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Alumni House Facilities Director Takes Cal Spirit to New Heights

October 8, 2018
by Heather R. Johnson
Stuffed Oskis of various sizes grin behind a glass display case inside Alumni House, a simple structure tucked away near Haas Pavilion. Old newspaper clippings hang next to class pennants and an axe that commemorates “The Play” from the infamous 1982 Cal-Stanford game.

Although the Class of 1938 started Cal’s memorabilia collection, and other alumni have contributed, Donna Houser ’82 has taken Cal’s memorabilia archives to new heights.

The axe from the 1982 Cal-Stanford game.
The axe from the 1982 Cal-Stanford game. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.

“I needed to display things in my office that meant something to me,” says Houser, who works as Alumni House’s senior director of facilities and hospitality. “I have a plaque about ‘The Play,’ because I was at the game. And I have a lot of different bears they’ve used over the years. I have a lot of Cal spirit, you could say.”

Cal Alumni Association staff says Houser, nicknamed “Alumni Houser,” has curated one of the most extensive Cal memorabilia collections known to them. “Donna has an eye for seeing things, making them special and displaying them for other alum to appreciate as well,” says Haley Hart, program manager for the Cal Alumni Association’s Cal Discoveries Travel program. “When someone donated a set of platters, Donna started using them at special cocktail mixers.”

A Passion for Historical Preservation

Houser, a second-generation East Bay native who grew up in El Cerrito, built her career in facilities management, event planning, and catering. History is therefore a personal passion. In 2005, when developers planned to tear down the old El Cerrito High School, she helped form a volunteer committee to save the school’s important artifacts.

ECHS Archiving Project committee members gathered to preserve 65 years of school history. Notable pieces include original California Art tiles, the gym clock and student artwork. At present, more than 500 items are catalogued.

When construction of the current El Cerrito High School was completed, Houser coordinated a grand re-opening celebration. She also helped oversee the installation of a museum to house ECHS Archiving Project items. “I believe we’re the only functioning high school that has a museum in it,” she says.

Two years later, in 2007, Houser brought her professional and personal talents to Cal—this time as an employee. “I thought, what better way to give back to my college than to work for the Alumni Association,” she says.

As the primary contact for Alumni House, Houser juggles several roles. She makes sure all events scheduled at the facility run smoothly. She oversees office moves, building safety and security, general operations, and the front desk. She also manages 12 student and four non-student employees.

“My job has a lot of different aspects to it. [Houser says] I love that, and love being on campus and working with the students,” she says.

Sometimes, Houser handles catering for special events. She mentions this as if it’s as easy as making a phone call. She doesn’t even hint at the hours spent at home, off the clock, preparing appetizers, desserts and other items.

“She stays up late making food for these parties and it’s all themed,” says Hart. “We could have hired a caterer or had a potluck but she takes it on herself, and she does it with such flair.”

Oski blows out candle on Oski cake. Detail of Oski cake.
Oski’s 75th birthday party. Photography: Kenneth Macaraig.

A Lifelong Supporter

Houser’s Cal spirit and sense of community have grown since childhood. Her father, Ernie Del Simone, served as an El Cerrito City Council member from 1972 through 1980 and also as the city’s mayor in 1976. Her mother, husband, and brothers all graduated from El Cerrito High School.

After graduating from Kennedy High School (a short break in family tradition), Houser followed in her brothers’ footsteps and enrolled at UC Berkeley. “I really had no dying need to go anywhere else,” she says.

Houser majored in political science and mass communications—the first mass comm graduating class—and joined Alpha Chi Omega her sophomore year. The communications skills she gained would help in her career to come.

Donna and Scott Houser
Donna and Scott Houser.
Donna and Oski celebrating UC Berkeley’s 150th birthday.
Donna and Oski celebrating UC Berkeley’s 150th birthday.
Donna celebrating UC Berkeley’s 150th birthday in front of Alumni House.
Donna celebrating UC Berkeley’s 150th birthday in front of Alumni House.

After graduation, in 1982, Houser married her husband, Scott, and got a job at Mira Vista Golf and Country Club (now Berkeley Country Club). Coincidentally, her father served as president of the club’s board of directors. Houser’s role quickly expanded from office work to event coordination, because, she says, “the general manager didn’t want to do it anymore.”

The GM must have made a smart move, because Houser served as the country club’s events coordinator and facilities manager for 22 years. During this time, she also had three sons, all of whom would eventually attend El Cerrito High school. One son would later attend UC Berkeley, while the other two went to UC Davis.

After a short stint at Richmond Country Club and work as an independent caterer, Houser returned to Cal to manage Alumni House and, as a side project, expand the memorabilia collection.

A Few Stats

  • The weirdest: a very early Oski head.
  • The oldest: a class banner from 1873.
  • The heaviest: the wheel to a cannon that the football team fired for every touchdown.
  • The most delicate: Cal china.
Oski head and sweater
The weirdest: a very early Oski head. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.
1873 class banner
The oldest: a banner from 1873. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.
The wheel to a cannon.
The heaviest: the wheel to a cannon that the football team fired for every touchdown. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.
Cal china plate
Cal china plate. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.
Cal china tea cup
The most delicate: Cal china. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.

Houser says alumni often mail her items for the collection. She recently received a Cal belt buckle. She’s also received yearbooks, sweaters, graduation programs and other souvenirs from alums.

Although Houser is one of the university’s primary memorabilia experts, many students and alumni have a personal connection to the Cal brand, whether it’s the gold script or beloved Oski, now 77 years young.

Houser appreciates the instant camaraderie that comes when you spot someone wearing a Cal sweatshirt or t-shirt. Houser said, “I’ll never forget when my youngest son got into Cal. Everyone would say to him, ‘Go Bears!’ He says to me, ‘Mom, everyone is saying ‘Go Bears’ to me. What am I supposed to say back?’ And, I said, ‘Say, Go Bears!’ There is an immediate connection.”

Cal belt buckle.
Cal belt buckle. Photography: Cheryl Kalberer.

The Cal logo and its memorabilia symbolize the university’s rich 150-year history. It’s a source of pride that Houser says incoming students shouldn’t take for granted.

“The history and the spirit of Cal is a big part of going to college,” she says. “Even though life is hectic, look around and enjoy everything about it. I feel like I’m having my second chance at that.”

Heather R. Johnson