It was after the cocktail hour, after the hors d'oeuvres, after no fewer than eight speakers had come to the lectern in the Marriott Crystal Gateway with praises for the longest tenured woman college president in the country.
It was time for the portrait.
The trustees of Marymount College of Virginia unveiled a large, full-color, faintly smiling countenance of Sister M. Majella Berg, and James Barrett, a member of Marymount's board of directors, stepped to the front of the room.
"The overwhelming consensus," he said, gesturing toward the placid portrait, "was that the picture should be titled, 'You gave?' "
The moment provided a revealing glimpse of the woman who recently completed her 25th year as president of the Catholic-founded college in Arlington, a woman whose combination of faith and persistent fund raising brought Marymount from a 240-student junior college to an institution with a four-year undergraduate program teaching 1,300 women and with 800 male and female graduate students.
Berg is described by alumnae, administrators and students as a woman of quiet modesty and fierce resolve who has proved a tireless rudder and an anchor for the college during a quarter-century of fiscal and academic change.
"She knows what she wants, and she goes after it, but she's so nice about it," said state Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington).
What Berg wants is a thriving college that teaches students to do well in the working world without forgetting to do good for other people. "I try to keep a campus atmosphere that is conducive to growth, both spiritually and intellectually," she said in a recent interview.
She came in 1960 to Marymount, one of numerous colleges worldwide founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, because her superiors told her to. "When I came, there wasn't any choice; you were ready to go wherever you were assigned," Berg recalled.
The biggest problem then, she said, was inspiring junior-college students who had not learned to think of themselves as achievers. "They got the idea that it was better to say you didn't care than to be one who didn't make it," she said.
Employing techniques not often used in junior colleges, she split large lecture courses into seminars of seven to 10 students that met one hour a week. "They knew they were going to be in that little group, and they had to do the preparation for it," Berg recalled with a satisfied giggle. "They found out they could do things they didn't know they could do."
Ten years later, the college was losing students -- and money -- to community colleges as well as four-year institutions. "We had to take stock and adjust to what was the need of the '70s," Berg said. In 1973, Marymount began offering the bachelor's degree; in 1979, the master's.
That period also was difficult for students, with social unrest consuming the nation's college campuses. "The end of the '60s into the beginning of the '70s was the worst time," Berg said. "I called it 'the sad generation.' "
Berg recalled playing two records made by a campus singing group, one cut in the mid-1960s and the second made five or six years later. The first recording "was so cheery and uplifting," she said. But on the second, "if you listened to the music they were singing, it was all sad." Students "gradually cheered up as the '70s got under way," Berg said. "Now they're as cheery as can be."
During Berg's tenure, rules have been relaxed. Curfews were abolished, and male visiting hours were introduced a decade ago; on a recent balmy weekday, students strolled on the 18-acre grounds in blue jeans and shorts, T-shirts and sweat pants. "The days of compulsory anything are long gone," Berg said.
As the college has grown, the job of its president has evolved from a time when she knew all 200 students' names and the entire budget could be calculated in her head. Now the full-time faculty numbers 75 and the part-time faculty about 75 per semester; the budget is more than $12 million.
"When Berg hired me" as an English professor in 1971, recalled vice president for academic affairs Alice Mandanis, "she was it. She was the administration."
"What Berg has become is more like a traditional baccalaureate institution president," said Robert A. Draghi, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. "It was a considerable decision for her to move to the baccalaureate level; it was a survival decision . . . . She knew she was going to have to separate herself from the institution in order for the institution to survive."
"There were some very black times," Berg said. "For a while there, the debt was going up and I didn't know what to do . . . . Then we opened up to teaching the women of the '70s. We had our first balanced year. We got into fund raising; it all turned around."
What many alumnae and colleagues cite as remarkable is not how much Berg has changed with Marymount, but how little.
"I would say the qualities I saw in her as a young person have developed very well," said Sister Mary Catherine Walsh, who has known Berg since the two entered religious life in the mid-1930s after graduating from high school. Berg attended Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., and received a master's degree in classics from Fordham University in New York City. "If she set out to do something," Walsh said, "she would work very hard to come to the end of it."
Students praise Berg for her openness and genuine concern about their classes, friends and problems. They often tap on the large windows of her ground-floor office as they pass, and Berg usually waves back.
In a recent interview, Berg sat behind a desk littered with papers. "I always think people with clean desks don't get any work done," she said after apologizing for the mess. A cross dangled from a slim chain around her neck, crisp against the cloth of a blue habit that she had sewn; a curl of brown hair showed under the band of white linen.
Berg, in a soft even voice, reels through 25 years at Marymount without missing a beat, but she fiddles with the cross like a nervous schoolgirl.
"I was the only woman college president in Virginia for several years. But it never bothered me. I can't see why people get so nervous and uptight about the fact that they're women. I just have a job to do, and I do it."
According to Mandanis, those years of visibility as Virginia's only woman college president paid off in contacts and recognition. "She is a consummate good 'ol boy. When we go to national or state-level meetings, they all know her," Mandanis said.
Friends, alumnae and Marymount administrators say that while the college has grown tenfold since Berg's arrival, she has kept an uncanny recall for students' names, a facility for mimicking the accents and mannerisms of people she meets and, above all, an unshakable faith in Marymount's ability to survive.
"Sister has a very interesting quality of being fearless," Mandanis said. "She's extremely forward-looking in her attitude and doesn't allow herself to get frightened about change."
Jane McCarthy, now on the board of directors, graduated from Marymount in 1966 and began working as Berg's secretary. "I'd go in to her sometimes and say, 'This is just impossible. It can't work.' She'd just look at you and smile sweetly and raise her eyes to the ceiling and say, 'The Lord will provide' -- and nine out of 10 times He did."
Berg said she feels no conflict between the religious values of her upbringing and the secular demands of financing a four-year college. "I kept my religious life very clearly before me, and my duties as president of the college . . . . If it means going to this party or that party that the trustees say I should go to, well, I go."
Berg maintained the same bemused tolerance during planning stages of the fancy dinner marking her 25th anniversary. Dinner chairman McCarthy said Berg referred to the affair for a year as "Jane's thing."
Barrett, who presented the portrait, talked later of Berg's "singleness of purpose . . . . She has never lost track of the fact that she dedicates her life to the honor and glory of God.
"I am willing to wager that that portrait will never be hung in her lifetime," he said. "I fully expect her to say, 'You didn't spend any money on this, did you?' "