Raymond Berry’s great granddaughter, Dena Transeau, is currently appearing in a play in Frederick Maryland, “Radium Girls,” about a case that Ray Berry litigated in New Jersey in the 1920’s.
Raymond Berry played a major role in Burney history from the 1940’s into the early 1970’s. As an attorney for the Starr family he came to Burney to assess timber properties which the Starr family estate owned. In the 1940’s he moved to Burney, helped to incorporate the Scott Lumber Company, and served as its general manager for nearly three decades. During that time he also helped start the Burney Chamber of Commerce, negotiate the extension of the McCloud railroad into Burney, and start Shasta County Bank that later merged with Tri-Counties Bank.
Before he came to Burney however, he represented a number of young ladies in the late 1920’s who had worked for the United Radium Company in New Jersey. The case is considered a landmark case in labor, women’s rights, and class action law.
The young women painted the numbers on watch dials with small brushes. They were encouraged by their employers to lick the tips of the brushes with their tongues. After a period of time many of them became seriously ill from radiation poisoning. Some of them glowed in the dark. Some died.
No one would take the case because the corporations were so powerful and many thought that the statute of limitations had passed. In a last ditch effort, one of the girls found a young Yale-educated lawyer who agreed to take the case. He established that the statute of limitations did not begin until the cause of the illnesses had been established and succeeded in winning a substantial settlement for five of the victims.
The case was well known in labor law history but not widely publicized in popular culture until the last few decades. The play “Radium Girls” was written in 1999 by D. W. Gregory and has become a popular play for youth drama. In 2018, it was named one of the ten most popular plays for high school drama. Gregory lives in Silver Spring Maryland and visited Frederick to offer advise on the production of the play.
Dena plays several characters in the play – one of the girls who dies, and also Katherine Wiley, executive director of the New Jersey Consumer’s League who helps the girls. She leaks the story to the press, creating public outrage, and finds a lawyer Ray Berry to take the case.
The director Gerard Stropnicky is quoted in an article in the Frederick News-Post as saying, “It kind of makes my hair stand on end when I watch you, carrying that DNA, making the character that is your great-grandfather the full success that he becomes.”
“What’s interesting is that the Raymond Berry in this play, when we first meet him, is kind of clumsy, and he’s kind of a terrible lawyer,” Stropnicky said. “But Ms. Wiley, who Dena plays, builds him into becoming the lawyer who wins the case by the end of the second act.”
In 2016, a British author Kate Moore also published a book, The Radium Girls: They Paid with Their Lives. The Final Fight Was for Justice. In 2017, I also talked with a producer who was making a movie about the radium girls and another who was producing a documentary.
Incidentally, Dena was married last September in the theatre where she is performing. She had planned to be married on the beach in North Carolina but the location was changed at the last minute when a hurricane hit the Outer Banks. Her casting in the play came about as a result of the hasty change in venue.
Dena Transeau (nee Colvin) is the granddaughter of Ray Berry’s eldest daughter Alice B. Stone, and the daughter of Alex and Linda Colvin who live in Burney.