By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
Originally from Berkeleyan Online
04 December 2002 | Robert Brentano, a brilliant history professor whose 50 years of teaching and leadership on the Berkeley campus drew profound admiration and respect from students and professional colleagues alike, died on Thursday. Nov. 21. He was 76.
Brentano died at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley following an asthma attack. The news came as a shock to the campus community, where Brentano continued to teach history courses this fall.
“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.”
“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 bishops.”
‘A cosmpolitan, humane anarchist…’
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 Berkeley’s history department in 1952 and never left.
During his half-century on campus he wrote six books and numerous articles on medieval history, while regularly teaching 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 Berkeley Academic Senate, the faculty governing board.
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 who fought against what he took to be the deadening pretenses of historical scholarship,” recalled 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.”
Brentano’s egalitarian nature was commented on by many who knew him. He supported equal access to Berkeley for ethnic-minority students, older students, disabled students, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The author of a profile of Brentano in the June 2002 issue of California Monthly noted his conviction that a mixture of abilities and viewpoints in the classroom benefits everyone’s learning experience, quoting him as saying: “I can’t imagine anything duller than a packed room full of valedictorians. They think the same way, they’re overprepared.”
Brentano 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 professor-student relationship.
“I have never had a more approachable, kind, caring, and friendly professor,” Eidelson said. “He stood out to me as a really amazing person.”
Lure of the classroom
In a Berkeleyan 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 sons James, of Orinda, and Robert, of Ross; daughter Margaret of South Berwick, Maine; and five grandchildren.