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Crossing Sproul Plaza

May 21, 2019

Since my time at Berkeley (1968–72), I have made it a point to return often, be it for a night at the Faculty Club, a concert, ballgame, or—best yet—simply a quiet seat on Sproul Plaza watching the changing of classes as the Campanile tosses out its tunes. A seat on the plaza is my own Brooklyn Ferry, free of charge and without the tossing tides. It’s so reaffirming to watch the legions of students pass by, just as I passed through Sather Gate in the late 60s and if my experiences at my alma mater are any indication, it is thrilling to imagine the difference that professors will make on those who pass through Sather Gate.

Recently, during one sitting I determined that I would try to reconnect with the handful of mentors I had “in the day.” Professor James D. Hart held the greatest influence during my time at Cal, but sadly he had passed away several years earlier. It was not only his encyclopedic knowledge of American literature but his generosity that inspired me. During my first semester I showed up for his seminar in American Literature, and being the only student to appear, he still committed to meeting me three times a week for the entire quarter! This gesture has informed so many of my actions throughout my own career because I know what a difference it made to me.

Emerson once said that “the secret of education lies in respecting the pupil,” and in addition to Professor Hart, there were other professors to thank for their kindness and respect. Here are three examples which I thought you would not only enjoy reading about but which might also prompt you, as alumni, to experience your own enjoyment.

On a hot summer afternoon, one of my returns to Cal led me to LeConte Hall. I had just read American Prometheus and learned that its subject, Robert Oppenheimer, had met in an attic room with Edward Teller and others, to dramatically alter the history of our world. On my way out, I passed by an half-open door with the name “Eugene Commins” on it. Commins taught Physics 10 in the 60s, a “gut course” that it was said even a humanities major couldn’t fail. From lecture one, I was enthralled at his ability to engage students through catalogues of hands-on experiments; it was so impressive to me that Berkeley placed first-tier physicists in front of undergraduates as a matter of course. Commins’s introduction to physics was the Berkeley equivalent to Richard Feynman’s work at Cal Poly, and he made seeming complexity so obvious and understandable that this particular class led me to the Exploratorium, a professional association with its founder Frank Oppenheimer, Robert’s brother, and a career in museums.

Since Commins’s door was half-open, I poked my head in to see a now-grey-haired professor sitting at his desk. “Sorry to bother,” I said, “but 45 years ago you taught Physics 10 to a class of 200 of the initiated, including me. It changed my life in such positive ways, and I thank you.” Commins sat there for a moment, speechless from the unexpected compliment. I wondered as I left, “How satisfying it is to be able to say ‘thank you’ to those who have played a part in the best years of our lives and helped ‘make us human beings,’” as alumnus Gregory Peck once said when summarizing his own Berkeley years.

Then several years ago, I looked up another mentor, Professor Richard Hutson, who taught Nineteenth Century American Literature to a small group of us in graduate school. Throughout the term, he treated us as colleagues as we explored Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, and more. He was young and a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at the time. Like Commins, he had a way of making complex thoughts understandable and modern scholarship not only accessible, but also welcoming in a way that encouraged lifelong learning. He, too, was thrilled to have a past student reconnect with him half a century later, especially one from the halcyon days of the late 60s.

Bill Tramposch (left) and former assistant professor Jack D’Amico (right) met at the Faculty Club for the first time in 50 years on May 10, 2019. Image: Kenneth Macaraig

Most recently, there is Jack D’Amico, assistant professor of English. He taught Early British Literature in the fall of 1969, and seemed, at the time, so unlike the stereotypical professor. No tweed here; just vigor and a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the topic. His class size only grew throughout the term as word got out about his talent for teaching, and he had our complete attention from day one—even those of us who had just recently been slammed with low draft numbers during the Vietnam War. We students who still keep in touch have often wondered, “Whatever became of Jack D’Amico, professor, jazz musician, and all-around inspiring guy?” Well, recently as I sat on Sproul Plaza entertaining that very same question, I decided to find out. Soon I learned that fortunately he had gone on to devote his career to teaching, and was a long-tenured professor at Canisius College in upstate New York. Fortuitously, the department’s website contained his email, and so I wrote—only to discover with his quick response that he had retired and was now living in Berkeley, California. As I write this, I eagerly await an upcoming rendezvous with Jack over coffee at the Faculty Club, a mere 50 years later!

Thoreau, as he concludes Walden, recalls the story that has “made the rounds in New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of a dry led of an old table of apple-tree wood which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years.” He wonders, “Who knows what beautiful and winged life. . .has been buried for ages” only to come out now and “enjoy its perfect summer life at last.”

And, so to you “who shall pass from shore to shore” and who continue to revisit and cross Sproul Plaza as I do, please recall when you own “winged life” lay in nascent form. Know that the ideas you heard in the halls and classrooms, dorms and coffee shops were at work in making you too “a human being” in perhaps your own “best years of life.” Whether in your mind or in “real time,” take a seat on Sproul Plaza, and bring Whitman along.

But, most importantly, find those professors in your lives who have made a difference and thank them if you can.

By Bill Tramposch ’70

Bill Tramposch is Aroha Senior Fellow for Museums and Creative Aging for the American Alliance of Museums. He has spent 42 years in leadership roles in the museum and historical society field both in the States and New Zealand. He holds a B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) from UC Berkeley, and has held two Fulbright Fellowships during his career. He earned a master’s and a doctorate from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. A native of New England, Tramposch studied American literature at Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s. He is a member of the Cal Alumni Association and a tour lecturer for Cal Discoveries Travel.