Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

Of Bronze, Iron, & Ink

Aug 22, 2023 02:51PM ● By Mike Whye
John Stevens Berry  & the Trials of a Poet

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Although he’s been known as John, Steve, Mr. Berry, JSB. counsel, lieutenant, captain, author, poet, husband, dad, radio host, Iowan, Nebraskan, American, and more, John Stevens Berry uses his full name.

In his birthplace of Onawa, Iowa, many called him John. However, when he attended Stanford University, a John Berry was already there. So, an advisor called the newcomer John Stevens Berry to avoid confusion—and despite the length, it stuck. 

Over the years, he’s inhabited several different worlds. In the realm of law, John (as he prefers to be called) has written more than his share of contracts dense with legal terms, complex wills divvying up property, and calculated arguments voiced before judge and jury. He has also written articles, books, and poems that are far removed from the hefty legal tomes anchoring bookshelves in judges’ chambers and law offices. 

His fourth book, Foot Soldier, now in its second printing by Solo Press as of June, reveals yet another world—one in motions and briefs give way to stanzas and abstractions. More than 100 poems chronicle John’s experiences as an army lawyer in Vietnam, his early years in Onawa, friends, family, myths, and passages in life. Nebraska humorist Roger Welsch writes in the book’s introduction: “In an age of froth and whimsy, Berry gives us poems made of iron. He is a demanding poet. His poems require close listening, rather than mere skimming.”

The Platte, Nor the Mekong 
Not a four acre farm to provide one meal a day.
Just the flash and blaze of lightning and a hay stack.
Still, I slap leather which isn’t there for my pistol, which isn’t there,
for reassurance, which, for a split second, isn’t there. 
Corn fields, not rice paddies.
Steel irrigation systems, not ba gia*
with her ancient legs walking in place on treadles, and handle arms made of bamboo to move water.
After war,  you are never quite
where you belong.  

Although born in Iowa, John’s roots run deep in Nebraska with a father from Wayne and mother from Arapahoe. His maternal grandfather was a lawyer in Beaver City, and his uncle practiced law in McCook. In his younger years, John listened as the two argued cases. A cousin and a great uncle also practiced law in Sioux City, Iowa, and another great uncle practiced law in Wayne and was president of the Nebraska Bar Association.

John began writing poems and short stories in junior high. Upon graduating from high school, he attended New Mexico Military Institute.

“I got some nice awards for some short stories I wrote there,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed writing.”

Next, he studied at Stanford University and wrote for its humor magazine, The Stanford Chaparral. He enrolled in creative writing workshops—including courses taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner.

Some of his poems, essays, and stories were published during his time at Stanford. Twice, he received awards from the Academy of American Poets and appeared in an anthology of college poets. In May 1960, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and, having been in the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, became a second lieutenant in the infantry.  

However, he was ordered not to report for duty until the following January. In the interim, he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop for the fall semester that year. 

After six months active duty in Missouri, he studied for a year at Sorbonne University in Paris. Returning from there and wanting to study law, he attended Northwestern University for three years on the advice of a lawyer who said that it was the place to learn to try cases. Throughout this time, he served in the army reserve and reported for annual exercises at bases in Kansas and Missouri. He also squeezed in a trip to Europe with his mother.  

When he returned to the states again, John offered to go to active duty with the army as long as he was assigned to Vietnam to serve as defense counsel. His conditions met, he joined the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which provides legal services to the army and its personnel. In Vietnam, John became a foreign claims officer.  

“I had to go into the villages with an interpreter and talk to the village chiefs and find out what damage had been done and pay what restitution was allowed,” explained John, who was also chief defense counsel for 80,000 troops.

Foreign Claims
To pay a Vietnamese national, 
loss must be collateral,
not combat related. 
As if anything wasn’t related to everything  in this fucking war
So: about $40 in piasters,
solatium for the 15-year-old kid you lost,
& a certificate & a bag of rice & a bag with cigarettes and candy.
& that’s all we could do.
All. We. Could. Do.

“Some JAG officers sat behind steel desks,” John said. “I went into the field.”  

Because Vietnam was a fluid checkerboard of friendly and enemy forces, John packed a .45 caliber pistol wherever he traveled. His interpreter was heavily armed as well, and the driver had a grenade launcher stowed beneath his seat. The weapons didn’t go unused.

Easter Sunday, 1969 Angel Wing Cambodian border.
Brief fight.
Other guy dies.
Is that Easter? 
Do we live became someone else bled? 
Don’t know. 
But it brings a man to his knees. 

Turning to civilian law when he returned to the US with a Bronze Star and other medals—including some from the Republic of Vietnam—John worked for a New York firm for a year before returning to the Midwest and opening Berry Law. At first, he represented veterans pro bono, establishing a large base of thankful clients. Today, Berry Law employees 120 people with offices in Lincoln, Omaha, and Council Bluffs. John now lives with his wife, artist Margaret Berry, in Lincoln where they raised sons John Jr., Chris, and Rory and daughter Laura.    

John’s first book, a collection of poems titled The Blackness of Snow, was well-received by critics and earned awards from the Academy of American Poets.  

His next book, Those Gallant Men, is about his successful defense of nine Green Berets charged with murder in Vietnam.

His third book had its beginnings in a radio talk show John hosted on KLIN from 1994 to 1997. During one particular show, Caril Ann Fugate talked about her request for a pardon. She had been sentenced to life to prison in 1958 for accompanying mass murderer Charles Starkweather when he killed 10 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. With her sentence reduced to 30-50 years in 1973, she was paroled three years later. In 2014, John and Linda Battisti co-wrote The Twelfth Victim, laying out the case that Fugate should be pardoned because she had been an unwilling companion of Starkweather. 

“I’m absolutely convinced that she’s innocent,” asserted John, whose stance was not viewed favorably by some Nebraskans, as occasionally expressed through death threats. “I figured if the Viet Cong wouldn’t do it to me, these people sure can’t.” 

The book was made into a TV series for Showtime—though this heightened profile and appearances before the Board of Pardons have not resulted in a pardon for Fugate (who now has the last name of Claire).  

Twyla Hansen, Nebraska State Poet from 2013-2018, met John—whom she calls Steve—when she worked at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Taking some English literature classes on the campus, she met the lawyer when he would hang out there in the 1980s.

“I didn’t know he was an author and didn’t know he was a poet,” Hansen said of their early encounters. “I couldn’t believe how powerful his poems were—they packed a real punch. His poems about PTSD are spare, powerful, and well-crafted. Foot Soldier is an amazing introduction to his writing.”

Permissive Travel Orders (partial)
…… Once, a young lieutenant was trying to get me Onto a chopper.  They were loading body bags.
“The captain has permissive travel orders.”
The bored specialist nodded at the body bags.
“Yeah, these guys got ‘em too.”

Karen Gettert Shoemaker, author of The Meaning of Names, also refers to John as Steve. They met at Larksong, a community of writers that she founded in Lincoln in 2020.

“His poems are so heartfelt and he has a really keen eye for people, places and things,” Shoemaker said. “I was surprised how intimate and vulnerable his poems are and how clearly he can see other people.”  

The End (partial)
No hourglass, no compass I navigate by the stars,
Guiding my journey to its end.  

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Evvnt Calendar