Bert Askwith: Victor for UMS
We bump into a particular name as we walk our well-worn central campus routes: Bert Askwith.
If you’re a student, you’ve met study partners in Bert’s Study Lounge, creating new neural pathways over a much needed coffee from Bert’s Café. As you scurry to classes through the frost-tipped leaves of the diag, you’ve noticed posters curled around lamp-posts for “Bert’s Tickets,” a new program for first year students and new transfers that offers a free ticket a UMS performance this season. At the end of a long week, you’ve lost yourself in the endless Friday night movie options of the Askwith Media Library, (over 25,000 movie titles). Bert Askwith makes life on campus a well-rounded one.
But who is he?
Bert Askwith is a true Victor. At 102 years old, he still goes to work every day. Bert runs a charter bus company in New York. The humble roots of his company began right here at the University of Michigan at the start of the Great Depression. He is a proud U-M alum, Class of ’31. While work keeps him busy, Bert is prouder than ever to be a Wolverine.
This fall, Bert Askwith worked with UMS to ensure that every first-year student and new transfer student gets an introduction to world-class artists that UMS brings to the University of Michigan campus. Through a program called Bert’s Tickets, new undergraduate and first-year transfer students can chose to attend a UMS performance free of charge. In only two short months, Bert’s incredible gift has garnered over 300 responses; 300 new students have experienced an incredible presentation of professional music, theater, or dance.
We asked a past UMS intern and recent U-M graduate Bennett Stein (Ford School of Public Policy, class of ‘12) to pay Bert Askwith a visit and report back on the big-hearted man behind the legend.
A resident of Brooklyn, New York, Bennett Stein works for the American Civil Liberties Union and enjoys many of NYC’s cultural offerings. He spoke to Bert Askwith in Bert’s office recently, joined by Bert’s daughter Patti Kenner.
Bennett Stein (BS): Were you born in Ann Arbor?
Bert Askwith (BA): Battle Creek.
BS: Have you been back to Battle Creek at all?
BA: Once or twice. Great cereal town. My father worked for Kellogg.
BS: What did he do for Kellogg?
BA: Vice President.
Patti Kenner (PK): But he wasn’t in the Kellogg company. My grandfather, who was born in Boston, worked for Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the first in the United States. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg delivered my father! My grandfather went to Harvard, but one of his first jobs was being the vice president to the assistant to the PR guy […] at the sanitarium. So when it was time [for my dad] to go to college, my grandfather was like, well are you going to go to Harvard like me?
BA: I said no, I’m a Wolverine, I was born in Michigan!
BS: Did you always know you wanted to go to Michigan?
BS: Same with me, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I only applied to the University of Michigan. The University Musical Society was a big part of life in high school and then also in college. I interned with UMS, and met some of my most important mentors there, so that’s why UMS has asked me to interview you about the Bert’s Tickets Program. It sounds like it’s been a really great success so far. So I guess my first big question is why are the performing arts important to you?
BA: Well, I feel that there is too much emphasis is on the technical aspects of a college education, and not enough for an all-around better person, you know. Life should not be concentrated on the aspects of a future occupation. […] When my father went to Harvard, he was doing some cultural classes, oral, vocational. If you’re a well-rounded person, you can’t be that limited.
BS: Were you an economics major?
BS: So did you have that kind of outlet? Did you have a balance for the economics?
BA: My sub-major was journalism.
PK: Tell them what you did for the paper.
BA: I was on the Michigan Daily. I was an editor on the Daily.
BS: Did you have a beat?
BA: Yeah, the screen editor. I got to see all the movies.
BS: At the Michigan Theater?
BS: Still going strong, the Michigan Theater.
BA: I remember back, in those days, they used to have some vaudeville. They used to have a movie and an onstage performance. An hour of vaudeville and an hour and a half or so of a movie. So it was a well-rounded thing there.
BS: Would there be local performers or would they be touring?
BA: No. Bing Crosby came.
BS: You saw Bing Crosby?! At the Michigan Theater?
BS: [Laughing] That’s pretty awesome.
BS: Did you review both the art and the performance?
BA: I reviewed them with an A, B, C, like getting a mark in a class there. I would give them an “A”, a “B”, a “C”, and so forth, and I was the first one to ever do that.
BS: Where did your interest in movies come from?
BA: Just, no special reason, I just sort of gravitated towards it.
PK: You took your sister to the movies as a kid, how much did it cost? [laughing]
BA: A nickel. [laughter]
BS: And so, how did you continue your connection with the arts once you graduated?
BA: I just maintained an interest in them. When I went into business, there was no connection there. It was a part of a well-rounded education and a life interest, and there’s something lacking if you’re 100 percent vocationally marked, no room for life or arts, the cultural aspect.
BS: Did you continue to go to films when you entered the work world?
BA: I was in New York, I went mostly to business, and I still maintained a great interest in movies, but that was a side issue, not a part of my mainstream.
BS: I assume that you had to work extremely hard to build the business. Did you have time to go to shows?
BA: I made room.
BS: Why were your four years on campus so important to you?
BA: Well, I feel like Michigan gave me a lot, and I’m trying to give back. I owe them, I feel like I owe them my college education, I owe them my current vocation too, they gave me a great start in life. The least I could do is show some gratitude. What Michigan did for me, I’m trying to do something for Michigan.
BS: Do you have any advice for students?
BA: Well, I’m a great believer in a well-rounded education and not a narrow one. We’ve got to enjoy all aspects of life, not just be a great mathematician or economist, enjoy all aspects of modern life.
BS: For me, my work with UMS and the campus radio station, having that outlet to be creative, it’s really important to me.
PK: I think my father also likes the students to have a good quality of life, working, working, working, that’s why he built the café. While they’re in the library, get a cup of coffee, relax, it’s not all intense. So with Bert’s tickets, and the study lounge, and the café, he should work on the quality of life for the kids at Michigan.
BS: Are there any movies or performances that stand out in your life as important?
BA: I’m a great Western fan.
PK: What’s your favorite movie, don’t you have a favorite movie?
BA: To Kill a Mockingbird.
BS: One question that I had that’s not arts-related, I’m wondering how you kept things interesting for so many years.
BA: My business is a people-oriented business, you know, so I’m dealing with a senior one day and a professor another day and an artist another day. Being in the business […], no two days are ever the same. There’s a whole wide spectrum of people, all kinds of people doing different things, so there’s no chance of being dull.
BS: Did you choose busses because of that or was it a lucky happenstance that you were able to do it for so long?
BA: It was a great opportunity, I was able to be there at the right time and the right place and take advantage of it.
BS: Did you expect that it would last so long?
BA: Not when I first started, but it grew.
BS: How did the industry change?
BA: It was becoming much more, many years ago riding busses was sort of third-class travel, now it’s becoming a more, having a better place in the transportation spectrum. Busses are much more luxurious. We have lavatories, we have much more comfortable air conditioning and so forth, so the bus business has graduated from a third class travel to a second or first class travel.
BS: I think that’s all my questions, I mean I can ask questions all day, but this has been really nice to speak to you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for our school. I spent a lot of time in these spaces named after you, and they’re important to me. So thank you, I appreciate the talk.