Life at the Top: The Campanile

by Fernando Quintero

For Lilyanne Clark, work has its ups and downs.

Clark is the elevator operator at Sather Tower (popularly known as the Campanile), the University's most visible and enduring symbol.

Each weekday from 10 am to 4:30 pm, Clark whisks locals and visitors from around the world to the top of the 30-story tower, then brings them back down.

Despite its apparent redundancy, Clark seems extremely content with her job. She sees herself as a campus ambassador with an office that just happens to have one of the best views on the planet.

"It's a trippy job. I like it," said Clark, who attended Berkeley in the late '60s. "People from all over the world come here. But the neatest thing is when alumni come back and share their stories. There is something about being in the Campanile that opens the floodgates.

"They say, 'All the years I went to school here, and never went up this thing.' Then they come up and start going on and on about their years at Cal," said Clark. "To them, this is a place that represents the happiest times of their lives."

Clark's own recollections include the time someone put a Mickey Mouse face and hands on the tower clock.

At the base of the tower, which has an earthquake-strengthened foundation, Clark waits inside the vintage wooden elevator for passengers to arrive. The elevator ascends while a tape on the history of the tower plays, narrated by a man who sounds exactly like the Greyhound bus depot announcer--the same friendly voice in every station in every city that announced arrivals, departures, and bus routes.

On their way up and on their way down, the visitors ask questions.

Children want to know if there is a ghost in the tower. One visitor from China who was staying in San Francisco came to visit because he was able to see the Campanile from across the bay. "He came because he said it stood as a symbol of knowledge," said Clark.

Clark is often asked how many times a day she goes up and down on the elevator. "I think about counting sometimes, but then I forget."

Atthe top, the elevator opens onto a foyer with a table, where Clark put a guest book. "Elvis signed in," said Clark. "So did Richard Nixon. He wrote, 'I'm back.'"

The book has become a most interesting forum for observations and comments: "As a rule, never re-freeze bass." "Long live disco." "I spit on the naked guy."

The most numerous comments are about the view, written in as many languages.

"I come up here and look around whenever I can," said Clark, surveying the view with a look of serenity. Behind her, the soft, white light of the afternoon sun reflected off a ribbon of fog that stretched below the horizon from the Peninsula, across the Golden Gate, to Marin.

On the return trip, the elevator stopped on a few floors where the bones are stored. The paleontology department staked their claim on most of the six loft-like rooms in the tower soon after it was built. The rooms aren't open to the public and appear as if no one has set foot in them for decades.

In the corner of the fourth floor, a stack of yellowed, crumbling newspapers keeps freeze frames of visits long past. A headline from a San Francisco Chronicle dated October 29, 1934, reads: "Oh, Girls! Get Set for Hetch Hetchy Hair! Soft water to give new beauty, slash soap bills in home."

The bones are kept in wooden slats stacked high or in metal cabinets. There are petrified bone fragments from the La Brea Tar Pits that look like mesquite wood charcoal. And limb bones, ribs, and pelvic bones from horses, bison, and other prehistoric animals are stored there.

The sixth floor houses the carillonist and his staff. "They play my favorite classical tunes," said Clark, who for an instant became the medieval maiden in the tower, being serenaded by her bell-ringing knight in shining armor.

There aren't too many downs in Clark's job after all.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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