Bowles Hall champion Bob Sayles dies at 85

Bob Sayles, a 1952 UC Berkeley alumnus who led the more than $40 million restoration of Berkeley’s castle-like Bowles Hall, died Sunday at age 85 following a brief illness. Sayles and a handful of other “Bowlesmen” launched an ambitious campaign in 2005 to reestablish the residential college where they had once lived, eaten, studied and been mentored as students.

Bob Sayles at the Aug. 27, 2016 reopening of Bowles Hall. (Photo by Stuart Hartley)

Built in 1929 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Bowles Hall became a conventional dorm for men in the 1970s. By 2005, it housed only male freshmen. But last August, it reopened as a residential college — a four-year live/learn community for about 180 undergraduates — after 12 years of effort by alumni.

Nathan Mayer, who graduated from Berkeley in 2016, was part of a multigenerational team chosen by Sayles to plan the return of Bowles as a residential college. Sayles was “a person of passion,” says Mayer, who lived at Bowles in fall 2013, “and Bowles Hall Residential College is a product of his passion and caring.”

Sayles, a longtime resident of Sacramento, spent more than a decade “completely and selflessly” helping to reestablish a much-needed residential community where college students could live, learn and build relationships among faculty and graduate students, adds Mayer.

“What the building looks like doesn’t matter; it’s what it houses that matters,” he says. “That it’s a castle is the cherry on top.”

At the reopening ceremony, Sayles was honored and given this portrait. He and his wife, Judy (pictured), met in high school, attended Berkeley and were married nearly 65 years. (Photo by Stuart Hartley)

Shawna Carpenter, Sayles’ granddaughter, says that in his 65-year career, which included serving in the Marines, 22 years with IBM and running his own consulting company, “the successful renovation and reopening of the Bowles Hall Residential College was the most fulfilling, rewarding and cherished project he ever participated in.”

“He told me more than once, ‘My goal was to get Bowles renovated and the residential college underway,’ ” and now those goals have been accomplished, says Berkeley and Bowles Hall alumnus John Baker, who oversaw the construction project and has succeeded Sayles as president of the non-profit Bowles Hall Foundation. “He was very happy.”

Last summer, Sayles chatted at Bowles Hall with Melissa Bayne, Bowles’ dean. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Bob Jacobsen, dean of undergraduate studies, recalls that Sayles’ approach to working with students, alumni and all those involved in the Bowles Hall project was, “Let’s dig in and do something great.” The result, he adds, was something very valuable to the campus — a better residential experience for students.

“He had a huge appreciation for students,” says Jacobsen. “He knew they were different from his day, but he understood they wanted to be great in their own way, and he wanted to help.”

Bob Sayles in 2016 with John Baker, who now has succeeded Sayles as president of the Bowles Hall Foundation. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“Any time I wanted to talk,” adds Mayer, who now works for a Silicon Valley tech firm, “Bob Sayles was always on the other line of the phone. He was the kind of person who took you under his wing and was a resource.”

“I learned a lot from him,” agrees Baker. “I learned how to deal with difficult people in difficult situations, and I’ve never seen anyone with the tenacity he had. There were a number of times when it seemed we should abort the project, but he always managed to see the light.”

Melissa Bayne, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, says Sayles offered to be a sounding board for her as she began her role as dean of Bowles Hall.

“He would often advise me on the importance of work-life balance; in particular,  how to negotiate one’s dedication to professional excellence with one’s love and commitment to family and community, ” she says.

Bayne added that Sayles was a role model for many on campus for his “perseverance in the face of obstacles and his unwavering vision for what is possible for our students. Bob valued integrity and grit and served as a fine role model of both. I hope to serve our students in a way that would make him proud.”

A memorial service for Sayles will be held Friday, May 26, at 11 a.m. at Oak Hills Church, 1100 Blue Ravine Rd. in Folsom, California. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Bowles Hall Foundation (11230 Gold Express Dr., Suites 360-363, Gold River, CA 95670 or via PayPal) or to the charity of one’s choice.

Sayles’ family hopes to honor Bob Sayles with a dedication ceremony at Bowles Hall sometime  during the next academic year.