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Getting to know Mary Catherine Birgeneau
A glimpse at the private side of University House’s newest resident

| 01 December 2004


Though the demands on her time as the chancellor’s wife are many, Mary Catherine Birgeneau is starting to feel at home in Berkeley. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)
A few months ago, while on a plane from Boston to Berkeley, Mary Catherine Birgeneau leaned her cheek on her fist and realized something very precious was missing. Her engagement ring gaped empty-pronged, minus the diamond solitaire given to her more than 40 years ago by her college sweetheart and husband, Robert Birgeneau. The stone was likely lost during Mary Catherine’s pell-mell packing session at the Birgeneaus’ house in Weston, Mass., a stop en route from the University of Toronto to UC Berkeley, where her husband had been named the new chancellor.

“It wasn’t a big diamond; Bob was just a student when we bought it,” says Mary Catherine, studying the plain gold wedding band that is temporarily her hands’ only ornament. “But as my mother likes to say, it was a good diamond. I was sad to lose it, but my life was changing so much and so quickly that I couldn’t miss it for more than a second.”

Life has indeed been a whirlwind for the Birgeneaus since July 27, when his Berkeley appointment was announced, and even more so since Sept. 22, when Chancellor Robert Berdahl and his wife, Peg, officially handed over the keys to the office at California Hall and to University House. But Mary Catherine is finally starting to feel settled in. She has unpacked all their boxes at their private living quarters upstairs at University House. She has almost finished the thank-you letters and other loose ends remaining from her time at U of T, as they call it. She’s beginning to think about replacing her engagement ring with something a little fancier. And it being football season — and a remarkably exciting one at that — she has learned to sing “Hail to California” and to yell “Go Bears!” with just the right punch.

Equal and opposite

As most of the campus knows by now, Bob and Mary Catherine both grew up in Toronto. They were sweethearts from the first day of their freshman orientation at U of T, and more than 40 years later, the affection between them is still palpable. The reason, perhaps, lies in their differences, and in the somewhat independent lives they’ve led.

A renowned physicist, Bob has “that scientific temperament,” says his wife, and has always had a lot of research projects to occupy his spare time, even before the all-consuming job as U of T’s president beckoned in 2000. In contrast, Mary Catherine describes herself as “more emotional” by nature, a “people person, but not a public person.” By that she means she’s at ease with small groups or one-on-one, but less comfortable when she has to give a speech. “Of course, I’ve become more of a public person after my four years at U of T,” she allows. “I have fun now at events.” A small-boned woman who is considerably shorter than her 6’3” husband, she listens closely and chats energetically, “thinking out loud as I go along,” as she puts it. She laughs a lot (not infrequently at herself). There is something ineffably warm and reassuring about her, a presence both competent and nurturing.

Indeed, if raising children to be good, responsible adults were a career-track job, Mary Catherine would be a Fortune 500 CEO by now. Not only has she been an involved mother to her three daughters and son — serving as their schools’ PTO chair, their Girl Scout troop leader, soccer team manager — and doting grandmother to their five offspring, but she has spent innumerable hours helping countless troubled children and their unprepared parents.

Mary Catherine BirgeneauMary Catherine off the cuff

On her wardrobe "I've definitely had to upscale. When my first three kids got married, I never spent more than $100 on the outfit. I do have a few St. John's outfits for special occasions — I hate to admit it, because they're outrageously expensive. But believe me, I bought them all on sale."

On her hobbies "I'd love to say I'm an avid everything, but I'm really more of a dabbler. I enjoy gardening, but Bob probably knows more about it than I do. Both of us like movies and the theater. However, he likes these heavy-duty, intense dramas, and I love musicals, which he's not into."

On sports "I used to stay fit with jazz aerobics, and I hope to find a good exercise class here. I'm a big football fan. I don't know a huge amount about it, but my brothers played and I love to watch the games."

On the secret to staying married 40+ years "Life is complex. Don't think anybody has straight, easy roads. Bob and I have had a lot of fun together, but we've had our challenges, too. Having children has been an amazing bond. You have to have faith in each other and stick at things. Try not to give up too easily."
 

Mary Catherine’s first job after college was as a social worker in Toronto. For two years she handled a caseload ranging from 4- to 18-year-olds. She loved it. The girl who a classmate described as “one of the brains, if not the brain” in grade school abandoned her hazy plans to teach, instead plunging into social work both paid and volunteer. During the 25 years the Birgeneaus lived in the Boston area as Bob worked his way up to dean of MIT’s School of Science, she assisted a variety of groups, including the Parent-Child Home program, helping low-income young mothers learn healthy interaction with their toddlers, and the OnTRAC after-school program for preteens. (To learn more about Mary Catherine’s social-work activities, see “Serving the Community” in the November issue of California Monthly, available at www.alumni.berkeley.edu/Alumni/Cal_Monthly/main.asp.)

In 1990, when her two eldest had left high school, she enrolled at Boston College to get a master’s in social work. “I was nervous, of course; you don’t know if you can do it after so long,” she recalls. “But it was around that time that you start to feel that society is giving you the message that raising four kids as an at-home mother isn’t enough.” Three years later she had her degree, but ended up continuing to volunteer in order to work with her preference, “the little ones,” and to be available to her two remaining daughters at home.

A commitment to others seems to run in the family. Three of the four Birgeneau offspring are involved in what could be deemed “helping” professions: Patricia is a pediatrician, Catherine is a psychologist, and Michelle, always the family’s strongest athlete, is a sports trainer. (Michael, the eldest, manages college endowments.)

Asked whether she drummed the idea of service into them when they were growing up, Mary Catherine shakes her head. “Not that I can recall, no,” she says, mentioning that her mother was always involved in her community in some way, too. “Maybe it comes from my religion, or it’s in my genes, or maybe growing up watching your mother do such work teaches you that when you give to your community, you get a lot back. I have learned so much from the kids I’ve worked with.”

Life in the public eye

Now her community involvement comes through a more indirect approach, one constrained by being the wife of the head of a major university. (The lofty presidential weight of the “First Lady” sobriquet has never sat comfortably on Mary Catherine’s down-to-earth shoulders.) At the mercy of the chancellor’s jam-packed schedule, she will likely have very little time for regular volunteer work. Thanks to the four-year stint at U of T, she has no illusions about how much of her time at Berkeley will be hers. “You give up your private life, essentially,” she says. Asked when she last spent an evening at home alone with her husband, she can’t recall. “However, the gains are great. And you do have your summers and your weekends.” She can escape the campus’s demands more often than the chancellor can to see her children on the East Coast, as she did recently for a long-promised week of babysitting, or her mother and brothers back in Toronto.

Still, after she gets her bearings, she hopes to be “helpful to at least a few parts of the community here. I suspect it may be more supporting things that are already going on, whether the day care center that Peg [Berdahl] worked with or something else.”

She will have no shortage of opportunities. Although leaving Toronto after only four years was hard — “I had really just put down roots and was finally getting all the names straight,” she admits — Mary Catherine seems genuinely excited to be here. She is happy that University House is located right on campus, instead of in a distant suburb as the U of T president’s quarters were. Already she’s walked over to the Bear’s Lair for coffee and to the ASUC store for armloads of Cal gear destined for the extended Birgeneau family.

“From the first day we arrived, so many people said to me, ‘You’ll love Berkeley!’ It was never simply, ‘We hope you like it,’” recalls Mary Catherine. “With all the sunshine and the beauty and the warm welcome from everyone — faculty, students, staff, and alumni too — I am pretty sure they’re right.”