People, Campus & community, Profiles

A Tolman love story, 56 years in the making

By John Hickey

Ian and Donna Mitroff
UC Berkeley alumni Ian and Donna Mitroff met at Tolman Hall 56 years ago; Tolman is being torn down this year. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)
Ian and Donna Mitroff

UC Berkeley alumni Ian and Donna Mitroff met at Tolman Hall 56 years ago; Tolman is being torn down this year. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

It’s not clear if Fred Rogers ever used the phrase “pay it forward” during any of the 912 episodes of his Mister Rogers Neighborhood TV show.

What is clear from listening to what Rogers preached to young children over the course of more than three decades is that sharing your largesse with others was near the top of his list.

Two of his most ardent acolytes are UC Berkeley alumni Donna and Ian Mitroff, who fell in love on campus in 1963 as students and went on to befriend Rogers and to travel the world.

The couple, celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary this year, say they feel “a great dedication” to Berkeley. So, they share their generosity through the Ian and Donna Mitroff Scholarship, which goes to a student whose academic interests are a combination of their own — engineering and the social sciences.

Alex Krentsel, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science who is pursuing a simultaneous degree in music and plays for the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is the current recipient of the endowed scholarship. More than that, he’s formed a bond with Donna, 79, and Ian, 80.

“I’ve had scholarships before, but this was the first time I’d ever had a chance to interact with the donor,” Krentsel says. “I’ve had lunch and dinner with them, and they’ve come to one of my concerts. What’s clear to me is that they are at the point in their lives where they want to give back. And they want to show me how it’s done. They’ve introduced me to a lot of wonderful people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Ian and Donna Mitroff have founded a scholarship as a way of saying thanks to UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley video by John Hickey)

Krentsel will never have a class in Tolman Hall on the northwest corner of the campus. It’s seismically deficient, too costly to renovate and is slowly being demolished. But it’s now part of his story, because without Tolman, the Mitroffs would never have met 56 years ago, and the scholarship would never have come into being.

Donna and Ian met as students outside Tolman Hall, the longtime home of the Department of Psychology and the Graduate School of Education.

But at first, Donna wasn’t sure Ian was a catch. She was leaving Tolman heading south, navigating campus sidewalk repair by following detours cordoned off with tape.

“This is quite an obstacle course, isn’t it?” a young man said, suddenly beside her. “I took one look, and I could tell he was an engineer, because he was wearing a pocket protector,” Donna recalls. “I was an English major, and I thought, `Well, that was nice, but we don’t have anything in common.’”

“I did not have a pocket protector. I had a slide rule, in a big slide rule case,” Ian says.

To Donna’s surprise, as they walked along, Ian began reciting Walt Whitman to her from memory. “By the time we got to the middle of campus,” she says, “he asked me to stop and get a cup of coffee. I said, `I can’t, because I’ve got this class. But here’s my phone number.’”

Fred Rogers testifying to Congress in 1969 to make sure PBS funding wasn’t cut. (PBS Kids video)

Less than a week later, they had their first date. She says she can’t remember the movie they saw, but “I remember that blue dress I wore.”

Ian says he thinks they saw “A Man For All Seasons,” and that’s almost certainly not the case, since the classic Paul Scofield movie didn’t come out until 1966. But that movie title sort of fits Ian, who went on to get his Ph.D. in engineering at Berkeley and also spent 3½ years on a minor in the philosophy of science “because I had a great technical education, but I needed something broader.”

After getting his Ph.D., he got a job offer from the University of Pittsburgh. But as Ian and Donna sat in his car upon his return to California, “I said, `I don’t want to go to Pittsburgh without you,’” says Ian. “And she said, `Are you asking me what I think you are?’ And I said, `Yes.’ And that was my proposal, and we went to Pittsburgh for 13 years.”

Donna went on to get a master’s degree in special education and then a Ph.D. in education, both from the University of Pittsburgh. Then, it was time to look for a job. One night, while at a party, a friend mentioned to Donna an opening at Pittsburgh’s Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, WQED. Donna interviewed and decided she wanted the job. Badly. And she landed it.

On her first day at WQED as director of educational services, Donna parked in the lot under the TV station and got into the elevator. So did Rogers, whose iconic educational children’s series Mister Rogers Neighborhood was based in the same building as WQED.

“I was verklempt,” Donna recalls. “Our daughter was about 4, and she was watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and she was singing the songs, and there he stood. And I had the experience that everyone has about how Fred looks you right in the eyes and asks you questions. And you can’t help yourself, you have to tell him everything he wants to know.

“So, by the time we got up to the third floor — it was a slow elevator — I’d told him all my background and what I was there to do at WQED, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come by sometime? Maybe we can do something together.’”

It wasn’t far from this spot outside Tolman Hall that Ian and Donna met 56 years ago. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

Donna got permission from her boss to meet with Rogers several times, hashing out ideas that led to a book — Mister Rogers’ Plan and Play Book: Activities from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for Parents and Child Care Providers — to help adults further the important lessons Rogers was trying to teach children on his shows.

“I started it,” says Donna of the lesson plans. “I’d look at an episode, talk to Fred and design follow-up activities. We started by handing out mimeographed sheets of paper to preschool teachers we knew.”

A few years later, Ian was lured back to the West Coast by the University of Southern California (USC), where he became chair in the Marshall School of Business and had a joint appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The Los Angeles area was a hotbed of children’s television at the time, and Donna wound up as executive director of WQED’s West Coast office where the post-production took place.

After 26 years at USC, Ian retired, and in 2006, the two moved back to Berkeley, not far from where they’d first met. Their chance meeting at Tolman Hall and their time spent with Fred Rogers were never far from their hearts.

Once back in Berkeley, they would return to Tolman annually and leave a note about their love story and their love of life in a fake rock, the kind you’d hide a spare key in, outside the building where they first met. The note told a bit of their story.

That story is into its sixth decade. The Berkeley alumni hoped someone would catch on. Someone did. First the note disappeared. Then the rock did. Now Tolman itself is. Their story, however, continues..

In 2012, they mined their time with Rogers to co-author a more lasting piece of writing — Fables and the Art of Leadership: Applying the Wisdom of Mister Rogers to the Workplace.

“We put together seven of Fred’s fables,” Ian says, “and we used them as stories in order to teach work behavior. It resulted in a book of which we are very proud.”

And they continue to be proud of Berkeley. Hence, the scholarship.

“Berkeley allowed two poor kids to go on and have very good careers and become relatively well off and live in the places we have lived and see the places we’ve traveled to,” Ian says. “We really want to give back for all Berkeley has given us.”