Celebrating 150 years of UC and of Berkeley, ‘its shining jewel’

people raising cellphone lights

The celebrants in Haas Pavilion raise their cellphone lights as they sing Happy Birthday to UC Berkeley (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

On March 23, 1868, the University of California was born at Berkeley. Exactly 150 years later, university and campus leaders, students, staff, faculty, alumni and guests came together to celebrate the UC’s — and Berkeley’s — illustrious past and march proudly into its future.

Under blue and gold balloons arching high over the doors of Haas Pavilion, a parade of alumni stretching back to the Class of 1945 filed in behind current Berkeley students bearing class banners.

Inside, those gathered for the Charter Day festivities heard laudatory words and birthday wishes from some of UC and Berkeley’s biggest names: UC Board of Regents Chair George Kieffer, University of California President Janet Napolitano, Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, seven-time Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer, Chancellor Emeritus Robert Birgeneau and, of course, Chancellor Carol Christ.

“Today, the University of California is the envy of every other system of public higher education in the world,” said Christ, delivering the day’s keynote address and celebrating the university’s history as an academic and social leader. “Through its tripartite mission of teaching, research, and public service, it has given great strength to California, its economy, and its people.”

“At the heart of today’s system, of course, is Berkeley,” added the chancellor. “Its founding campus, its flagship, and its shining jewel.”

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She went on to describe some of the challenges faced by the university in its past — budget shortfalls during the Great Depression (and others), a fire that threatened the campus in 1923, the Loyalty Oath controversy of the late 1940s, among others — before addressing the challenges of the present: responding to student housing needs, ensuring that UC Berkeley represents the diversity of the state and fostering a sustainable financial model.

As part of the celebration, via the Jumbotron, the crowd got to relive one of the Cal football’s most famous moments: 1982’s The Play, where the Cal Golden Bears rallied to beat Stanford on a kickoff miraculously returned for a touchdown. Joe Starkey, who announced The Play live in 1982, was there and updated his breathless call for the occasion.

“One hundred and fifty years!” exclaimed Starkey. “One hundred and fifty years for California! The finest public university in America!”

The Cal marching band made its patented high-energy appearance, the music department’s Candace Johnson performed “The Impossible Dream” and the Berkeley’s Men’s Octet harmonized. Oski, of course, also helped entertain.

Not all the sesquicentennial celebrations were on campus. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring the accomplishments of the state’s public research university. Co-sponsored by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, the resolution heralded UC’s growth from an inaugural class of 40 students to a renowned 10-campus public research university with 273,000 students.

“Throughout its history, the University of California has become a foundation, and a beacon of hope, for the state of California and the nation as a whole,” said Feinstein. “I know and believe that the University of California will continue to push boundaries, explore the great unknown, stand up for American values, and continue to solve the world’s most complex problems.”

And the Internet buzzed with celebratory tweets with the hashtag .

For many who took part at Haas Pavilion, the Charter Day festivities presented an opportunity to revisit their most memorable times at Berkeley.

William Benemann, a longtime archivist at Berkeley Law and an alum, was one of several from the class of 1971 who were on hand for the celebration. He recalled being arrested at a People’s Park protest and spending two nights in a Santa Rita jail cell.

“It was demonstrative of what the university stands for,” said Benemann. “So much learning takes place outside of the classroom. I hope that the students are as active as we were.”

Other alums remembered the academic rigor and favorite study spots.

“Café Strada,” said Tamara Bock from the class 1994, asked to describe an enduring Berkeley memory. “Café Strada and the Doe Library.”

Current Berkeley students celebrated, too, including molecular environmental biology major Elaine Wittry, who bore the banner for the class of 1948. Wittry’s grandparents, who met as students at Berkeley during the late 1940s, were unable to attend, so she took up the banner in their honor.

“I love the spirit of Berkeley,” said Wittry. “I wanted to carry the banner for them.”

Staffer Melanie Keilholtz, associate director of gift planning, also took up a banner.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” said Keilholtz. “That’s longer than I was at my own alma mater. I just love the shared sense of curiosity here. It’s so refreshing. Every day is exciting. No matter what your interests are, it’s happening at Berkeley.”