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How a color television in 1969 led OHSJP’s Susan Berry to a 55-year career at SCDPS

Fri, 04/19/2024

1 Susan Berry portrait

Susan Berry didn’t plan to stay for long when she got a job at the Highway Department in 1969. Nor did she expect to become part of a family at her new place of work.

“I wanted a color television,” Berry said of her reason for getting a job. “My husband told me I’d have to pay for it. So I said, ‘I’ll see if I can get a job at the Highway Department.’” 

In January 1969, Berry secured a position at the Highway Department, which was later renamed the SC Department of Highways and Public Transportation, where she worked for $55 a week. As “Clerk 1,” it was her duty to provide statistics for traffic collisions across South Carolina. Allotting half of her wages to a babysitter for her 9-month-old baby, Berry soon saved up enough money to buy her first color TV set. Satisfied with her purchase, Berry realized how much she enjoyed her job and decided to stay a little longer.

Fifty-five years later, Berry works in the Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs, spending her workday fact-checking data and managing electronic collision reports.

“I enjoy my job,” she said. “If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here as long as I have.” 

When Berry started working for the Highway Department, her office was in the agency’s headquarters in downtown Columbia.

“There were four of us and a flat table that had maps on it, and a file cabinet and a mouse, all in that room,” she said. She recalled the uncertainty surrounding the State Government Restructuring Act of 1993, which created several new cabinet agencies by breaking up and merging the functions of existing agencies. The office in which Berry worked became part of the Department of Public Safety.

At the time, DPS headquarters was nothing more than a cluster of modular units on the grounds of the SC Criminal Justice Academy, which was part of DPS at the time. The employees jokingly referred to their quaint workspace as “The Trailer Park,” but she quickly added with a laugh, “We weren’t allowed to call it that.”

Berry became the agency’s first Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) analyst, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database on fatal injuries suffered in traffic crashes. Chosen along with 15 other analysts nationwide, Berry served in this position as an analyst and a supervisor, representing the department and state at system-wide training and winning numerous awards for her work.

 “I was really honored to be one of only 15 people in the entire nation,” she said. “It was quite groundbreaking at the time.”

In 1999, Berry retired with her husband, who was retiring from his position as building superintendent for another state agency. But after two weeks of not working, she realized that retirement life was not for her.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I’m not that type of person. I have to be doing something, and there’s only so much yard work you can do.”

Things got especially busy in 2009 with the introduction of electronic crash reports, which made physical maps obsolete and changed how troopers and officers issued tickets.

“It made things so much easier to read,” Berry said. “A lot of times, we would have to send reports back because we couldn’t read them.”

Berry and the late Captain Doug Connelly traveled across the state training Highway Patrol and local law enforcement on how to complete collision reports in the new electronic format. With everyone in the agency trained, Berry now conducts quality control on the reports that are submitted.

“I’m well known all over the whole state because I’m the one that sends reports back to have them corrected,” Berry chuckled.

When Berry’s husband fell ill with cancer in 2016, she was allowed the flexibility to telecommute. For five months, Berry both tended to her spouse and balanced her workload, often putting her husband to bed and getting back on the computer at night to stay caught up. After her husband’s passing that same year, Berry debated whether to return to the office. However, knowing that her work would help her process and redirect her focus, she chose to stay at DPS. 

“Why should I sit home and think about things I can’t do, that I don’t have any control over, when I can go to work, occupy my mind, and do good by doing my job?” Berry said. “That was why I came back.” 

In the years that followed, Berry has endured the unimaginable pain of losing two of her children. Following both tragic losses, as with her husband’s passing, her work and her family at DPS have kept her grounded.  

“Everybody’s close, and we look out for each other,” she said. “I can’t sit home and do nothing when I can maybe benefit the agency by being here and working. It’s not only occupying my mind — but I’ve got a pretty good handle on those crash reports,” she said with a smirk.

2 Susan Berry celebrates 55 years - group 3 Susan Berry celebrates 55 years - cake