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Remembering Shirley Conner ’48, Cal Alumni Association President 1981–1983

November 3, 2019

We are saddened to announce that Shirley Conner ’48, a changemaker and leader in the Cal community, passed away on October 4, 2019. Conner’s loss is felt deeply by all those who were lucky enough to cross paths with her, as she touched the lives of countless Golden Bears throughout her service to UC Berkeley.

A Bay Area native, Shirley Brown graduated from Alameda High School in 1944 and then began what would become a lifelong journey at Cal. Among Conner’s many treasured memories as an undergraduate was her time as a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and living in International House. Conner spoke fondly of her studies at Cal in 2012, saying, “We just loved being at Cal. We loved going to class. We liked mixing together with other people.” As it turned out, Conner’s connection to Cal would last far beyond those four undergraduate years spent studying humanities, as it became part of her life’s work to leave Cal even better than she found it.

After marrying her college sweetheart, Sherrill “Sherry” Conner, Jr. ’49, and having two children, Conner returned to school and received her secondary teaching credential before beginning her 26-year career as an instructor in the dental assisting program at the College of Alameda. While Conner’s life was full of family and a vibrant career, she felt compelled to volunteer and to give back to her alma mater.

The President from Alameda

Yearbook photo of Shirley Conner ’48
Yearbook photo of Shirley Conner ’48. Image by Blue & Gold 1948, Vol. 75

In 1982, Conner broke barriers by becoming the first woman president of the Cal Alumni Association, but not without protest from others. In an interview with California magazine, Conner recalled that in protest of her presidency, some said, “It’s a man’s job and should always be held by a man.”

Conner persevered, despite the naysayers, with the support of former UC Berkeley chancellor Ira Michael Heyman. “The best thing that happened was that Mike Heyman was selected as chancellor that year. He decided to visit as many alumni clubs around the country as possible, and he took me with him on all these trips. It sent a powerful message to the alumni,” Conner told California.

In a 2004 oral history interview, Heyman spoke of prompting alumni to look deeper: “When she became the first woman president of the Alumni Association, I would introduce her as the first president from the city of Alameda, which was also true.”

Her former colleagues stress that Conner’s legacy should not focus on the fact that she was the association’s first woman president, but rather on the qualities that earned her that role. Former Cal Alumni Association president Debbie Cole ’72 says, “Shirley must be remembered as being the right leader for the times when she was elected president. Her skills as a leader⁠—her ability to reconcile differing positions, her collegiality and respect for her colleagues⁠—those were the reasons the board elected her. Being the first woman was not really critical⁠—it was the skills she would bring to the role.”

A Life Spent in Service

Even before she began her service on the Cal Alumni Association Board of Directors and the Board of Regents, Conner was actively volunteering to support the community. She was recognized in 1963 with the Rosalie Stern Award for outstanding community service. In 1990, her impact on the university community was recognized by the UC Berkeley Foundation with the Chancellor’s Award, presented to an alum who has given consistently distinguished service to numerous major fundraising efforts.

Conner’s passion for volunteering was one important connection she had to Cal; another was her love of Cal Football. As a season-ticket holder, Conner passionately cheered on her beloved Golden Bears at Memorial Stadium. She also remained actively involved in the alumni community through the Cal Alumni Association’s Alumni Chapters and Cal Discoveries Travel program. On the Cal Alumni Association’s 140th anniversary in 2012, Conner said, “The alumni association does a wonderful job keeping us all connected through the clubs, through events here on campus, and keeping us connected with the campus and the university. The travel program is wonderful—it certainly encourages people to get together and plan the trips. And I love the California magazine. 140 years is a long time for any group to be as strong as the alumni association is.”

Shirley understood the significance of a connected Cal alumni community, which explains why she devoted so much of her time to the Cal Alumni Association. She understood that Cal alumni weren’t simply connected superficially by the same alma mater, but were bonded as a community with mutual values, goals, and love for the university. Executive Director of the Cal Alumni Association Clothilde “Cloey” Hewlett ’76, J.D. ’79 says of Shirley’s service, “Shirley’s commitment to the Cal Alumni Association continued for many years, far beyond her presidency. She was a dedicated member of the Past Presidents’ Advisory Committee up until her death, carefully advising each successive CAA president on the strategy to employ in the best interests of CAA and UC Berkeley. I know the past presidents of CAA and I will truly miss hearing her voice and her wise counsel.”

Forever a Sturdy Golden Bear

Remaining actively involved in all that Cal had to offer reinvigorated Conner’s love for her alma mater. From lifelong friendships made through Kappa Alpha Theta during her undergrad years, to those she met while volunteering as an alumna, Conner inspired those around her to find their passion and meet it with action. Her desire to leave things better than she found them led her to break barriers, build upon the foundation of a strong Cal alumni community, and support incoming generations of students. Through her volunteer efforts, she enabled others to feel what she felt for UC Berkeley. Conner once said, “For me, coming back and being on campus became thrilling all over again. Maybe it just brought back those wonderful feelings from when I was here. I’m proud to be a Cal alumna. And I’m proud to be a part of Berkeley for life.”

Conner’s former colleagues from the Cal Alumni Association remember her for her leadership, hospitality, and friendship. Former CAA president Claude Hutchison ’60, MBA, describes Conner as a person with undying love for everything Berkeley, saying, “She had a unique ability to bring out the best in everyone that she worked with. She was a lady of enormous drive, enormous warmth, and had an undying love for everything associated with the University of California, Berkeley. … The university has just lost a tremendous asset and resource. She made a lasting impact on both the alumni association and the university.”

“She will be forever a sturdy Golden Bear and my guiding star.”

Conner’s unwavering commitment to the Cal Alumni Association lasted decades, even as new shoes filled the presidency. Conner knew the role better than almost anyone, and wanted to help those in leadership be well equipped for such an undertaking. Former association president Darek DeFreece ’93 says of Conner’s guidance, “I met Shirley Conner when I was a freshman at Berkeley. As any former president of the alumni association, she seemed larger than life but eminently approachable. I don’t think I have ever met a kinder person. I also don’t think I could have predicted at the time that I would be taken under her wing. She supported me as a student and later as an alumni leader. I think she was happier than I was when I took on the presidency of the Cal Alumni Association.

Shirley also gave me sage advice as I started my term as regent for the university. We swapped stories of politics, university policies, and found that there was little difference in being a regent in 1982 as it was to be one in 2009. Shirley didn’t shy from opinions and also could be extremely direct, if ever tactful. I don’t have a word for it other than to borrow a phrase from the past, ‘she had moxie.’ That translates into directness, fortitude and determination. Enviable traits.

In many ways my life parallels that of my friend. We shared a love of Cal, of history and our place in it, of family, and of precious moments that culminate in a life well lived. She will be forever a sturdy Golden Bear and my guiding star.”

Her experience serving Cal inspired other future leaders at the university, including former Cal Alumni Association president Nadesan Permaul ’72, M.A. ’73, Ph.D. ’90, who says, “I got to know Shirley when I was first a board member, later an officer, and finally as president of the CAA. I sat on the Charter Banquet Committee twice, and we held our meetings at her lovely home in Alameda. She was a gracious host, generous leader, and kind human. Later, we served together as past presidents on an informal committee advising current presidents of the association. Her long connection to the association, and her informed view based on that experience, were always welcome.

Shirley Connor reminds me that Cal has had a long Blue line of alums whose service to the university, and love for its missions, stretch back across the decades to those first members of Cal’s first graduating class who formed the alumni association. It’s now our responsibility to carry on their legacy, and hers. We will miss her, but will honor her with our service to [our] alma mater.”

As Permaul describes, off-campus Conner spread Cal spirit by opening her Alameda home to host countless Cal gatherings for meetings, bowl games, Big Game, and other events. Many of Conner’s colleagues recall wonderful gatherings at her home, including former Cal Alumni Association president Carl Stoney ’67, J.D. ’70, MBA ’71, who says, “I went to Shirley Conner’s house so many times for meetings and events and functions⁠—it’s astonishing that anybody could hold that many events … And just be the most wonderful hostess. … I went to Alameda so many times to Shirley Conner’s house that my car knew how to drive there on its own.” Stoney admires Conner’s devotion to Cal, saying, “She was just about the best Cal person ever and her spirit and willingness to serve and be a leader in everything was spectacular.”

Conner was always up to help serve in any way she could when it came to Berkeley. Former Cal Alumni Association president Mark Ornellas ’71, J.D., describes memories of Conner rolling up her sleeves and helping out on numerous occasions. Ornellas says, “I met Shirley Conner in Pinecrest over Memorial Weekend 1983. Lair Director Mike Koll invited the CAA president and several officers to participate in a work weekend designed to help Camps Blue and Gold awake from their winter hibernation. Shirley was all in, from hosing out the Blue lodge to sweeping the Kub Korral and undertaking any other manual labor chore to which she was assigned. She was a delight at the Saturday night campfire and was endlessly cheerful and upbeat the entire weekend, setting the tone for her fellow CAA leaders in getting acquainted with the Lair, a key association asset, from the dusty ground up. … Berkeley may never have a more committed, effective, and generous supporter and advocate than Shirley Conner.”

While Conner’s presence will always be missed on campus and in our community, her spirit will be felt every time a student experiences the impact of her efforts, every time an alum experiences a reenergizing spark of connection to Cal through the Cal Alumni Association, and every time we chant “Go Bears!” at Memorial Stadium.

In lieu of a memorial service a family donation will be made to the Cal Alumni Association, UC Berkeley. The family requests that remembrances may be made to the Cal Alumni Association or to the charity of one’s choice.