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Ode to the Quintessential Lifelong Learner

Florin Berca, who took nearly 60 classes at the Graham School, passes away at age 71.

Florin Berca with a book in his lap, reading in his sunroom.

Florin Berca exemplified the term “lifelong learner.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Michigan, Berca received an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He traveled the world, absorbing different cultures and scaling Mount Rainier and Mont Blanc. To celebrate his 60th birthday, he climbed 20,000 feet to the base camp of Mount Everest. He enjoyed architecture, expressing a particular affinity for the buildings peppering his adopted hometown of Chicago.

And as one of the most prolific learners in the Graham School’s history and a 2018 graduate of the Basic Program, Berca took nearly 60 courses at the school. He studied diverse writers from Plato to Virginia Woolf. He immersed himself in classes covering different eras in European and American history. He relished the How to View Art sequence, a program that informed his own creative efforts in sculpture.

“I’m still thinking, still learning, after all these years,” Berca recently opined to a Graham instructor.

After a year-long battle with esophageal cancer, Berca passed away on December 1 at the age of 71.

“Florin was a role model lifelong learner, and I will deeply miss his presence in our community,” Graham School Dean Seth Green says. “He brought insatiable curiosity, a love of deep reading, and a contagious enthusiasm for open exchange.”

Born and raised in Romania, Berca and his mother moved to the U.S. when he was 17. Emigrating from a country under Soviet Communist control, he found the United States’ freedom to question, learn, and engage in liberated dialogue intoxicating. Berca credited that background for providing him an early understanding of the dynamics of power, language, and history, which only intensified his desire to examine ideas and pursue intellectual conversations.

Mark Buckley first met Berca when the two were undergraduate students at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. Buckley immediately noticed a rare individual with a bold personality and inquisitive will.

“In a group of his peers, he was something different,” Buckley recalls of Berca the undergraduate. “He saw things from a different point of view and already possessed this wonderful level of skepticism that so many of us would only learn over time.”

Buckley and Berca remained close friends throughout the next five decades. Buckley marveled at his friend’s globetrotting adventures and intellectual escapades and says Berca – in body or mind – never ceased moving.

“Anyone who met Flo knew they had met Flo,” Buckley says. “He was a provocative guy and someone always looking for new things to do, a hunger for discovery that never really stopped. He brought a spirit and energy to life that was hard to miss.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Graham instructors who encountered Berca and his singular style.

He was a provocative guy and someone always looking for new things to do, a hunger for discovery that never really stopped. He brought a spirit and energy to life that was hard to miss.

Mark Buckley

Fred Beuttler, who hosted Berca in nearly a dozen history classes at Graham over the years, says Berca was known to give inspired soliloquies in the classroom, linking multiple concepts and ideas to personal experiences in a passionate effort to advance conversation and provoke intellectual exploration.

“I can still hear his voice and tone – somewhat ironic and waiting to launch some zinger,” Beuttler says. “Every time I saw Florin’s name on my class roster, I knew it was going to be a great class. Florin had a great sense of who he was, and he wasn’t afraid to be himself.”

To that point, Berca once alerted Beuttler he would be missing class due to an upcoming surgery. Berca wrote: “I am skipping your classes this week, as that is one way to keep my mouth shut.”

Even after his cancer diagnosis, Berca, who spent much of his professional life as an IT consultant, continued taking courses at Graham, including a 2022 class on the novel Anna Karenina with veteran Graham instructor Clare Pearson. She calls Berca “engaging and memorable,” adding that he was confident, outspoken, and ready to challenge – and thoughtfully challenge – ideas and readings.

“Throughout his illness, he showed up for class and spoke regularly even when he was clearly struggling, sharing his insight and experience with the Orthodox church as well as courageously discussing the parts of the novel that dealt with religion, death, and existential questions,” Pearson says. “Never a man to avoid a controversy, he also challenged some of Tolstoy’s perspectives and characterizations.”

Berca also faced his mortality with an uncommon perspective and acceptance, finding meaning and purpose in many of the great books he discovered through Graham.

“Florin didn’t hide from the discussion of death and understood the reality he was facing,” says Green, who visited Berca’s suburban Chicago home several times before his passing. “He said the great texts, where questions of mortality, legacy, and moral citizenship often arise, encouraged him to think about what he hoped to contribute to this earth and helped him cultivate a greater sense of peace.”

In fact, that reflection spurred Berca and his wife, Jane, to commit $50,000 to expanding the reach of Graham’s courses to public school educators and to underrepresented learners. Berca determined that his legacy, like his life, would champion the pursuit of knowledge and the discussion of ideas.

“When I visited Flo in late November just before he passed, he was in a serene state,” Buckley says.

As it turns out, a lifetime of learning helped him get there.

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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