CHARLESTON - As a 17-year-old girl fresh out of McDowell County, Irene Berger admits she didn't have the broadest horizons when she first encountered student life at West Virginia University.
"It was just a real time for growth, becoming independent and learning new things," said Berger, now a Kanawha Circuit judge. "I grew up in a rural area. I didn't meet that many people."
During WVU's Homecoming weekend on Oct. 13-14, the school's alumni association will honor Berger as its 2006 Outstanding Alumna, and she says it's just one more thing the school has given her.
And it all started when she first came to Morgantown.
"Coming from rural McDowell County, meeting people with new kinds of experiences helped my perspective to be broader," she said. "That had a big impact on me. When you're 17-18 years old and you go somewhere like that and meet people with new backgrounds and new ethnicities, it was a great broadening experience.
"You can't help but grow."
Berger graduated from WVU in 1976 with a degree in mathematics, then received her law degree from WVU's College of Law three years later.
She still serves as a member of the Student Affairs Visiting Committee and was the 102nd president of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. She was also a member of the College of Law and Social Justice Visiting committees and the former Institutional Board of Advisors.
"Judge Berger is an extraordinary Mountaineer," said Stephen L. Douglas, president and chief executive officer of the WVU Alumni Association. "She has been part of the university since receiving her
diplomas and has always been a champion for WVU, its students and its alumni. She is extremely deserving of this recognition."
Professionally, Berger has also set herself apart from her peers. She was ranked first in overall qualifications in 1996 Judicial Evaluation Poll conducted by the State Bar, and in 2003, she was named a Fellow of the American Bar Association and was given the Mountain State Bar Association Merit Award.
She received the Distinguished Woman in Law Award by the WVU College of Law Women's Law Caucus, and was honored as a West Virginia African-American Woman of Distinction by the West Virginia Woman's Commission, as well as a Foundation Fellow by the State Bar.
In 2004, then Gov. Bob Wise presented her with the Distinguished West Virginian award and she received the Community Champion Award from the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action. She has been honored with the 2000 Outstanding Woman of Achievement Award by the Charleston YWCA, the 1997 Celebrate Woman Award for the West Virginia Woman's Commission, and the 1996 Woman of the Year Award by the Charleston Area Business and Professional Women's Club.
On Friday, Oct. 13, she'll be part of the Homecoming parade. During Saturday's game against Syracuse, she'll be honored at halftime.
Seeing Berger at a football game is no rare occurrence, either. She and husband David Howell have vehemently followed the Mountaineers during their lifetimes and have made the trip to several of WVU's bowl games, though Berger hopes a national championship will be up for grabs at the end of this season.
"You do see a lot of people that you know in Morgantown on Saturdays, lawyers and non-lawyers," Berger said. "It's nice to have visits with people you haven't seen in a while.
"My husband and I are big football fans. We go to most all the football games and have for years."
Football has become just another way Berger has stayed close with her alma mater as it continues to grow.
"It's just gotten stronger," Berger said. "It's gotten better. If you keep up with the news, all the faculties and the research and the national prominence of the university has grown and has continually gotten better.
"I loved being a student there."