Berger has strong sense of family

By Steve Korris | Aug 11, 2006


CHARLESTON – Judges normally keep their emotions out of their work, but a petition for a name change touched the heart of Kanawha County Circuit Judge Irene Berger.

At an Aug. 2 hearing, Berger asked petitioner Deanna Ray Sigmon why she wanted to change her name.

Sigmon said she would graduate from college next year and she wanted her maiden name on her diploma.

Berger said she understood. She said she kept the name of her parents to honor the sacrifices they made for the sake of her education.

Berger ordered the petitioner's name changed to Lyons.

After the hearing, Berger said she married high school sweetheart David Howell after she graduated from West Virginia University in 1976.

She said, "I don't think my husband ever thought I would take his name."

She said her father, Nathaniel Berger, was a McDowell County coal miner for 41 years. She said her mother, Irene O. Berger, was a housewife.

She said her father completed sixth grade and her mother completed ninth grade.

She said she was born in 1954. She said she was the youngest of nine children, arriving 0 years after the eighth child.

Those 10 years made a big difference.

"In 1962, a high school diploma really meant something," she said. "In 1972 there were more opportunities available for me than there had been for my brothers and sisters.

"I kind of get emotional thinking about this. I wanted to be a lawyer in high school. I had never seen a female lawyer, but no one told me I shouldn't do it."

She graduated from Big Creek High School in 1972 and enrolled at WVU in Morgantown.

She said, "My parents made it happen with very limited income."

She recalled that the trip to Morgantown took nine hours.

"There was no (Interstate)79," she said.

She said she and her husband married on Labor Day weekend of 1976, just after she started law school at WVU.

She was still Irene Berger.

"It wasn't that I was a feminist," she said. "It was my family name and it was for all my parents had done to get me through school.

"Whatever I did professionally, I wanted to carry my parents' name."

She said that as a judge she introduced herself to a retired judge who said, "Are you Nat Berger's daughter?"

She said they shared stories about her father.

"If my name was Irene Howell we would not have had that conversation," she said.

She said the name change in her court was "so neat." She said the petitioner appeared to be about her age.

"Her story must be a wonderful story," Berger said. "It could be so uplifting for people who find themselves on a detour in life.

"She is evidence that you can still get it done."

She said her father died at 81.

"We were blessed that he was never injured," Berger said.

She said her mother lived with her and her husband for the last 10 years of her life and died at 90.

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