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Berkeley Nobelists’ flags fly high
Campus laureates honored with dozens of street banners

| 16 April 2003



Intrepid Chancellor Berdahl descends after unfurling the final banner on Telegraph Ave. All 18 laureates are represented.
Jonathan King (left) and Peg Skorpinski (right) photos

“It just goes to show,” said Chancellor Berdahl more-or-less calmly as he rose high above the corner of Telegraph Ave. and Haste St., mounted on the business end of a cherry-picker crane, “that chancellors are expendable.”

A moment later, he reached over and cut the cord on the last of 67 brightly colored banners depicting UC Berkeley’s 18 Nobel Prize winners — the first 66 having been installed overnight by campus staff and city workmen. His ceremonial duties completed, Berdahl returned to ground with all the dignity a tall man in a blue suit can muster in the bucket of a cherry-picker.

Welcoming him back to earth was a crowd of campus and municipal dignitaries, assembled in front of Cody’s Books to witness the pre-Cal Day dedication event on April 11. Among their number were two of the campus’ eight living Nobelists, economists George Akerlof and Daniel McFadden.

Also on the ground, grinning broadly as the final 18-square-foot banner was unfurled, was Cody’s proprietor Andy Ross , whose idea it was to festoon the length of Telegraph between Parker St. and Bancroft Way with banners promoting the town’s and the gown’s “pride of place.“ Ross and the merchants of the Telegraph Business Improvement District had considered several possible themes for the banners — including images of Berkeley in the 1960s or great Berkeley writers — before approaching the university with the idea of honoring the campus’s Nobel laureates.

The Telegraph connection
Previous street banners on Telegraph have featured pizza slices, records, and coffee cups — all part of the avenue’s commercial charm — but with the new banners, merchants wanted to highlight Telegraph’s connection to the rich intellectual community of Berkeley and the campus.

“This project represents a great partnership between the business community and the university,” said Telegraph improvement district executive director Roland Peterson in his comments to the early-morning crowd. His organization funded the fabrication and installation of the banners and worked with campus Public Affairs staff, who designed the banners and planned their installation. The unfurling ceremony was organized by the campus Community Relations office.

The theme of partnership was echoed in remarks by Ross and Berdahl. Ross, president of the Telegraph improvement district, spoke soberly of current events as he reminded his listeners that the dominant images of our time are those of “horror, devastation, and death.” In unveiling the Nobel-laureate banners, he said, we honor a “benign universal quality of humanity, the search for truth.”

He continued: “Berkeley the city and Berkeley the university are two interrelated communities. We quarrel from time to time; we don’t always trust one another. But we are joined together in a belief in the essential worthiness of the search for truth as a means to better our lives.

Ross offered a moving “contrarian view” to what he called the popular media stereotype of Berkeley. Referring to the new banners, he said “These eloquent and dignified images remind us that in a world which seems berserk, Berkeley — of all places — is an island of sanity, committed to the peaceful pursuit of truth as a means to the betterment of the human family. And these great scholars, scientists, and humanists, who have all made imperishable contributions to the evolution of universal human culture, are really symbols of our community’s civilized values and aspirations. By their example, they remind us of the better angels of our nature.”

A heritage of scholarly excellence
Berdahl drew a laugh with his opening comment — “Usually when I hear there is a crowd gathering on Telegraph with a bunch of banners, I head the other way”— but devoted the bulk of his remarks to expressions of celebration and appreciation.

“Today we come together under banners that are not ‘anti’ anything. They are ‘pro’ the best of the human condition. They wave proudly in honor of the Nobel tradition and Berkeley’s heritage of scholarly excellence.” Noting that of Berkeley’s 18 Nobel laureates, 13 were honored for scientific achievement, four for economics, and one for literary accomplishment, he expanded on a sentiment expressed by Ernest O. Lawrence, the campus’s first Nobelist, who received his 1939 award at Berkeley rather than in Stockholm because of the dangers of wartime travel.

“On being informed of his having won the Nobel,” Berdahl recalled, “Lawrence said, ‘It goes without saying that it is the laboratory that is honored, and I share the honor with my co-workers past and present.’ And indeed, Berkeley’s Nobel Prizes themselves are in a sense only emblematic of the work that went into the enormous achievements they recognize. The honor is shared with all the other scholars who contributed, the learning community that engendered this kind of work, the city that fostered it, and all of us who celebrate and support the ever-widening horizons of human knowledge.”

The laborious process of tracking down the images of all the Nobelists and upgrading them to giant display quality fell to Public Affairs design director John Hickey and his staff.

“We had to work with some pretty old photos,” says Hickey. “Some of them were postage-stamp size pictures that had been dug up from old department files.” A few, though, were of top quality, having been shot by Berkeley portrait photographer G. Paul Bishop and, more recently), his son, G. Paul Bishop, Jr., whose distinctive red-brick studio stands on Durant Ave. between Shattuck Ave. and Fulton St. To complete the collection, the Bishop studio produced fresh portraits of Akerlof and McFadden, the 2000 and 2001 Nobel recipients.

The Nobel banners adorn not only six blocks of Telegraph Ave., but Bancroft Way between Bowditch St. and Dana St., and one block of Durant Ave. as well. They will remain in place until the campus’s winter holiday begins in December.