When the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science Policy Management holds its commencement ceremony at the Greek Theater on Saturday, the first person in line to receive his diploma will be 22-year-old Valle Rogers, a molecular environmental biology major.
He has earned pride of place because, thanks to a 3.975 GPA and rave reviews from his professors, he won “highest distinction”—the top citation—in both his major and the entire department.
But he still has a way to go to match his grandmother, 102-year-old Florence Rogers, who was awarded the University Medal as the most distinguished member of the entire senior class when she graduated in 1935.
“Not bad for a girl from a subsistence farm in Salinas who was the first in her family to go to college,” says her daughter Wendy, who attended Cal in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “And her medal is solid gold. Nowadays, they’re gold-plated.”
Spanning the time between Florence and Valle are three generations of Golden Bears, starting with Florence and her late husband Jim, who graduated in 1936. Then came their children: Wendy, a professor of dance at UC Riverside who graduated in 1971; Glenn, a physician and USC med school professor who graduated in 1972; and Peggy, the only one who didn’t go to Cal.
“I’m not a black sheep,” she insists. “I’m a banana slug. I went to Santa Cruz.”
Finally, there are Glenn’s sons: Valle, who is trying to decide between pursuing a Ph.D. or an M.D. after he graduates this weekend; and his younger brother Casey, a junior majoring in economics and computer science, whose passion is making things with 3-D printers. His most recent creation: a three-dimensional miniature cow he printed for his grandmother.
Valle’s passion, on the other hand, is spiders. He not only teaches two undergraduate courses about the critters as a student instructor—Environmental Science Policy Management 132, “Spider Biology;” and ESPM 147, “Spiders”—he also keeps a Black Widow named Peaches as a pet.
“I’ve been keeping Black Widows since I was 10,” he says. “But only females. The males don’t live long enough to bond with them.”
So why did his grandmother choose Cal in the first place?
“Growing up in Salinas, you had two choices,” she explains. “If you had the money, you went to Stanford. If you had the grades, you went to Cal. But you didn’t have to apply or write essays, as they do now. If you went to an accredited high school and your grades were good enough, you were in.”
Cal was a very different place back then. “There were no dorms—at least, no dorms that admitted women—so I lived in a boarding house on Piedmont Avenue,” she recalls. “It was wonderful because everyone kept coming back year after year, like a sorority.” And like a sorority, it had a housemother and a curfew. “But you could get permission to come in later if you were going to San Francisco for the evening, which didn’t happen very often. The Bay Bridge hadn’t been built yet, so we’d take the ferry, and there was no way we’d be able to get back to Berkeley in time.”
Florence entered Cal intending to be a psych major, but she soon switched to business.
“Remember, this was the Depression,” she explains. “After one semester I realized that I’d have to make a living when I got out, and there just didn’t seem to be many jobs for psychologists. So I switched to the College of Commerce in South Hall instead.”
She joined three student groups in the College of Commerce—the Commerce Association, Phi Chi Theta, and the honors society, Beta Gamma Sigma—as well as the Women’s Athletic Association (she was a crack shot with a rifle) and the Dormitory Association. “We were jealous because the men had their own dorm, Bowles Hall, and women had nothing. So we formed the Dormitory Association to promote the idea of a women’s dorm so Cal women in the future would have that choice, even though it would be too late for us.”
She attended every football and basketball game—Valle, by contrast, has never attended a single game in all four years—but her favorite events were the bonfire rallies the nights before home football games. “After the rallies, the movie theaters on Shattuck Avenue would open their doors to us, and we’d all pour in en masse for free,” she says. “We called it ‘crashing the movies.'”
Those bonfire rallies had a distinct echo years later, whenever Florence and Jim took their kids camping. “I can still remember my parents yelling, ‘Freshmen! More wood!’ when we built a campfire because the freshmen were responsible for supplying the wood,” Wendy says.
Unlike her mom, Wendy grew up in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High, where she began her lifelong love affair with dance. “But when I graduated, UCLA had a dance program and Cal did not, so I chose UCLA,” she says. “It was 1966, and moving from Northern California to Southern California was a cultural shock. They were two different worlds.
“For instance, Jimi Hendrix came to play at UCLA and about 20 people showed up. They hadn’t heard of him yet. And then there were all those people coming up to me and asking, ‘Can I borrow your clothes for Halloween?'”
Besides, she was frustrated by the way dance was being taught in that academic setting, so she transferred to Cal in 1968 as a history of art major. But a new professor named David Wood—a protégé of Martha Graham’s—had just arrived in Berkeley to start a dance program at Cal. Wendy was reluctant to take another academic dance course, but she changed her mind after her mother urged her, ‘Just give it a try.’ “
“I was immediately hooked,” Wendy acknowledges. “It was an infusion of professional New York modern dance expectations and expertise, and I was so excited to find that in college. What an amazing mentor he was!”
The motto of the day was “Question Authority,” and during the People’s Park demonstrations, she and her fellow students told Professor Wood they were going to strike in solidarity. “He said, ‘That’s fine, but I’m still teaching this class, even if there’s only one person here.’ Once he said that, we thought that over and decided we wouldn’t miss the class.”
The dance studio was on Bancroft, right across from campus, and everyone’s eyes were streaming from the tear gas seeping through the windows as police and demonstrators clashed outside. “There were military vehicles and National Guard soldiers with bayonets all along Bancroft, and the Alameda County Sheriffs were doing their ‘choreography’ in Sproul Plaza,” she says. “It got very scary. After the class I started walking toward Northside, and I could feel the pepper spray on my skin. Suddenly, I was in the middle of people who were running and police who were chasing them. I realized that if I started running, too, I would be in trouble. But if I walked calmly and slowly, it would be as if I was invisible, and I would be safe. And that’s what happened.”
After graduation she danced in New York for a couple of years, then she came back to Berkeley and formed her own dance company. At about the same time, she began teaching improv at Cal and launched an academic career that continues to this day at UC Riverside. “I have a long and rich history with UC Berkeley, particularly the dance program, and it’s all because Mom said, ‘Oh, give it a try,'” she says. “Even though I remain in higher education, I think of myself first and foremost as a choreographer and an artist.”
So what’s different between Cal then and now?
“Our lives were completely involved with coffee houses, spending time with one another, and being in conversations in a way that just doesn’t exist today,” she says. “And we weren’t under the economic pressure that today’s students are. But the biggest difference is that it’s a much harder school to get into than the one Mom and I went to.”
Do tell. Valle may be graduating with a 3.975 GPA now, but when he applied in 2011, he barely got in.
“I was a spring admit,” he says. “They wouldn’t let me in for the fall semester, so I had to take that semester at the University Extension. When I got here, I expected to get C’s. I figured no way I would do well, so my goal was just to blend in with the average.”
But it didn’t quite work out that way.
“The first semester I got two A’s and two A-minuses,” he says. “And I never got an A-minus again.”
Photos by Syndi Huynh