UC Berkeley, the Mass Production of College Graduates… The 60s

I arrived on the UC Berkeley campus in September of 1963 something of a country boy. I walked around in awe. Every corner had something new.

Telegraph Avenue became the center of my off-campus life. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants while numerous languages assaulted my ears.

I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe by mass producing and sanitizing them, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of Berkeley, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and the atmosphere.

I developed an even greater addiction for the Cody’s bookstore, which was located just across Telegraph. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties.

I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, half a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies.

Over one lunch period, I noted in a letter to my mother, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism, and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell.

Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; sign up to help on a political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Dorothy, nor was it Diamond Springs, Placerville or Sierra College.

To simplify my first year I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and someone to feed me. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue.

Three other dorms, one for men and two for women, comprised our corner of the universe. Co-ed living accommodations were still in the future. Strict House Mothers existed to enforce the rules and protect their charges. Women were only allowed on the first floor of the men’s residence hall. Slipping one up to your room was an expellable offense.

My sixth floor room came complete with a roommate, Clifford Marks. Cliff was a slightly built young man with bright red hair, freckles and a mischievous personality. Later we would share an apartment together. Like me, he was a political science major.

As for life at Berkeley, I wanted it all. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume, a thousand causes to sort out and a love life to support. (The woman I had met and fallen in love with at Sierra College, Jo Ann Griffith, had also chosen Berkley.)  Moderation was not an option.

I did understand that my primary reason for being there was to learn and I quickly discovered that learning was defined differently than at Sierra. First I had to find my classes. Berkeley seemed like a maze to me. Single buildings held more classrooms than were found on Sierra’s campus and each building held its own secrets. The Life Science building, for example, displayed enough jars of pickled fetuses to stop the heart of a pro-lifer and give me nightmares.

While the Social Science buildings weren’t nearly as interesting, I was searching for a political science class in Wheeler Hall when I came upon a string of marble encased urinals in the basement capable of accommodating the whole beer soaked population of a Oakland Raiders’ football game. I decided there was enough marble to refurbish the Parthenon, which led my mind to contemplate penning a new poem, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urinal.’ Stream of conscious thinking can be dangerous.

I finally found my political science class and discovered I had over 1000 classmates. It was located in a large auditorium I had passed by because my mind hadn’t been able to comprehend a classroom of that size.

The professor, Peter Odegard, was a star in the field of political science and frequently received standing ovations for his stirring lectures. In another life he had served as President of Reed College in Oregon.

His lectures inspired me but there was scant chance I would ever meet the man. Personal contact was through graduate teaching assistants, folks struggling to complete their own education while being paid minimum wages to interact with us.

I had one class that was so large we had to sit in another classroom and watch the professor on television. This was mass education on a grand scale. The University’s job, according to Clark Kerr the University President, was the mass production of educated people to go out and fill slots in society.

It was easy to be overwhelmed. I was assigned 15 books in one class and actually thought I was expected to buy and read each one in detail. I was a fast reader but not that fast, nor that wealthy. It would take a year to master the art of skimming, buying old books, using commercially prepared notes and pursuing all of the other tricks of the trade that getting a higher education entailed.

For all of that, there was an excitement to the classes that was lacking at Sierra. I might be sharing my professor with a thousand other students but he or she might also be a person who was a confidante of Presidents. Did I learn more than I had in community college or gain deeper insights? I actually don’t think so, but I did have a sense of being part of what was happening in the world and this made what I was learning seem more relevant.

Life quickly evolved into a routine that primarily consisted of attending classes and studying. Mainly I lived in the Bancroft library with occasional forays over to Café Med.

Friday nights were reserved for Jo Ann. We struggled to spend time together, to find moments of privacy and to bridge the gaps that our new life was creating. Even though we had gone off to the University together and now lived less than a mile apart, we saw less of each other than we had at Sierra.

Dates, given my super tight survival budget, normally consisted in going out for pizza at Laval’s or a hamburger at Larry Blake’s. Later, when we both turned 21, beer was added to the menu. On rare occasions, we would go to a movie.

Sunday mornings, in lieu of church, I would go for a hike up in the beautiful hills behind Berkeley. There was still solace to be found in the woods.

Next blog: Berkeley on the Edge of Revolt. Today’s Occupy Wall Street movement shares much in common with the nation wide student movement of the 60s. This series of blogs is devoted to the role that UC Berkeley played in the initiation and evolution of the 60s revolution.

By Curt Mekemson Posted in Memoirs

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