Slugs, selfies, and loads of 'likes': well-wishers converge for Alumni Weekend 2014

Alumni weekend was a time to get in touch with everybody's inner Banana Slug. (Photos by Steve Kurtz)
Alison Galloway, campus provost and excecutive vice chancellor,  renowned for her work in forensic anthropology, gave a capacity crowd an engaging and surprising overview of "a day in the life of the dead."
The Banana Slug Lunch was a fine opportunity to raise a toast to old friendships and new connections.

Sammy the Slug photo-bombed a few “selfies,” old friends reunited over double-decker Earl Grey tea and roasted cherry ice cream cones from Mission Hill Creamery, and revelers took classes just for the fun of it during Alumni Weekend 2014 at UC Santa Cruz.

A crowd of more than 1,200–including 700 alumni–showed up for festivities that proved time is a strange thing. Indeed, some alumni felt like they had been away for far too long even though they graduated from UCSC a year or two ago, while others felt as if they left their alma mater just yesterday, despite four decades.

Returning graduates had fun re-exploring the hilly, wooded campus that was the constant backdrop of their daily lives as undergrads.  Passersby must have wondered what Philip James (Crown, ’12, computer science) was doing as he walked from place to place across the campus, periodically stopping to photograph a toy Lego motorcycle in front of some of his favorite spots including the sea lion statue. It was all part of an elaborate UCSC photo travelogue he is sending to a friend.

James may be a very recent graduate but he had a hard time staying away for long. Besides, UCSC helped shape his current career as a software engineer at the San Francisco offices of Eventbrite, a company whose software platform is used to sell tickets and registrations for events worldwide. "The theoretical stuff I learned up here helped me build systems better,” James said.  “My best classes helped me build things: video games, web applications, and microcomputers. In many ways we live in a society where makers drive what we do. I lean heavily on every (UCSC) class that allowed me to build and to create.”

Banana Slug lunch and Teach-Ins

Saturday's Banana Slug lunch was packed with revelers from across the years, some who have kept in touch constantly, and others who only get to see each other at reunions. Large crowds also attended the Teach-In event, with lectures from Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway who talked about “a day in the life of the dead;” Richard E. (Ed) Green, assistant professor in biomolecular engineering, who shared surprising insights into evidence of interbreeding between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals, and Bruce Thompson, a continuing lecturer in history and associate director of the Helen Diller Family Endowment Jewish Studies Program, and his  talk “Spies: Espionage and Intelligence in the First and Second World Wars."

Galloway’s presentation drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 80 people. While many on campus associate her with her highly public roles as an administrator, she is an internationally known forensic anthropologist who joined UCSC in 1990. She was the winner of excellence in teaching award in 1994 and is best known for her work in the notorious Scott Peterson murder trial.

Voice to the voiceless

Working without notes and no other cues, aside from the visual exhibits she used in her slides, and maintaining an even tone of voice, Galloway gave a nuanced but accessible look at her forensics work, along with a strong rationale for her work. Speaking of the bodies she examines, Galloway remarked: “These are people who no longer have a voice. There is nobody who can say how they lived and there are certainly nobody who can say how they died in most cases it is only the body itself that can give you that voice. It is the only power those people have left.”

The talk and the slides were sobering reminders about fragile lives, but Galloway included a large dose of empathy as well as humor; she shared the story of a brazen and none-too-smart suspect who entered a police headquarters and attempted to trade a bucket of fried chicken for a recovered murder weapon.

After the presentation–which included several startling case-study slides–Donna Mekis (College Eight, ’84, anthropology), who introduced Galloway’s presentation, remarked: “I have to say, I have an appreciation for the other side of your work.”

The “students” at the Teach-Ins must have felt themselves caught up in a time warp. The classrooms and even the desks looked much the same as they did in the old days, even if the circumstances were different.

The more things change ...

And while returning students noticed many differences on campus, UCSC still showcases the same landscape and many of the same buildings they remembered from all those years ago. Gail Harper (Porter, ’73, aesthetic studies), is now a successful lawyer who does criminal appeals cases, mostly involving gang-related homicides, but when she was at UCSC, she loved exploring creative writing, and had an influential mentor, the legendary writer and professor George Hitchcock. “I used to play pinochle with him,” she recalled. “And I even named my son after him!”

Wandering the halls of UCSC, she looked back on those days of exploration and creativity. “We had a lot of characters back then,” she said. One of those 'characters,' was a fellow Porter College student who had "a mop of curly hair. A dog was always following him around, and he played the saxophone.”

When asked what became of this creative-minded UCSC student, and whether the two of them are still in touch, Harper smiled. “I just called him a few minutes ago,” she said. “I told him to get on up here right now. And he is! He’s coming to the reunion.”

'Only school I ever really loved'

As she waited, she thought about the way UCSC left a mark on her. “It was the only school I ever really loved,” she said. “There was so much intellectual stimulation here. I really hated to leave.”

Two classmates, Steven Wesolowski (Crown, ’74, history of science) and Cricket Hailey (Crown, '74, English literature), enjoyed catching up at the Banana Slug Lunch and marveled at the fact that they graduated from UCSC 40 years ago.

“I completely loved this place,” said Hailey, who is a psychoanalyst. She is a longtime supporter of UCSC’s Smith Renaissance Society, which supports foster youth, homeless and runaway youth, orphans, and wards of the court, and encourages them to pursue their educational goals. “Page Smith (noted historian, UCSC visionary, and the influential founding provost of Cowell College) had a wonderful quote about the pursuit of knowledge in the company of friends. To me that is still so wise and inspiring,” she said.