In the contest between the interests of his college and his home for three years of college, one famous UC Berkeley alum comes down unequivocally on the side of Bowles Hall.
“My allegiance is still about Bowles Hall; Haas will always be able to take care of its own needs,” said Norman Y. Mineta, who graduated from the business school and went on to serve in Congress and in the cabinets of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
His three years as a resident of Bowles Hall would play a crucial role in a career which ascended from behind the barbed wire of a Wyoming internment camp to the highest corridors of power in Washington.
And now the end of the residential hall he cherishes is threatened by UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, from which he graduated in 1953 when it was still known as the College of Commerce.
Haas has set its sights on the venerable gothic landmark, which is located northwest of Memorial Stadium on Stadium Rim Way and a short stroll from the business school.
If Haas and UC Berkeley officials have their way, a unique and much-loved residential hall will be transformed into upscale living quarters for executives taking specialized training designed to enhance their corporate chops while enriching Haas’s bottom line.
“It looks pretty much like the die has been cast,” Mineta said. “The question is, what can be done?”
One step he’s taking is a letter he’s writing to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Another step may be a call to Haas Dean Tom Campbell, a Republican who succeeded to the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Democrat Mineta vacated in 1995.
Born in San Jose to Japanese immigrants in 1931, Mineta and his family were swept up in the dragnet of Japanese-Americans that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He and his family were thrown into Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of 10 internment camps built to house people rounded up in Pacific Coast states and Southern Arizona.
Returning to San Jose after the war, he threw himself into his high school and was elected student body president his senior year. “The newspapers took note of an American of Japanese ancestry being elected so soon after the war,” Mineta said. “Asian Americans at San Jose High School probably didn’t make up even five percent of the student body.”
At the same time, Harry Kawahara, another Japanese-American, was elected student body president at San Leandro High School.
“We both started at UC Berkeley in September 1949, and we became close friends,” Mineta said. “We still are to this day.” The friendship would also lead to a romance and marriage. ”My brother-in-law’s brother married Harry’s sister. We kid each other that we are relatives.”
Mineta spent his freshman year living in a boarding house on Ridge Road.
“At that point, the ability for a minority student to pledge one of the fraternities was somewhere between zero and five percent,” he said. “There was one interracial fraternity at that point, but they didn’t have a house and there was no chance of pledging somewhere like SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon).
“But I had heard of Bowles Hall, so I decided to apply,” he said.
The Bowles experience
Bowles Hall was the built in 1928 with a donation from Mary McNear Bowles as a men-only residence in memory of her spouse, UC regent and Cal graduated Phillip E. Bowles.
When completed the following year, it became the first state-owned college or university residential hall in California, built in the Collegiate Gothic style, an American evocation of the oldest buildings at Oxford and Cambridge.
From the beginning, the goal was to provide an experience where residents would live at Bowles throughout their undergraduate years, older students mentoring those who were just beginning their college careers.
Mineta applied, undergoing the interviews required of all prospective residents before he was accepted. He became a Bowlesman in September 1950.
“For me, it was tremendous, I had been very active in high school, and I found Bowles Hall to be very much like a fraternity, where we had a lot of social activities,” he said, all conducted under the watchful but benevolent eye of Mrs. Rose Gilmore, the house resident. “She was terrific,” Mineta added.
While most meals were served cafeteria style, Wednesday night dinner were formal by comparison, with residents attired in suits and ties and served by “the hashers,” or hall staff.
“Occasionally on Wednesday nights after dinner we had speakers. The first event that Clark Kerr accepted after he became chancellor was an invitation to speak at Bowles Hall after dinner. We were tremendously proud.”
There were 450 residents then, living in small suites that housed two students, though occupancy has since been doubled.
“I really felt part of the whole hall,” said Mineta. “I felt part of a living group. It was structured, we had a social life, and we have residential advisors among the upperclassmen we could turn to for help.”
Mineta served on the class council throughout his years at Bowles, and chaired the men’s banquet for the university’s graduating class during his senior year—when he also served as secretary treasurer of the Bowles Hall Association.
Life after Bowles
Like many students, Mineta had enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps during college, and on graduating in 1953, he was taken into active service and assigned to Army intelligence—where he served in Japan and Korean during the Korean War.
Once back home in San Jose, he joined his father’s insurance business, “and little by little I started getting into community affairs, and that got me into politics.”
In 1967, the mayor and a city councilmember asked if he’d be interested in serving out a three-year vacancy on the council. He accepted, and won election—“I couldn’t campaign for reelection because I was appointed.”
The following year he ran for mayor, carrying every precinct in the city. Four years later, he ran for Congress, where he served for 20 years.
In the last year of his administration, Bill Clinton picked Mineta to serve as Secretary of Commerce, and when George W. Bush was inaugurated, Mineta because Secretary of Transportation, serving until last July when he resigned to become vice chair of Hill & Knowlton, one of the nation’s most powerful public relations firms.
On Dec. 15, Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, “for a life of selfless and distinguished service to our Nation,” including his work “to improve the security of our transportation system and restore our confidence in air travel after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”
And through it all, Mineta has retained his relationships with his companions from Bowles Hall, and is a regular at the dinners Bowles alumni have every year at Big Game time.
“My experience in Berkeley, and especially at Bowles Hall, really gave me a great foundation for public service,” he said.