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Sixth Anniversary of Memorial Day Death of Raymond Zack at Alameda’s Crown Beach

Delores Berry, Raymond Zack’s foster mother. April 8, 1927 – June 14, 2016. (Courtesy photo)

Sitting at her kitchen table, Monica Berry alternates between tears and anger as she discusses the passing of her mother last year, Delores (Dee) Berry. Dee was Raymond Zack’s foster mother, and it’s the first Memorial Day weekend since her death, and the sixth since Zack died in the waters off of Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda.

Raymond Zack died on Memorial Day, 2011, after walking into San Francisco Bay from the beach near Willow Avenue and Shore Line Drive. Onlookers gathered on the beach; first responders from the Alameda Police and Fire departments gathered on the beach too, but none ever entered the water. A Coast Guard boat was supposedly on the way to Zack. It never arrived.

Local political partisans will undoubtedly view this story as an attack on the fire department, which asserts it has changed practices since Zack’s death, but listening to Monica, it becomes clear that her story is a lesson-book for grieving families.

Mary Waileili, a long-time friend of Dee, sat with Monica. Waileili grew up in New York, moved to Alameda when she was 14, and went to high school here, with Dee. She was at the beach as events unfolded.

She said, “he had that book or pamphlet in his car, about if you’re upset and you want to pray, go down to the beach, go down to the water, and pray, walk and pray. That’s what he had in the back of his car. I don’t think he originally intended to get into the water and go out that far. I think he just wanted to be left alone with his feelings, walk it out, work it out, and he got panicked when he saw everybody.

“At one point, I was standing next to, I’m not sure if it was a police officer or a fireman, he was dressed in blue, and I said, I can’t see him anymore, I was walking back and forth trying to see, all I could see was this little head. And he said, uh, ‘He’s face down.’ And he got very emotional and he had to turn and walk away.”

“She never got over it.”

Asked about the impact of Zack’s death on Dee, Monica explained, “She never got over it. It broke her heart. She never got over it. They were very close and she felt lost when he was gone. He took care of her. He looked out for her. Her health deteriorated pretty rapidly after that. It just broke her heart. She just had too much loss. She lost her two sons. Ray was like her son. She was like a foster mother. We lost my father. It was too much, it was too much loss of people she really loved. Especially, like I said, her sons. She lost one son at a very young age in tragic circumstances – he fell off a five story building, when he was only 27. He had four babies, one who had just been born, the oldest was 5. The family never got over that, that was devastating.

“There’s only so much heartbreak a person can take. My mother was never one…she was very empathetic, and when my brother was killed, the person responsible…my mother could have filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit. They didn’t put up guardrails. They tried to save money on construction. It would have been a slam-dunk case. But she wouldn’t do it. She said, ‘It’s not going to bring my son back.’

“She wasn’t somebody who sought vengeance. I think she tried to be as understanding as she could about the police department and fire department . Of course, she was extremely angry, but she wasn’t looking to wreck anyone’s life over it. But as I said, she never recovered from it. It broke her heart.

“My mom lost the will to live shortly after. I’d say she felt that way for at least a year or more.”

Waileili agreed, saying, “I accompanied her to doctors appointments and so on, I could judge her state of mind. She lost the will to live. She’d go in and out, saying ‘I don’t want to be here any more’, and then be in good spirits.”

Monica continued, “I tried to do as much as I could, but I couldn’t be with her every day. I called the whole family and told them we all need to take turns, to do something fun, to get her back to where she’s got the will to live. I tried to get her involved in things like the urban renewal project, because she loved construction and renovation. A book club.

“I kept trying to find things she would enjoy. And I used to tease her. Even if you’re just excited about having lemon yogurt, you’ve got to start with something that you’re happy with life about, and get momentum from that and build on that, until you remember two things you like about life and three things you like about life.

“We had people rotating and spending as much time with him as possible, to get over her grief. He was her companion, they did everything together. Of course it’s going to make an impact. It’s a big empty space to fill.”

Waileili said, “and then my mother (Jeanette) passed away after Ray did, about 3 years after Ray died. And mom was friends with Dee. She was always coming over to visit with Dee. I’d take them both to church.”

“An ugly part of ourselves”

Monica Berry heard about Zack’s death after it was all over.

“I was 15 minutes away in Oakland.” she said. “I didn’t get a call until it was over. I’m an avid scuba diver. I would have no problem getting out there in a hot second. It was too little too late. It’s frustrating. It feels needless. If I had been there, I can’t imagine watching.

“I think every person standing on that Shoreline was personally responsible. I don’t care if a police officer told me not to do it, I would have gone in the water and been happy to go to jail.

“I could deal with it better if I knew someone tried. I think it’s important that people take a look at they are conditioned to behave.

“You know, I’m sure that those people have just gone on, the people that were there that day, it’s part of their job, it was a bad day they had years ago. I want those people to have a deeper understanding of the ripple effect they caused with their choices that day, and how it affected so many people that they don’t have to see. It’s not in their face, so maybe they don’t care.

“But it’s still affecting the people that were close to him. They need to have a fuller measure of what their actions caused. They need to have a fuller measure of the impact of their decisions on other people’s lives. You can’t just do something like that and forget about it.

“Every single person there made a choice. Somebody could have chosen not to follow orders. Why didn’t that happen? Somebody could have said ‘I don’t care. It’s my job, someone is dying, you’re doing the wrong thing and I’m going to take that chance and do the right thing.’ Nobody stood up to do the right thing. Why? How could that have happened. That’s why people were shocked. That’s why people were outraged across the nation.

“I could deal with it better if I knew someone tried. I think it’s important that people take a look at how they are conditioned to behave.

“It’s a mirror to take a look at a really ugly part of ourselves. To see that that could ever even happen.

“You’re being told by an authority to follow orders, but at some point, when does your own personal integrity and humanity override it? That there wouldn’t be enough courage and strength of character in anybody there to push past what they were being told? That’s what I think people were appalled by.

“Because we don’t want to look at ourselves and realize that we’re going to be like that as human beings in a situation like that. That’s an ugly thing to look at, don’t you think?”

Wileili remembered an exchange she had on the beach, explaining, “there was a very callous remark made by a little old man who passed by, lingered for a while, found out what was going on and when he heard that he may be out there committing suicide man said, ‘Ah, he’s better off. He’s better off.’ And a little old lady said pretty much the same thing.”

Monica said, “what you [Action Alameda News] and Jaime are here to do is hold that mirror up. People need to look at it even if it’s uncomfortable. There’s a domino effect, every action you take.”

(Jaime Longhi, of Connecticut, produced the 2015 documentary Shallow Waters: The Public Death of Raymond Zack)

Dee’s Passing

Delores Berry died on June 14, 2016 at age 89.

Monica said, “I definitely believe that Ray’s passing had a significant impact on my mother’s health. She passed in her sleep. Congestive heart failure and kidney failure. To the very end she was grieving her loss. She was up there in years, I don’t know how we can argue how long she would have lived otherwise.”

However, both Monica Berry and Mary Waileili believe that Dee really died of a broken heart.

Monica said, “I’ve lost close friends to suicide. When it was something that could have been prevented..if only somebody had the courage to do what’s right. I think that’s what made it hard for my mother.

“There’s a lot of spiritual people in this town…”

Waileili interjected: “It’s very Zen.”

Monica continued, “people have faith in God, that faith will get you through. But when it’s something like this…it’s hard to accept. It makes it harder.”

Waileili said, “He didn’t die in vain.”

1 comment to Sixth Anniversary of Memorial Day Death of Raymond Zack at Alameda’s Crown Beach

  • Thanks for taking the time to do a tribute to Ray and to his wonderful “foster”-mom, Dee Berry. She was a soft-spoken and strong-willed woman who broke with a lot of female stereotypical expectations, and she loved to share stories about her life and her loves. She was brought up in Salinas, in Cannery Row country, and claimed to have known John Steinbeck. She spoke about having a husband who was involved in the development of the A-bomb, and who she left after she saw images of the bombs effect on Hiroshima children.

    Dee had studied nursing, and psychology and read philosophy. She had a soft-spot for flawed characters….depressives and alcoholics, and loved them until they died or broke her heart, or both. As Dee says,”” my given name is Maria Dolores, which translates as “lady of pain”.” She changed it to Dee.

    Dee, with all the sorrow of a lifetime of losses, celebrated the children that she brought into this world, and those she adopted. She loved them and knew, with a religious intensity, that her love had not been in vain, in spite of the tragic demise of so many of them. It was all she had to give.

    In spite of all her losses, Dee maintained a high energy smile and an optimism that the world will “get better.” She was a political progressive .
    Dee wanted to see SHALLOW WATERS: The Public Death of Raymond Zack made, and I know that she kept herself going until my promise of screening the film in Alameda was fulfilled. The photo that you’ve got of Dee was taken that day, after the screening. I’m so grateful to have known Dee. Both my wife and I got to share many hours (and a few dinners) with her, and she showered us with her laughter and her love. RIP.

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