Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Campus Janitor Beats Professors in Popularity Race

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:55:00 AM
James Tait’s small house at 2022 Delaware St. at right and the larger house later built by his widow at 2026 Delaware at left.
BAHA archives
James Tait’s small house at 2022 Delaware St. at right and the larger house later built by his widow at 2026 Delaware at left.
 James Tait on the stairs of North Hall.
Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
James Tait on the stairs of North Hall.
The former Tait house at 2022 Delaware St. was lifted and a new floor built below.
Daniella Thompson
The former Tait house at 2022 Delaware St. was lifted and a new floor built below.
Broom in hand, Jimmy Tate wins “The Race for Popularity.”
Blue and Gold, 1900
Broom in hand, Jimmy Tate wins “The Race for Popularity.”

In its 136 years, the University of California’s Berkeley campus has seen many buildings come and go. Among them, North Hall was the only one to have merited a demolition ceremony attended by the UC president and 700 alumni. 

Like South Hall, which housed the library, museums, and laboratories, North Hall was designed in the Second Empire style by Scottish-born architect David Farquharson. But unlike the brick-and-stone South Hall, North Hall was built in wood to house classrooms, assembly room, and faculty rooms, with the basement devoted to student activities. 

As early as 1902, North Hall was identified as a fire trap by Berkeley Fire Chief James Kenney, yet the building continued to be the center of student life until 1917, when it was ceremonially torn down, President Benjamin Ide Wheeler striking the first blow. 

For 18 of North Hall’s best years, its most enduring fixture was an Irishman by the name of James Tait, whom the students called “Jimmy Potatoes.” 

James Tait (1865-1906) was the janitor of North Hall. He immigrated to the United States in 1888 and must have made his way directly to Berkeley, for the following year he was listed in the city directory as a laborer on the UC grounds. 

It didn’t take long for Tait to become a student-body favorite. As his obituary in the San Francisco Call would attest, “his keen Irish wit, unfailing good humor, genuine interests in the doings of the undergraduate host, and the faculty of making friends with those of high and low degree served to give ‘Jimmy Potatoes’ distinction that mightier, richer men cannot acquire.” 

A thrifty man, in 1894 Tait managed to buy land on Henry Street near Vine and erected on it a very small house. Whether he lived in it or not is unclear, since the city directory sometimes indicated North Hall as his residence. 

In the late summer of 1897, Tait married Bella White (1876-1963), newly arrived from Ireland. Acquiring a lot at 2022 Delaware St., he moved his Henry Street house to the new location and enlarged it. 

Newspaper accounts of the period reported that Tait did everything to make his young bride comfortable in her new home. Unhappily, Bella was homesick, and within a few weeks of the marriage fell into melancholy so morbid that she couldn’t be safely left alone. In early October 1897 she was taken to the East Bay Sanitarium in Oakland. Upon her discharge three weeks later, her husband promised to send her back to Ireland and made arrangements for a married woman of their acquaintance to accompany her there. The night before the two women were to depart, Bella disappeared. She was found the next morning lying in a muddy pond, in a condition describ-ed as “hopelessly insane.” 

The trip to Ireland was cancelled, and Mrs. Tait was hospitalized again. On Feb. 18, 1898, the San Francisco Call announced, “The Californian-Occident baseball game will take place on the campus tomorrow morning at 11:15. The proceeds of the game will go to the benefit of James Tait, better known as ‘Jimmy,’ the janitor of North Hall, who recently had the misfortune of having to send to the insane asylum his wife, who had come all the way from Ireland to wed him.” 

Somehow, Bella Tait pulled through with no further incident. In April 1899 she gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Sadie. Their son, John, was born in June 1900. By then, Jimmy Tait had been twice enshrined in the university’s Blue and Gold yearbook. The 1900 edition carried an unsigned four-stanza poem titled “Jimmy,” illustrated by a photograph of the janitor on the stairs of North Hall, feather duster in hand. The poem’s first two stanzas convey the writer’s sentiment succinctly: 


What is yon bright and stately being, 

Which, with movement slow and calm, 

Telleth o’er the moments fleeing 

Ere he sound the loud alarm? 

It is Jimmy. 


Now with pail and now with shovel, 

Like an angel, bright is he, 

As he cleans and sweeps this hovel, 

Making it divine for me. 

It is Jimmy. 


Elsewhere in the same yearbook, an irreverent two-page cartoon titled “The Race for Popularity” depicted 11 men haphazardly staggering through a footrace. Ten of them, identified by name and tagged “also ran,” were members of the faculty. Ahead at the finish line, wearing patched trousers and carrying a broom and a smile, was the one person who needed no introduction: “Jimmy” Tait. 

“The cartoon was not appreciated by the authorities,” reported the San Francisco Call on Feb. 20, 1906, “and, with other objectionable matter, was regarded as ground for the suspension of the editor and manager of the publication. Jimmy Potatoes’ fame was largely increased by the affair, and he became more than ever an idol of the campus.” 

Indeed, Tait made an appearance in Joy Lichtenstein’s book For the Blue and Gold: A Tale of Life at the University of California (1901), where an account of the final exams produced this reminiscence: “Before they knew it they were all through, and the erstwhile echoing corridors of North Hall quieted down. For a while would ‘Jimmy Potatoes’ cease from tolling the North Hall recitation bell.” 

By 1902, James Tait had been reassigned from North Hall to gardening duties in the campus greenhouses and along its walks. The 1903 Blue and Gold lovingly marked his new role: “The Conservatory dates from the year of the Midwinter Fair. It is an appanage of the Agricultural and Botanical departments, and contains tropical or delicate plants, many being quite rare specimens, such as the celebrated Jimmy Potatoes, imported at great expense from Ireland.” 

When California Hall was completed in 1905, Tait became janitor of this modern edifice. There, in early February 1906, he was unpacking books when one of his hands received a scratch. He paid no attention to the cut until his arm began to swell. Alarmed, he consulted Dr. George Reinhardt, the university physician, and was sent to Providence Hospital in Oakland, where he died two weeks later. 

On the day of his death, Feb. 19, the campus flag was lowered to half mast, and President Wheeler’s office released an official announcement. Almost immediately, Professor Albin Putzker, head of the German Department, initiated a fundraising drive for the benefit of the widow. His call was taken up by the Daily Californian, which proposed to raise $1,000 in order to retire the $900 mortgage on the Tait home. On March 10, the UC varsity baseball team played a benefit game against St. Mary’s College of Oakland. The University Cadet Band provided music, and President Wheeler threw the first pitch, attracting 600 spectators. A month later, the band held a moonlight benefit concert of popular songs in the Greek Theatre. 

And what of the bereaved family? They remained on Delaware Street for another 50 years. In 1908, Bella Tait married Stephen Belford, another Irish laborer who worked for a while as campus gardener. In 1909, they constructed a larger house next door, on land acquired by James Tait in 1901. John Tait, who spent his entire life in the two family homes, died in 1966, exactly 60 years after the death of his father, the celebrated janitor of North Hall. 


The Tait house will be one of the attractions on a walking tour to be led by Daniella Thompson this Saturday, Oct. 3. See details on the BAHA website, www.berkeleyheritage.com.