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Magazine innovator celebrates 101 years with gifts for his medical school “family”

Medicine@Yale, 2005 - June July


You don’t have to meet Gus Berkes to learn about his accomplishments. They’re right in front of you whenever you pick up a magazine.

Berkes, who turned 101 in March, spent his working life as a production director at Esquire, Better Homes & Gardens and McCall’s, where he pioneered the use of innovations we now take for granted—bound-in subscription cards and advertising supplements, foldout pages and the legendary (and wonderfully self-explanatory) ad gimmick known as “Scratch-n-Sniff.”

“See all these cards?” Berkes asks as he riffles through a copy of Better Homes at East Hill Woods, the retirement community in Southbury, Conn., where he has made his home since 1993. “That’s me.”

Thirty years ago, just after being treated at Yale by Clarence T. Sasaki, M.D., the Charles W. Ohse Professor of Surgery, Berkes and his wife, Josephine, who were childless, created trust funds and placed instructions in their wills to support their favored charities. Because of his gratitude to Sasaki and the warm rapport the two men enjoyed, the School of Medicine was at the top of Berkes’ list in his bequest.

But four years ago, as he was approaching his 100th birthday, Berkes happened upon a magazine story detailing Sasaki’s recent research in head and neck surgery, and he decided to give half of his trust immediately to support Sasaki’s work. Berkes called Sasaki on the phone, and in the no-nonsense manner well-known to his East Hill Woods neighbors, he said, “Do you remember me? You treated me 30 years ago, and I want to give you some money.”

He did just that, in the form of a $400,000 endowment for Sasaki’s Section of Otolaryngology. Berkes’ beloved wife, Jo, had since died from heart disease, so he soon followed up his first gift with a $200,000 endowment for Yale’s Section of Cardiothoracic Surgery, headed by John A. Elefteriades, M.D.

Berkes went on to set up two charitable annuities for the Department of Surgery, but because he had little need for the income they generated, he deposited the money in yet another trust earmarked for the School of Medicine. This newest trust has appreciated to the point where he may be able to leave Yale an additional gift that matches his original donation, Berkes says with a laugh, adding, “I feel like I’ve discovered perpetual motion.”

In sum, Berkes’ gifts to the medical school will total as much as $1.4 million, and he says it was the right decision to donate sooner rather than later, because his gifts are a “two-way street”: he takes great joy from seeing the fruits of his generosity. Berkes says it was “the greatest thrill” to pay a recent visit to the medical school and discuss current research with Elefteriades and a group of medical students.

Berkes stresses that the germ of his proud association with Yale physicians and fundraisers—he calls them “family”—lies in the solid doctor-patient bond he formed with Sasaki all those years ago, and he fondly hopes that doctors-in-training will learn to engage deeply with their patients.

Among Berkes’ inventions at Esquire was a small symbol placed at the end of articles that alerted readers when a piece had come to an end. In his honor, we’ve placed one below. But at a vigorous 101, Berkes’ story is far from over. Instead, he seems irrepressibly eager to see whatever may lie on the next page.