award winners from 2012 Charter Gala
Top: Engineering dean Shankar Sastry M.S. '79, M.S. '80, Ph.D. '81, applauding his grad school classmate, Alumnus of the Year Eric Schmidt M.S. '79, Ph.D. '82. Their host was Karen Leong Clancy '76, president of the Cal Alumni Association. Bottom: Winners of the association's Excellence in Achievement Award, left to right, Julia Chang Bloch '64, a former Peace Corps volunteer who became the first U.S. ambassador of Asian-American origin; and two doctors with Cal graduate degrees, Susan Desmond-Hellmann M.S. '88, chancellor of UCSF, and Barbara Staggers '76, M.P.H. '80, a physician at Children's Hospital in Oakland. (Photos: Peg Skorpinski)

“If you want to know more, Google me.”

The Cal Alumni Association’s awards were announced well in advance, including by us, and the actual presentations came off without a hitch on March 24, one day after the University of California turned 144 years old.

A self-confessed former nerd was honored as Berkeley’s Alumnus of the Year, the association’s tip-top award: Eric Schmidt M.S. ’79, Ph.D. ’82, Google’s executive chairman and former CEO.

“I was a very nerdy student, a programmer,”  Schmidt said to the banquet audience at the association’s Charter Gala.  He rode a motorcycle back then, with leather jacket and helmet, to counterbalance his image toward cool.

Coming to Berkeley was part of what Schmidt calls his “relatively inchoate idea to go to California because I thought the weather would be nice — which it is.”  And the electrical engineering and computer science faculty members were some of the best in the country. He liked the idea that here, instead of learning only theoretical stuff about computer science, he could “do things, make things happen, literally writing code to change the world.”

He also absorbed something he didn’t expect.  “I learned something much more fundamental.  I learned something about tolerance and diversity and respect.  All of us, going through the system, might not have know that.  People aren’t born knowing this stuff; you learn it from an institution that has this in its core values.”  He’s proud to say now “that I care about those values as much today as I did when I was 21, when I learned them at Berkeley.”

He has nothing but praise for the pioneering faculty in his field back then, and his fellow grad students.  With the latter he endured “timesharing” on the few available computers — mostly between 10 p.m. and six a.m. for students, “and I can tell you that the food on Northside at four in the morning has not improved — it’s still bad!”  Despite some primitive aspects, it was a heady time, associating with people who are now legends.  “I was part of a team that was led by a fellow named Bill Joy [M.S. ’79], that ultimately created what is known as Berkeley UNIX, which is the progenitor of much of the technology that you use today and is now seen pretty much everywhere.  We essentially built the architecture of what you know today as the internet, at Berkeley.”

The magnitude of what the faculty and the students (who, of course, became alumni) did back then still makes Schmidt reflective.  “The consequence of our research,” he says, with “our” meaning all those physicists and semiconductor-makers and others, “the consequence of what we did, is that another five billion people will join the global conversation.  That’s billion with a b.”

Schmidt has a sense of commitment to the world that he says “came out of seeing what happened when you put everybody together in a university like Berkeley. ” It was possible to see that “there’s something more important than the specific problems or the specific research, that you do it to make the world a better place.”

He asked his audience to think about Berkeley not as a state university or even as the top research university in the U.S. (“at least by the rankings I’ve seen recently”), but rather “think of it as a global institution that has a responsibility to take the principles of diversity, tolerance, entrepreneurship, innovation, and, most importantly, free speech — most importantly free speech — and take that to the rest of the world that has never seen it, never had the opportunity.”

He had one further request:   “I want you all to fight for learning.  It is the answer to the problems that are true in the world today.  Every one of them is ultimately solved by a learning answer, and understanding answer, a tolerance answer.”

He thanked them for what is “probably the most significant honor I’ll ever get, because it ties my whole life together.”

Also among the honorees

Two alumnae with Berkeley graduate degrees received the association’s Excellence in Achievement Award at the same event.

An oncologist and biotechnology leader, Susan Desmond-Hellmann M.P.H. ’88 was named one of the world’s seven most “powerful innovators” and “a hero to legions of cancer patients” by Forbes magazine. During her 14 years at Genentech, where she became head of product development, the company became the nation’s leading producer of anti-cancer drug treatments, including Avastin and Herceptin.

“My training in the master of public health program gave me a valuable set of skills in epidemiology and biostatistics that I have used throughout my career in both clinical practice and drug development,” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann says. “I hope that this knowledge and the decisions that it has informed has ultimately benefited many patients.”

Desmond-Hellmann was named to the Biotech Hall of Fame in 2007 and has been listed frequently among Fortune magazine’s Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.  Since 2009, she has been chancellor of UC San Francisco, a national center of biomedical research and innovation. She is the first woman to lead that campus.

An authority on the psychosocial and psychobiological needs of adolescents, and a physician at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, Barbara Staggers B.A. ’76, M.P.H. ’80 saw Cal for the first time when she was four years old and knew she wanted to go to school here, because “I knew I would get the best education in the world.”

Staggers grew up in Oakland and has devoted much of her life to studying and helping high-risk urban youth in her home town. She co-founded and internship program, Faces for the Future, to inspire and support minority students interested in pursuing careers in health care. She is also a co-founder, medical director, and driving force behind the Chappell Hayes Health Center, a nationally recognized school-based health clinic at West Oakland’s McClymonds High.

— Dick Cortén  

Video of Eric Schmidt’s acceptance speech

Photos of the 2012 Charter Gala