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Berkeley Honors Grad Was One Poor Student

First he couldn't get admitted, then he ended up sleeping in parks for a semester, but persistent Duane De Witt wound up a commencement speaker.

June 08, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — In the celebrity-laden world of college commencement speakers, Duane De Witt is hardly marquee material.

But along with his borrowed cap and gown, what De Witt brought to the stage when he recently addressed 2,000 fellow UC Berkeley graduates was nearly half a century of experience on the rough margins of society. Standing nervously on the podium, the soft-spoken 48-year-old Army veteran was an oddity in a university filled largely with the sons and daughters of privilege, one whose odyssey of uncommon persistence included nearly an entire semester spent sleeping in local parks.

De Witt had rebounded from a career of low-paying jobs and repeated rejection to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from one of America's top universities. He finished with a 3.8 average, scoring A's in all but one class, a B-plus in "Scandinavian Welfare Systems."

"I came to school homeless and here I was speaking to my graduating class," he said, shaking his head in amazement. "I went from sleeping in the park to speaking on the stage."

For classmates and instructors alike, De Witt's sheer will to succeed at Berkeley reasserted the values of the academy more than any politician, celebrity or academic speaker could. "I've never seen anyone who worked so hard and was so appreciative of his chance at an education," said Helen Johnson, director of a program for university reentry students. "Duane always says the university is like a chocolate factory -- there's so much to learn, so much to enjoy."

Yet De Witt's journey almost never got its start. For years, the Santa Rosa native was repeatedly rejected by UC Berkeley officials until, in May of 2000, he became so frustrated that he made a personal plea to the UC system's Board of Regents that he deserved a chance.

While competing in Berkeley's academic pressure cooker, De Witt made frequent trips to a Santa Rosa convalescent home to visit his mentally ill mother, a manic-depressive who also suffers from Alzheimer's disease. At night, he slept in a grove of redwoods near the campus' Strawberry Creek, just steps from the classrooms he shared with students who arose each day in cozy apartments and dormitories.

As many classmates concerned themselves with football games and fraternity rushes, De Witt fought to keep his fragile grip on university enrollment -- especially after thieves broke into his 1986 Subaru station wagon, stealing not only his meager belongings but all of his textbooks and class notes.

"I just told myself that this is what I have to endure to achieve what I want to achieve," De Witt said. "I had to stay in school at any cost. I knew that I'd never get another chance."

With a personal loan from an empathetic university housing official, De Witt bought new books and moved into an apartment. Years later, he's been accepted into UC Berkeley's prestigious graduate program in city and regional planning.

On May 22, he shared the speaker's spotlight with best-selling author Anne Lamott, who wrote "Traveling Mercies" and "Crooked Little Heart."

"He kept following this song he heard deep inside of himself," Lamott wrote in an e-mail. "That was the song of 'Yes' and of all things that are possible, if you don't let the world tell you who and how you are. What a victory."

For much of his life, even De Witt would not have thought such a triumph possible. He grew up the only child of a single mother who frequently lost jobs and apartments due to her mental illness. After spending several years in the care of his grandparents, De Witt joined the Army at 18 and was trained as a certified respiratory therapist.

When he left active duty, De Witt studied briefly at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, where he was amazed by a social safety net where few people -- even the mentally ill -- went homeless. The idea inspired him to one day pursue a career in helping American poor acquire the same adequate low-cost housing.

Moving back to the Bay Area to care for his mother, De Witt continued to struggle, failing to find a full-time job with benefits. For two decades, he worked a succession of part-time positions, never earning more than $27,000 in a year.

He began taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and eyed a move to UC Berkeley. Not only was the school close to his mother, but it offered numerous courses in Scandinavian language and culture, which he thought would help him return to Denmark to further study its public housing system.

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