a Niners jersey.
A renowned advertising executive, Jewish community activist and, above all, family man, Ron Berman died June 22 in his Kentfield home from complications due to Parkinson’s disease. He was 83.
“Ron Berman was the only genius I ever met in my life,” said his friend of 30 years, public relations executive Sam Singer. “He was the guru of creativity, the funniest, most creative guy I ever met.”
“Everyone would say what a mensch he was,” added his wife of 54 years, Ellie Berman. “It was so true.”
Born in 1936 in San Francisco, Berman grew up steeped in community activism. His father, Henry, served five mayors on various city commissions. The family belonged to Congregation Sherith Israel, at which Berman had his bar mitzvah. He went on to graduate from Washington High School and then U.C. Berkeley with a communications degree.
After college, he landed a job as a copywriter at the Honing-Cooper and Harrington advertising agency in San Francisco. It was the start of a glorious career in the profession. He rose through the ranks there and, later, at Foote, Cone and Belding, where he worked for 27 years, serving ultimately as creative director. His big-name clients included Levis, Clorox and C&H Sugar.
Why advertising? “His passion was working with people,” his wife said, “and the ideas people would bring and that he could bring. He loved people, and he loved trying to engage people.”
Marketing professional Jeff Saperstein broke into the business a few years after Berman, working under him on the Levi Strauss account. Their friendship deepened over time, expanding to include a mutual devotion to the Jewish community.
“We started a media marketing company,” said Saperstein, now a career coach, recalling the time when Berman took him to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation “to do [pro bono] ads for Soviet Jewry. I was volunteering like crazy with Ron.”
Together they launched a new media project for the Federation, recruiting local talent from the advertising and marketing professions to design ad campaigns for the Federation, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the massive Super Sunday fundraiser, and to create pro-Israel messaging.
“Ron’s forte,” Saperstein said, “was if you see an idea and it doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, then it’s not an idea. He was able to juxtapose elements together and create new ways of seeing things. He had an ability to discern and create connections through the medium of advertising that nobody came close to.”
Singer recalled a campaign the two worked on to bring attention to San Francisco’s emerging homeless crisis, years before the problem was endemic nationwide.
“Ron made our good ideas into great ideas,” Singer said. “He created a campaign, the slogan for which was ‘Don’t spare a dime. Spare a minute.’ We bought space at bus shelters and buses. The Library of Congress liked it so much it’s now in their permanent collection of great advertising.”
Berman also served on multiple boards, including the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Vocational Service, AJC, the Fromm Institute, Glide Housing, Mount Zion Health Systems, AIPAC and this newspaper, where he played a lead role on the committee (he was the one who came up with “J.”) vested with changing the name of the Jewish Bulletin in the early 2000s.
Said former editor and publisher Marc Klein: “Ron was one of the most supportive board presidents that I had the pleasure of working with. He was a real problem-solver and knew how to bring about a consensus on the most contentious issues.”
Busy as he was, Berman put friends and family first. He met his wife when the two worked together at an ad agency in the 1960s. They had two daughters, and, as Ellie Berman recalled, her husband got immeasurable joy out of fatherhood. “They adored him,” she said of their kids, Debbie and Nancy. “Their friends loved him. He was very funny, kind and accepting.”
The couple shared a mutual love of theater, and would head off to New York City at a moment’s notice to take in the latest Broadway shows.
Though Berman eventually stepped away from the hectic pace of ad agencies, he never really retired.
Starting in the early 2000s, he discovered a new passion for children’s books, writing five. Shortly after the 2003 publication of his debut book, “The Adventures of Sasha: The San Francisco Sea Lion” — which was a love letter to his hometown — he told J., “I thought it might be neat if there was a little story about the sea lions down by the pier, but since I think upside-down anyway, I thought, ‘Let’s have the sea lion visit the tourists.’”
In later years, he became increasingly involved with Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, attending lunch-n-learn Torah study sessions and serving on the board. He and Ellie also loved spending time with their children and five grandchildren, all of who remained in the Bay Area.
When Berman began to show symptoms of Parkinson’s, many challenges arose, but he maintained the relationships that mattered. Even in recent months, Saperstein would spend time with Berman and bring up memories, “which were clear as a bell for him,” he said.
He was the kind of person you just had to love, friends and family said.
“He looked like Gene Wilder,” Singer offered, “with slightly disheveled hair, very low-key, super haimish and a total mensch. Even the most difficult, impossible clients loved Ron Berman because Ron always let other people shine.”
Ron Berman is survived by his wife, Ellie Berman, of Kentfield, daughters Nancy Donovan of Sausalito and Debbie Wynd of Campbell, and five grandchildren.