Looking Back without Sight – a UC Berkeley DCC Success Story
UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program has a formidable task – to create a safe and social space for Cal’s disabled community. This is not simple as approximately 11% of the university’s community reports having a disability, and these disabilities are as diverse as our campus. The result is a platform that advocates, educates and collaborates and allows our members to advance and empower both themselves and the campus as a whole. While we don’t often look back at our successes, one student, Mr. Fred Herzer (B.A. Humanities 1949), shined brightly, despite his blindness, as a role model for our entire community.
Growing up in Venice, California, when it was a working-class town with chicken farms and not the trendy urban area of today, Herzer was hit by a train, shattering his leg and damaging his optic nerve leaving him sightless. Even without his vision, Herzer looked forward, not backward. He was accepted to UC Berkeley where he received assistance from volunteer readers, but he also made sure he didn’t let being blind interfere with having a rich and fulfilling life.
Despite his childhood accident, with his positive attitude, he didn’t hold a grudge and continued what turned into a lifelong love affair for trains. This is how he traveled from the campus often to visit his parents in San Carlos and later, from his home to work. Herzer graduated from Cal in 1949 with degrees in Economics and Business Administration.
Since his childhood, Herzer had long been fascinated by real estate, and after graduation from Berkeley, he started Herzer Inc., a private real estate lender. He did so with the help of his secretary, Virginia, who assisted the blind businessman through the maze of a competitive work environment. They made such a perfect team that Herzer decided to extend the partnership to their personal lives, and Fred and Virginia were married and raised three children. Herzer’s son David continues to run Herzer Inc., and it has grown to over 200 investors.
David Herzer writes, “My father’s blindness motivated him. He was a Life Master bridge player, a business success and a loving husband and father. He traveled the world with my mother who would drive while my dad navigated from the map in his head. That he could achieve all of this seemed normal to me, but he truly was a remarkable man.”
Using only his white cane and highly developed sense of hearing, Herzer navigated expertly from home and onto the train, which he took every day to McDonald’s for coffee and a muffin. Running his cane along the side of the car, he found the door opening, listening for the noise of the air conditioner above the doors. His cheerful disposition as he boarded the train matched his revered commitment to the people he served. His wife, Virginia, shares, “I am certain that it was at Berkeley that he built the confidence that allowed him to thrive in all aspects of life despite his blindness. With support from volunteer readers, he was able to navigate his way through what he considered the best university in the world, and that carried on.”
Fred Herzer passed away at the age of 92 in 2019. He stands as an example of somebody who didn’t let his disability define him. In fact, his wife Virginia specifically remembers that after she described a customer’s outward appearance to him, he would elaborate as he was able to discern, through intangibles such as voice patterns and intonations, who a person actually was. And he was never wrong.
Fred Herzer and his family have not forgotten his great connection to our school and became a benefactor to the Disabled Students Program before he passed. The family continues to be involved, through his name, in allowing us to help others thrive as he did.
Fred Herzer embodies the Cal motto, Fiat Lux!