Ode to a Grecian Urinal… Life at UC Berkeley in the 60s

In last Wednesday’s blog-a-book post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I arrived at UC Berkeley and provided a view of my life in the surrounding community. Today I will take you onto campus and provide a broader view of my life as a student.

I had a number of classes at Wheeler Hall shown here, including one with over a thousand students. The campus’s iconic Campanile is peaking out behind. (Photo by UC Berkeley.)

My ambitions at Berkeley far exceeded the time and energy I had. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, a relationship to support, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume and a thousand causes to sort out. Moderation was not an option. I did understand that my primary reason for being there was to learn and I soon discovered that learning was defined differently than at Sierra. 

But first, I had to find my classes. Berkeley seemed like a maze to me. Single buildings had 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.  

Even the social science buildings had surprises. I was searching for a political science class in Wheeler Hall when I came upon a string of marble encased urinals in the basement. 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.’  My apology to Keats. Stream of conscious thinking can be dangerous. 

I finally found the 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 and 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 at Berkeley 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 confidante of Presidents. Did I learn more than I had at Sierra? 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 real.

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 had met at Sierra College and decided to attend Berkeley together. We struggled to spend time with each other, 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 when we lived 30 miles apart. Dates, given my super tight survival budget, normally consisted of going out for pizza at Laval’s or a hamburger at Larry Blake’s or at Si’s Charbroiler. Later, when we both turned 21, beer was added to the menu. On rare occasions, we would go to a movie. One that I remember was the Italian film “8 ½” directed by Federico Fellini and starring Marcello Mastroianni. Its surrealistic, artsy nature seemed to match our university experience.

Sunday mornings, in lieu of church, I would go for hikes up in the hills behind Berkeley. Grassy knolls provided views of San Francisco and the Bay. The beauty and quiet provided my mind with an opportunity to contemplate what was happening in my life, to gain perspective. There was solace to be found in the woods.

Participating in student politics at UC was an added burden I didn’t need. But I had been student body president at Sierra and gamely jumped into the fray. The dormitories were new; so, the residents were new. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other. The fact that I was a community college transfer made little difference. Within a week of my arrival, I was president of Priestly Hall. I quickly learned that my new role of mastering football chants and organizing parties was boring in comparison to what was happening in the real world. That was about to change as I struggled to make the position of dorm president more relevant— and get in trouble.  That will be the subject of my post next Wednesday.


Friday’s Travel Blog: I will continue our exploration of Harris Beach State Park near Brookings by focusing in on sea stacks, including Goat Island, home to over 100,000 nesting seabirds. 

22 thoughts on “Ode to a Grecian Urinal… Life at UC Berkeley in the 60s

  1. I was wondering when you’d get to the part where you got in trouble. In that era, in San Francisco and going to Berkley – you had to be in trouble some time or another!!

  2. Your account brings back fond memories of my undergrad years at University of Tennessee — especially those massive classes. I remember the role being checked by someone walking up and down the aisles and noting which assigned chairs were empty. Another thing I remember is how they kept us awake — they tapped us with a long bamboo-type poll. You can’t make this stuff up!

    • No one had assigned seats at Berkeley, Rusha. That would have been much worse than herding cats! As for tapping someone with a pole, I can’t imagine what would have happened. Not good, I’m sure. 🙂 –Curt

      • 🙂 Berkeley still had a foot in both doors, Rusha. There were lingering remnants of ‘in loco parentis.’ The strict separation of men and women in the dorm was one. I believe shared dorms are now the rule. –Curt

      • I don’t know about you, but shared dorms would not be my choice even today. I loved talking about the boys we all dated, leaving notes beside the shared pay phone on the dorm floor, and running down the hall to the shared bathrooms without make-up or sometimes even decent clothing. But, as I look back, I realize I was even more of a dinosaur back then than I am today!

  3. Like you, I remember my surprise at the size of classes at UofC after the shelter of High School! Two of my grandsons are going to that Uni now – going is a relative term because it is all pretty much done online because of Covid. They will be very happy when the campus opens up again.

      • A Canadian UofC, but yes, they want to get back. For a few months their part time jobs were shut down too. Add in an Alberta Winter… and Canada is not a ‘have’ country for getting the Covid vaccine… All in all there are many reasons why Canadians are not a happy bunch these days…

  4. I remember having that kind of energy, Curt. Now I get tired just reading about college! Lol. I went to a small college but remember having one auditorium class where I never actually talked with the professor. But he was wonderful and I never begrudged the packed class. Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

    • The community college I went to before Berkeley, Diane, had around 1500 students as I recall. Hardly larger than that one class. 🙂 I knew all of my professors and a good portion of the student body. Berkeley was day and night in comparison, but I am ever so glad that I had both experiences. And I agree on the energy… –Curt

  5. Funny how things come full circle. “I had one class that was so large we had to sit in another classroom and watch the professor on television.” There, you just described class during a pandemic. 😉 When I was deciding where to go to school in 2003, UC Berkeley and Brandeis U were the top contenders for me. Both schools were prepared to offer me a generous financial package. What decided it was the size, as you mention here. I suspected I would not get the attention I craved from educators if I was one of 25,000 underclassmen, and opted for the smaller pond at Brandeis. I am sure you are right about schools in that one doesn’t necessarily get any more or less education at one or another, but matching the school to what the student wants is important.

    I have hiked and jogged those hills behind campus and consider them an appropriate choice for a Sunday morning – a worthy place of worship. Your ability to recall details is outstanding. I wish I could do as well and tell the stories from my own past. But instead, I’ll enjoy your stories.

    • Ha. Pandemic learning before the pandemic. I suspect more and more of learning will become remote, Crystal. And I also believe we haven’t started to touch the potential of how to make it more enjoyable and semi-addictive, like interactive computer games. A good AI program should be capable of making sensitive adjustments to a student’s personality, type of intelligence, skills, and knowledge base, thus providing for highly individualized learning. Even with all of this, I think there is great value to the at school/on campus experience. Some type of hybrid system seems ideal. The ultimate goal should be to provide everyone with the opportunity for a high quality, affordable education, for both the individual and society.
      Can’t go wrong with Brandeis. 🙂 That’s where Sam, the young man who worked for my first wife and me in Liberia, Sam as in the Bush Devil Ate Sam, got his undergraduate degree.
      There is certainly a lot more I have forgotten than remembered, Crystal. 🙂 It’s just that some memories were burned into my memory banks. –Curt

  6. Wow, exciting times Curt. I’m exhausted just reading about it. And the size of those classes! My SDS and life-on-campus days came later( ’71-’72) and I remember the excitement of participating in anti-Vietnam war marches, and storming the grounds of the South African embassy in an anti-Apartheid demo. We came of age in interesting times I think. But Berkely – on campus in Australia it was a kind of student nirvana.

    • The president of the Berkeley chapter of the SDS was a resident in my dorm. 🙂
      Sound to me like you had a full 70’s type college experience, Alison, however far Berkeley seemed away from Austrailia. Grin.

    • There were still over 30,000 students there as I recall, Kelly, a few more than the 1500 at my community college. 🙂 But yes, It was exciting to be there and be part of it. –Curt

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