By Shannon Walker, Guest Writer
Shannon Walker is the Thunderbird Archive Specialist and this article was originally published in the Thunderbird Magazine.
You may have sat under the Erickson pavilion. Perhaps you have seen the photo of Berger in the Tower gallery, right outside the restrooms. But who really are Berger and Mabel Erickson?
In the summer of 1946, Mabel and her husband Berger drove to Phoenix, Arizona from Texas. When they arrived at the Thunderbird Field No. 1, they found a desolate campus, overgrown with weeds and wildlife. The buildings were barren, beaten-up and lacking furniture. What could possibly bring this young married couple thousands of miles to such a bleak endeavor?
During World War II, Mabel Erickson had been secretary to Lt. General Barton Kyle Yount, Commander of the Army Air Force Training Command in Texas. At the close of the war, as General Yount considered his options for post-war and post-Army life, he was proposed an opportunity to start a new school aimed at educating men for international business. General Yount asked Mabel if she would like to join him in this new endeavor. Mabel agreed, but only on the condition that her husband come along and also be employed with the new school. General Yount agreed, though the skills of Mabel’s husband, Berger, were unknown at the time.
In 1946 Berger and Mabel had been married three years. Berger was originally from Ostersund, Sweden. Born in 1917, he had come to America when he was 7 years old and grew up in Minnesota. Later, he went to Texas Christian University with his high-school sweetheart, Mabel.
The couple played an integral role in bringing the American Institute of Foreign Trade (AIFT) to life. Upon their arrival, they greeted the challenge with a sense of purpose and optimism, and they began to get to work. After a trip to the local Army surplus, the offices and dormitories were furnished and usable. In a short amount of time, faculty and staff were hired, curriculum was designed and they prepared for the first class of students to start on October 1, 1946.
Over the years, both Berger and Mabel filled administrative roles for the school wherever necessary. Mabel began as Secretary to the President, then moved to Registrar, Director of Placement (responsible for helping graduating students find jobs), and Alumni Activities. Mabel received a Bachelor’s in Foreign Trade at AIFT as well as a BA degree from Grand Canyon University. Mabel retired from her job in 1962. She maintained a close relationship with students, faculty and staff and continued to be involved with the School until her passing on March 13, 1983.
Berger’s first position at the School was Accountant/Business Manager. He also served as Treasurer, eventually progressing to Executive Vice President of the School. In the 1963 school yearbook it was said of him, “He manages the affairs of the Institute calmly, intelligently and good naturedly while cheerfully solving the financial problems of those who seek his advice.”
Later, President William Voris would note, “Berger Erickson is admired and respected by Thunderbird students, faculty, staff and alumni throughout the world. His loyalty, devotion, integrity and courage have won the unreserved gratitude of the presidents of the School with whom he has served and that of the School’s Board of Trustees.” (Thunderbird Magazine, Winter, 1987).
Berger Erickson came to be known as “Mr. Thunderbird” for his decades of dedication to the students, staff and faculty of the School. He received an honorary doctorate in 1987 upon the 40th anniversary of the School. Berger retired on July 1, 1987 and passed away on January 6, 1993.
Berger and Mabel Erickson were part of Thunderbird for more than 40 years. They saw the School through many changes in leadership, good years and bad years and everything in between. They preserved the original vision of the School and helped maintain the purpose over the years. They had no children of their own, instead Thunderbird became their offspring. Their essence is woven throughout the history of the School.
So, next time you sit in the Erickson Pavilion, give a gentle nod and thank you to an amazing couple whose spirit continues to oversee the campus.