"Bob Brentano embodied what is good about Berkeley," said
Jon Gjerde, chair of the history department. "He was a beloved
teacher, an erudite scholar, and a campus servant who, in
his own distinctive way, fulfilled his responsibilities
with a love of life and a commitment to a better world."
Brentano was born May 19, 1926, in Evansville, Ind. A scholar
in medieval English and Italian history, Brentano received
his bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and his doctorate
from Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar.
He joined UC Berkeley's history department in 1952 and never
During his half-century on campus he wrote six books and
numerous articles on medieval history and regularly taught
introductory history courses and specialized upper division
courses in British history. He also served on a broad variety
of university committees and boards, including a stint in
1999 as chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate, the faculty
"Everything he did, he did with enthusiasm and grace,"
said James Brentano, one of the professor's sons. "He really
cared about what people thought - he always listened to
them and tried to learn from them, whether they were undergraduate
students, people he met at the race track, or 13th century
Brentano received several awards for his teaching and scholarship.
In 1986, the Council for the Advancement and Support of
Education named him California Professor of the Year. In
1991, the campus's Academic Senate awarded him its top prize,
the Clark Kerr Award for Distinguished Leadership in Higher
Education. Last spring he was honored by the International
Congress of Medieval Studies.
"He was a brilliant scholar and fought against what he
took to be the deadening pretenses of historical scholarship,"
recalled UC Berkeley history professor Randoph Starn, a
colleague and friend of 36 years. He was "an anarchist who
held a slew of important offices and honors in the university
and in his profession, an unacademic professor who insisted
on precise research and writing, beginning with the lowliest
freshman, a cosmopolitan whose engagements were always particular
and local, an immensely humane person who spoke his mind
sharply, even outrageously."
Many who reflect on Brentano's life are struck by his strong
egalitarian nature. He supported equal access to UC Berkeley
for ethnic minority students, older students, disabled students
and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He treated
faculty, staff and students with the same level of respect.
Student Michael Eidelson, who took one of Brentano's classes
last spring, remains struck by the personal connection that
the professor made with individual students. Even before
a lecture hall filled with students, he created an atmosphere
of friendship and mutual respect as opposed to a formal
"I have never had a more approachable, kind, caring and
friendly professor," Eidelson said. "He stood out to me
as a really amazing person."
In an interview last spring, Brentano spoke about the lure
of retirement, of moving permanently to his family's retreat
in Italy and reading all of the books and poetry for which
he had never had time. But the 76 year old, still a vibrant
presence on campus despite a stroke two years earlier, also
spoke of the lure of the classroom.
"Our students have become increasingly sophisticated over
the years and their interest in arts and letters is stronger
than ever,'' he said then. "The classroom is still very
much an exciting place to be and the study of history continues
to be relevant to students' lives."
Brentano is survived by his wife of 46 years, Carroll;
his son James of Orinda, Calif.; daughter Margaret of South
Berwick, Maine; son Robert of Ross, Calif.; and five grandchildren.
The family will hold a private memorial service this week.
A campus memorial service is tentatively scheduled for
January. The family asks that contributions be sent to The
Marine Mammal Center, Marin Headlands, 1065 Fort Cronkhite,
Sausalito, CA 94965, or the Historic Landmarks Foundation
of Indiana, 340 West Michigan Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202.
For more information, please contact Chris Egan in the history
department at (510) 642-2789.