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A Noble Company

June 13, 2012
by Martin Snapp
People at a banquet

A history of celebrating Cal.

The Cal Alumni Association came full circle with this year’s Charter Gala, celebrating Cal’s 144th anniversary and CAA’s 140th. The event on March 24 returned to the San Francisco Palace Hotel after a long absence. And once again, Howard “Howdy” Brownson ’48 led everyone in “Hail to California,” just as he had in 1948 as a member of the Men’s Glee Club.

But that small circle fits inside a much larger and more elaborate one connecting CAA to Cal.

The origins of the Gala are lost in the mists of history. From the first Charter Day in 1874 through 1891, the day was a student-run affair with poetry, oratory, and musical performances.

In 1892, the University decided to turn Charter Day into a formal academic celebration, featuring prominent speakers including Theodore Roosevelt in 1911.

Some of those early dinners were noteworthy for their excess. Dining tables groaned under the weight of more than a dozen entrees, including roasted terrapin, mallard duck, and roast turkey stuffed with oysters.

Sometime during the early 20th century, Charter Day and the CAA annual banquet merged and became the Charter Banquet. The occasion continued uninterrupted in this form until World War II, when CAA canceled the event in 1942 and 1943.

But the 75th anniversary of the University’s founding was too important to ignore, so a small dinner attended by members of the Board of Regents and the CAA council was aired in a live radio broadcast coast-to-coast in 1942. And though there was no party in 1943, General James Doolittle ’22 became the first Alumnus of the Year just months after leading his Doolittle Raiders on the legendary “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” bombing raid.

The Charter Banquet made a triumphant return in 1944. “It can’t be so big, it can’t be so lavish, but it can be more enthusiastic, more spontaneous, more wholehearted in its expression to the university,” said the alumni magazine.

There have been many memorable Charter Gala moments.

For spectacle, there was the 1987 banquet, which began with a huge Chinese dragon leading guests into the hall in honor of the Alumnus of the Year, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Yuan T. Lee, Ph.D. ’65.

For food, you probably can’t top 1999, when Alumna of the Year restaurateur Alice Waters ’67 brought her Chez Panisse staff to prepare the meal. “She had only one condition: No flowers on the tables,” said Shirley Connor ’48, CAA’s first female president. “She thought that was a waste.”

For spirit, 2000 produced an unbeatable moment when that year’s Alumna of the Year, diminutive author Maxine Hong Kingston ’62, C.Ed. ’65, climbed up on a chair to conduct the Cal Marching Band.

All the Galas have fêted superstar Alumni of the Year, including Earl Warren ’12 (1945), Glenn Seaborg, Ph.D. ’37 (1948), Joan Didion ’56 (1980), John Kenneth Galbraith, M.A. ’32, Ph.D. ’34 (1985), Steven Chu, Ph.D. ’76 (2011), and four members of the Haas family: Walter 1910 (1970), Walter Jr. ’37 (1983), Peter ’40 (1996), and Robert ’64 (2009).

And, of course, there’s the one that got away: Gregory Peck ’39, whom the magazine called “easily the best-known actor ever to have rowed for Cal.”

“We offered to give it to him two years in a row,” said Connor. “But one of the conditions of the award is that you have to be there in person to receive it, and he was always away somewhere on a movie set.”

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