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Phyllis Berlin

Playing It Forward

Alumna recognizes the generosity of a Roosevelt professor with a generous act of her own

Posted: 08/08/2012

By Courtney Flynn | From the Spring 2012 issue of Roosevelt Review

Phyllis Berlin (then Phyllis Panitch) first met the late Roosevelt University music professor Saul Dorfman in the early 1950s. At the time, Berlin was a teenager pursuing the joy of playing the piano and was a student at Roosevelt High School in Chicago.

Upon the recommendation of her school’s orchestra director, Albert Freedman, Berlin auditioned for and began taking private lessons every other week from Dorfman at Roosevelt University. In preparation for her high school graduation concert, Dorfman told his student that he would like her to start coming for weekly lessons.

Lessons were $20 each, but Berlin replied that she could not afford the additional $20 weekly expense. “I told you that you had to come. I didn’t say you had to pay,” Dorfman responded. Berlin has never forgotten those exact words.

She did increase her lessons to once a week at no additional cost. “I resolved right at that moment,” recalled Berlin, “that if there was ever a time in my life when I would be in a position to be able to repay Professor Dorfman for his generosity and kindness by endowing a scholarship in his name, I would do so.”

Berlin, who graduated from Roosevelt University in 1956 with a math degree and then married Leonard Berlin the same year, credits the Roosevelt professor with encouraging her love for the piano.

Berlin continues to play on the Mason & Hamlin grand piano she and her husband bought in 1974. The top of it is covered with sheet music ranging from Bach to Jobim. She still practices four-hand work once a week with her first piano teacher, Gitta Yellin, who is in her late nineties.

Now, more than 50 years after Dorfman first extended his help to Berlin, she and her husband have contributed $100,000 to Roosevelt to endow in perpetuity a scholarship for the Piano Program. Each year, one talented student will benefit from the gift.

“The Saul Dorfman Memorial Scholarship will have a long-lasting impact on the Piano Program as well as the Chicago College of Performing Arts because of the size of the initial gift and the spirit in which it was given,” said Jodi Kurtze, senior director of development for the college. “Mrs. Berlin’s learning experience with Saul Dorfman inspired her to repay the generosity he showed her. In addition, the scholarship is structured in a way that it can grow from gifts by other individuals influenced by his teaching.”

In some cases, the Berlins’ gift could mean the difference between a student having the ability to attend college or not. It also highlights the lasting effects of the relationship between professors and their students, and the type of person Dorfman was.

Saul Dorfman Memorial Scholarship

“It’s really an incredibly powerful relationship between a student and a teacher so it doesn’t surprise me at all that this is something that affected Mrs. Berlin for her entire life,” said Linda Berna (BM,’77; MM, ’81), associate dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts and director of the Music Conservatory. “This wonderful woman who made this donation is starting the cycle with the younger generation. She was touched, and by making it possible for students to pursue their dreams, they can in turn pass it on to someone else.”

Chicago-born Dorfman first came to Roosevelt in 1945 as one of the University’s founding educators. He went on to serve as chairman of the Piano Program before retiring in 1983 as professor emeritus. He died in 1984.

As a boy, Dorfman quickly became a musical prodigy. He competed as a teenager in 1929 in the Greater Chicago Piano Playing Tournament, which included 15,000 pianists. He won the $1,500 cash prize. Soon after that, he studied in Europe with world-famous pianists Arthur Schnabel, Max Pauer and Leonid Kreutzer.

“Because he was a student of Schnabel, he understood stylistic differences, which are out the window these days because we are so concerned about speed,” said longtime Dorfman colleague and friend Ludmila Lazar (BM,’63; MM, ’65), professor emerita of piano and former chairperson of the department. “He taught his students to caress the keys, not hit.”

In addition to his work at Roosevelt, Dorfman lectured and performed throughout the country.

Dorfman’s last public appearance was in February 1983 with the Roosevelt University Symphony Orchestra. The event also featured prominent faculty members Elaine Skorodin (BM,’57; MM, ’59) and Judy Stone (BM,’79; MM, ’81).

“He was the image of a professor who was internationally recognized — he was a great administrator and also a great scholar,” Lazar said. “He was someone who was so wellknown, so well-established, so erudite and yet, humble. All of his students simply adored him.”

Dorfman was also someone who was very demanding of his students. “He was willing to give a lot, but he also expected a lot,” said Berna, who was a student at Roosevelt while Dorfman was on the faculty. “I think he must have felt very compelled by Mrs. Berlin. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that he would make such a generous offer to her.”

When it came to Berlin, Dorfman likely remembered the kindness piano greats like Schnabel showed him when he was a student. And now, the cycle of generosity will continue through the scholarship.

“One of my hopes would be that giving a gift like this will be transformative for a student,” said Winston Choi, head of Roosevelt’s Piano Program.

“I think many of our students can relate to Phyllis Berlin. Having this financial encouragement and knowing how much a teacher cared about a student, it’s so inspiring for all of us. A little incentive can mean a huge deal.”

And after all the years since Dorfman first touched Berlin’s life, she continues to remember his kindness with clarity, as if it happened yesterday.

“It was very honorable what he did. He was a marvelous, marvelous teacher,” Berlin said. “I have been thinking about this scholarship for a long, long time, and finally my husband and I decided this was the time.”

To donate to the Saul Dorfman Memorial Scholarship and to help continue his legacy of teaching and compassion, contact Patrick M. Woods, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, at (312) 341-2296 or

Last updated 03/28/2013