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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

BEARS 2013: Cheerleading the way into the New Millennium

February 14th, 2013 by Peggy Aycinena

In case you didn’t know, U.C. Berkeley is the center of the world. That’s why several hundred people attend the Berkeley EECS Annual Research Symposium each February, and this year is no exception. If you were here on campus with me this morning, you would be hearing – yet again – that there’s no better School of Engineering than Berkeley’s, no better EECS alumni than Berkeley’s, no better weather in the world than on this campus overlooking the glorious San Francisco Bay, and no more hip-or-hipster place to be. Anywhere.

BEARS 2013 started off today with Prof. David Culler acknowledging this year’s distinguished EECS Alumni Awards. Recipients include SanDisk Co-founder, President & CEO Sanjay Mehrotra; the co-inventor of a type of binary search tree, championship aerobatic pilot, and University of Washington professor Cecilia Aragon; and Sendmail developer Eric Allman, who mentioned from the podium that he may have helped create email but he’s not to blame for spam. Allman also noted that everybody who comes to Cal as a student is more lucky than smart to be here.

Yeah, right. How can that be the case if U.C. Berkeley continues to describe itself as the center of the technology universe, where swarms, networks, tablets, and big data, among a host of other innovations, were all developed and refined?

Having said these things, let me reminisce about my father, who by cosmic coincidence would turn 90 this week if he were still alive. Back in September 1940, when he was a desperately poor, 17-year-old fatherless child of the Depression, he showed up in this town to pursue a degree in biology and hopefully become a doctor. His widowed mother had lost the family’s 10 acres of orange trees, their only source of income, to the foreclosure agents of the Bank of Italy back in 1935, and my father  brought that humiliation to Berkeley with him, along with 2 pencils, a pen, and one shabby change of clothing.

When he stepped off the train in 1940, he made his way to a neighborhood near campus and rented a place to sleep – a mattress on a glassed-in porch in a 19th century clapboard house that probably still stands today. Along with his scholarship, my father paid for his books and housing by hashing at a fraternity up on Prospect. There, he waited on young men he often referred to as “poor little rich boys” who didn’t give him the time of day. After all, he used to say, they considered themselves the heirs of the earth who had no need to give notice to the scrawny kid who served their meals at linen-clad tables, washed up their dirty dishes when those meals were finished, and then sat in the fraternity kitchen and ate leftovers as part of his daily pay. No seconds allowed.

And why do I revisit the story of my father this morning as I sit here in this evocatively beautiful I-House auditorium, just steps from the frat house where my father suffered the slings and arrows of a cruel world of entitlement?

Because his ghost is right here with me, chuckling. No doubt he’s highly bemused by the professors up on stage this morning, bragging on and on about how Cal’s EECS is the best, brightest, most-enlightened, most-innovative, and always-superior-to-MIT-and-Harvard place in the world. Yep, my father would be chuckling.

Of course, if he were sitting here he would also remind me that his story did not end with his suffering in that nearby frat house, because after the U.S. entered WWII in December 1941 he became a Navy cadet. He entered medical school, only half way through his sophomore year here at Berkeley, and continued his education at U.C. San Francisco. He graduated from U.C.S.F. in February 1946, simultaneously receiving his B.S. in biology and M.D. just a week after his 23rd birthday.

He then did an internship at the Naval Hospital in San Diego – sometimes with a thousand war-wounded GIs under his care on a particular shift, there were so few doctors – shipped out as medical officer on the U.S.S. Kermit Roosevelt in 1947, and spent a year bobbing around in the harbor at Tsingtao where the U.S. Navy was supporting the Nationalist Chinese Army of Chiang Kai-Shek.

By 1948, my father was back in San Diego, sick as a dog with hepatitis, and followed that adventure with a rip-roaring case of polio, which he was one of the few on the base to survive. Meanwhile, in and around war and near-death illnesses, he delivered babies, became an expert 20-something vascular surgeon, married his life-partner, and fathered several children.

Finally at the tender age of 27, he returned to the Bay Area and entered a 3-year residency in Radiology at U.C.S.F.. He joined the faculty there in 1953 and spent the remainder of his career in the University of California system – short of 6 years spent at the University of Texas – teaching medicine and serving as President of the Academic Senate, both at U.C.S.F. and U.C. Irvine later-on in his career.

He also served on numerous state-wide committees researching new educational initiatives and was frequently back on the Berkeley campus, either attending meetings of the U.C. Regents or precessing along with other black-robed professors in doctoral hoods and mortar boards, he representing the San Francisco campus at Berkeley’s annual Charter Day celebrations in Zellerbach Hall.

By the time I came to Cal as an undergraduate, my father had moved far beyond the poor farm kid who had first come to town in 1940. At least, so it would have appeared from a superficial point of view. At heart, however, he continued to be that scrawny 17-year-old who hated those who shroud themselves in the hubris of wealth, influence, and privilege – particularly in academics. Really despised them.

And so, not surprisingly, it’s that antipathy for posturing I bring with me when I come to BEARS each February. Blame my father, but that skepticism’s always in my satchel when I sit down to hear the morning’s presentations, tucked in neatly next to my laptop and now my iPad.

Especially on the Cal campus today, which doesn’t realize it’s celebrating this week the 90th birthday of one of its noblest alums – a man who never forgot his humble roots, and always remembered that humility, particularly for Academics, is the single most crucial element of intellectual pursuit. In Biology. In Medicine. In Engineering. In Life. Particularly on his beloved Berkeley campus, and particularly here in the New Millennium.

Happy birthday, Dad.


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One Response to “BEARS 2013: Cheerleading the way into the New Millennium”

  1. Karl says:


    I really enjoyed this post. I wish the UC system would be as welcoming as it used to be in the last century to bright kids that do not come from upper-class backgrounds. I like Eric Allman’s note that kids nowadays have to be mostly lucky to get into U.C. Berkley.

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