KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Donald Lavern Berg, a resident of Key Biscayne, Fla. for 61 years and summer resident of Traverse City, passed away peacefully at his Florida home on February 25, 2013 after a long illness. He lived a full and exciting life.
Don was born on June 3, 1925 on the family farm in Bingham Township, Mich. He was the 11th of 12 children of Leonard and Charlotte Berg, both German immigrants. The 115 acre farm was located on West Traverse Bay, where M 22 and E. Shady Lane join. His early years were strongly influenced by the Great Depression, when hard work at a young age was a given. His early education was in a one room school house. In order to attend high school, he boarded with a Traverse City family, the Robinsons, who eventually took him in as a surrogate son. He graduated from Traverse City High in 1943, where he played second base on the undefeated Trojan baseball team of that year.
In the Summer of ‘43ʼ he joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific Theater, participating in the Pacific combat campaigns of 1944 and 45, culminating in the occupation of Japan in September of 1945. He was later commissioned a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, where he served in the reserves until 1956.
Don graduated from Michigan State University in 1951 after he took a year hiatus in 1949 to teach school to Native American Eskimos. Working with the Alaska Native services, he organized and established the first school on Barter Island, a remote outpost on the North Slope, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle populated by a tribe of 40 families. Over half the village enrolled in the school, students ranged in age from 5 to 50. They relied on a traditional hunting lifestyle for much of their food. After one of the hunts, twin, orphaned polar bear cubs were rescued and nursed back to health in the schoolhouse. Don negotiated with a number of prominent zoos for the twins adoption and with much fanfare, escorted them back to the States to become the star attraction of the Detroit Zoo.
In 1951 Don married Barbara Monfort, whose family spent summers at their 40 acres on Gilʼs Pier Road and Lake Michigan in Leelanau County. They came to Miami that year, and Don attended the University of Miami Graduate School of Business at night and worked by day.
Entrepreneurial from an early age, he started his first Florida business, Sea Drift Wood Inc., making original furniture from driftwood that he collected from remote Florida beaches and mangroves. Don was a people person and sales came naturally to him. He launched a career in Real Estate, quickly establishing Coastline Properties, specializing in the assemblage of large tracks of oceanfront property. In 1955 he teamed up with another Key Biscayne resident Bob Berzin, who became his life-long friend and business partner, up until Bob’s death last year. Together they became the largest developers of bowling alleys in the South East. More akin to entertainment palaces they contained, restaurants, lounges, musical entertainment, and day care, operating 24 hours of day. Don was one of the driving forces in establishing the National Bowling League in 1960.
From there, he branched into apartment, shopping center and condominium development. In 1967 he had the good fortune to sell two adjoining waterfront lots to then former Vice President, Richard Nixon. The publicity that the sale created, coupled with an improving economy and Nixonʼs surprise election in 1968, put Key Biscayne on the national stage as “The Winter White House”.
Don was one of those lucky people, whose work was their joy and passion. Another labor of love was creating and operating restaurants, his most famous were the English Pub and Jamaica Inn. A venerable “who’s who“ of celebrated personalities and characters, along with U.S. Presidents, European royalty and a future Japanese Emperor, dined and frequented its watering holes.
Don married Monique Morton in 1978, together they traveled the world, spending their summers at their home in Traverse City. They shared many interests; one of their most passionate was thoroughbred racing and breeding. His ponies were in the winner’s circle dozens of times on tracks across the Southeast.
He was active in community affairs and charitable work. He was a director on many boards, both profit and non. He was a long time member of the Surf Club and the Key Biscayne Yacht Club and American Legion Post 374 as well as a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
He is survived by a son, Don II and his wife Kim of Palm City Fla.; daughters, Billie Ann Berg and Helen Berg of Melbourne Fla.; a sister Bernice Drake and brother Ken Berg and his wife Cherrie all of Traverse City as well as his his former wife Barbara Berg and many nephews and nieces. He was predeceased by his wife Monique and his grandson, Justin Kleinpeter, his parents Leonard and Charlotte, brothers Walter, Alfred, Leslie, Harold, Karl and Leonard, sisters Martha Kunold, Johanna Baynton and Kathryn Bellaw.
A remembrance and interring of his ashes will be held at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Keswick, Bingham Township at 11 a.m. on June 23.