Roderic Park, longtime UC Berkeley leader, dies at 81

Roderic Park, a professor of botany and plant biology whose leadership at UC Berkeley spanned three decades, died at home on Sept. 6, surrounded by family. He was 81.

Roderic Park

Roderic Park

Often described as a “Renaissance man” – a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was also a vintner, an expert sailor and a pilot who built his own plane – Park joined the Berkeley faculty in 1960, and went on to have a long and distinguished career as a professor, researcher and campus administrator.

“Rod was an absolute force on the campus, an exceptional leader who accomplished a great deal for Cal, most notably the reorganization of the biological sciences,” said John Cummins, who served as chief of staff to four Berkeley chancellors. Park, he added, was “a bulwark, tough, smart, direct, unrelenting in the pursuit of what he believed in, yet unpretentious and caring.”

“He was a remarkable leader,” said former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who came to Berkeley after Park had moved on – albeit temporarily — to become interim chancellor of the University of Colorado, Boulder, from 1994 to 1997. Berdahl’s relationship with Park dated back to the late 1980s, when Berdahl was provost at the University of Illinois and Park was his Berkeley counterpart. He praised Park’s direct approach to problems and his firm commitment to increasing diversity on campus.

At Berkeley, Park served as a department chair, the provost and dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1972 to 1980, and held the campus’s second-highest administrative post — the equivalent of today’s executive vice chancellor and provost position — from 1980 to 1990. Following his three-year stint at Boulder he assisted in the founding of the UC Merced campus, returning in 2006 to serve for a year as acting chancellor. He served for five years as chair of the Board of Visitors and Fellows in UC Davis’s viticulture and enology department, and on the Harvard Board of Overseers. At the time of his death he was chair of the trustees of the Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley.

In 2010 he published It’s Only the Janitor: A Handbook for New Academic Administrators, summing up the lessons he’d learned during his years in the top echelons of academia.

“The passing of Rod Park represents a great loss to Berkeley and to the University of California as a whole,” said former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who praised his “great intellectual capacity and exceptional political instincts.” Park, said Birgeneau, was a close adviser during the first rounds of the recent state funding cutbacks, “and his advice played a critical role in enabling us not only to survive the cuts but, in the end, to maintain our preeminence” as an elite university.

Park earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1953 from Harvard College, and a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry and geochemistry. A professor of botany and plant biology at Berkeley, he published 84 research papers, and was the first to identify quantasomes in 1962.

Park’s interests extended far beyond academia. He began growing wine grapes in 1974, a pursuit, he said, that required the farmer “to listen to nature in the same way that a professor listens to his students.” In 1991, he and his wife, Cathy — a former director of the campus’s University Health Services — converted a dilapidated former sheep ranch in Sonoma County into Rockpile Vineyard.

An active member of the Richmond Yacht Club, Park competed in 12 California-to-Hawaii races as skipper, and was “first to finish” the 1980 single-handed race. He sailed his final transpacific race in 1996 with his son, Malcolm. During the second half of his life Park also earned his pilot license, built and flew a Kitfox two-seater plane, learned Spanish, and played banjo in a bluegrass band.

He is survived by his wife, Cathy; his three children, Barbara, Marina and Malcolm; a stepson, Michael Tassan; and eight grandchildren.

A celebration of Park’s life will be held on the Berkeley campus on Friday, Oct. 11, at 4 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Faculty Club.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that those wishing to donate give to:

Roderic B. Park Memorial Fund at the UC Berkeley Foundation, P.O. Box 774, Berkeley, CA 94701-0774;

Friends of the Jepson Herbarium, 1001 Valley Life Sciences Building, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-2465; or

Richmond Yacht Club Foundation, 351 Brickyard Cove Road, P.O. Box 70295, Point Richmond, CA 94807