James McWethy: A Legacy of Giving
James McWethy’s $5-million gift to endow the Berry Center continues his legacy of giving to Cornell College. Named for his grandfather Lester Berry (see below), the Center serves as a vital academic resource for students and faculty, as well as an enduring tribute to a man whose vision and ambition inspired Mr. McWethy.
McWethy says he decided to give this gift now, rather than plan it as an estate gift, in part for the pleasure of being involved in the Center. He chaired the Center’s Planning Committee from October 2004, to May 2006, and currently chairs the Center’s Advisory Board.
McWethy graduated from Cornell in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and business and mathematics. He earned a master’s degree in economics from Indiana University and taught economics there for three years, later teaching part time for several years at community colleges.
He was also actively involved in the leadership of the Berry Bearing Company, founded by Lester Berry, for 23 years. The business was sold in 1993 as one of the most successful companies of its kind.
Mr. McWethy's generosity toward Cornell College would have pleased his grandfather. He and his family pledged the lead gift to renovate McWethy Hall (formerly Alumni Hall), which revitalized one of the finest historic buildings on campus and transformed it into a beautiful new home for the college's art department.
An additional McWethy gift funded The Berry Lobby, the striking new lobby in Youngker Hall; and he was a major contributor to the renovation of Law Hall Technology Center.
"My study of economics and business at Cornell made a huge difference -- it really prepared me well," McWethy says. "To some extent, I give [economics and business professor] Don Cell credit for it. He was a major impact on my life. He and Dr. Bob Bunting were my mentors in economics. Without them I'm not so sure this would be happening."
About Lester Berry
As a young man growing up in New York City, Lester Berry lacked the resources and education typically required to lay the groundwork for a highly successful company. What he didn't lack, however, were the vision, the dream, and the ambition that no amount of money could buy.
After working in New York and Boston for several companies that repaired bearings, he had the foresight to move to Chicago, recognizing the Midwest had the greatest industrial opportunity, and founded Berry Bearing Co. Over the course of the next several decades, the business flourished and became the largest privately held industrial bearings distributor in the world.
Mr. Berry's imagination, work ethic, and true devotion to the needs of his customers formed the foundation of his success. Despite the demands of his business, he placed a high priority on family life and the importance of always being there for the ones he loved. His example served to inspire and guide his grandson, James McWethy.
"The story of my grandfather is the classic tale of a poor, uneducated kid from New York City with a vision and a dream," Mr. McWethy says. "He was a smart man who really understood what it took to succeed in business and in life. He had a gift for how to deal with people.
"At the time we sold, Berry Bearings had well over 1,000 employees and it was still a family business. He provided a level of service that nobody could match."