NEWS RELEASE, 05/07/98

Garff Wilson, UC Berkeley impresario and drama professor, dies at 89

By Julia Sommer

BERKELEY -- Garff Wilson, the self-described "unidentified man on the right," who welcomed kings, presidents and other world figures to the University of California, Berkeley, died Wednesday (5/6/98) in Berkeley. He was 89.

For 33 years Wilson was professor of rhetoric and dramatic art and head of public ceremonies at UC Berkeley. He retired in 1976.

A native of Ogden, Utah, Wilson was born on Jan. 9, 1909. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1931, taught at Humboldt State, earned his PhD at Cornell, then returned to the campus in 1941 to teach before joining the army.

Upon his return to campus, UC President Robert Gordon Sproul promptly asked him to brighten the reception for new students.

Next, Wilson designed a campus visit for poet Robert Frost, and then went on over the years to orchestrate visits from two U.S. presidents, seven kings, six prime ministers and countless other newsmakers.

"I was like a stagehand," he would say, "opening doors, moving people around, handing out medals. I was always there, the invisible man hovering nervously in the background."

In his 600-page oral history of his role as UC Berkeley's impresario, Wilson remembered with special fondness the 1962 Charter Day visit of President John F. Kennedy during which there was an almost electric connection between the President and the 100,000 people in Memorial Stadium.

Other notables whose visits to campus Wilson planned and directed included President Harry S. Truman, Gen. George C. Marshall, Adlai Stevenson, Jacques-Ives Cousteau, Alex Haley, Barbara Tuchman, Dylan Thomas, the kings of Denmark, Greece, and Morocco, and the Queen of Holland.

Wilson published two popular memoirs, "The Unidentified Man on the Right: The Story of Fabulous People and Events on the Berkeley Campus of the University of California During the Past Four Decades" and "Color Them Blue and Gold: Memories of Students, Athletes, Housemates, and Rascals I Have Known at Cal."

His is the voice visitors to campus hear as they ride the elevator to the top of the landmark Campanile.

Wilson's dramatic flair came naturally as a scholar of drama, a director of plays, and a player himself in summer stock theater. He performed solo in the traditional bonfire rallies before Big Game with Stanford, and his dramatic reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" became a campus tradition.

Wilson's house, along with all his mementos and honors, were destroyed in the Oakland-Berkeley fire of 1991.

Wilson was an ardent backer of the UC Berkeley swim team and the Cal Marching Band, whose new uniforms are a recent gift from him.

Wilson is survived by his sister, Janice Hamilton, of Los Angeles.

Services will be private.

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