With UC Berkeley consistently ranked as the one of the top public universities in the nation, it’s no wonder it gets some world-class visitors, including — you guessed it — American presidents.
In honor of Presidents Day, here’s a list of the sitting presidents who have visited Cal. We’ve tried our best to be comprehensive, but for brevity, we’ve excluded visits by presidents before or after their time in office, as well as the president who had an official visit scheduled but canceled — we’re looking at you, William McKinley.
Much of this information appeared in a past Library exhibit called All Hail to the Chief, and the Library resources related to each president listed are by no means comprehensive.
1. Benjamin Harrison (1891)
During the spring of 1891, Benjamin Harrison came out for a visit, along with his wife and some of his cabinet members. After spending time in Southern California, his welcome in San Francisco “was a tremendous one of blazing lights, firing of cannon, tooting of whistles and pyrotechnics galore.”
On May 2, Harrison visited Berkeley, delivering a brief speech at the university, heralding the importance of institutions of higher learning. Later that day, he headed to Oakland, but the crowds were so unruly there that he couldn’t make it to the stand where he was supposed to speak. Instead, he delivered his speech while standing up in his carriage.
More: An account of Harrison’s travels, Through the South and West with the President, April 14-May 15, 1891, compiled by John S. Shriver, is available at The Bancroft Library.
2. Theodore Roosevelt (1903)
Theodore Roosevelt visited UC Berkeley in 1903, while he was president, as well as after his presidency, in 1911.
Roosevelt was friends with UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler dating back to when Roosevelt was the governor of New York and Wheeler was teaching at Cornell University. When Roosevelt was planning a trip to California, Wheeler invited the president to speak at that year’s commencement ceremony. Roosevelt — a loyal pal — obliged.
The president was escorted to campus by mounted African American “Buffalo Soldiers” and gave the commencement address in the Greek Theatre, which, at the time, was not yet finished.
Afterward, Roosevelt, ever the outdoorsman, toured Yosemite, bonding with legendary conservationist John Muir.
More: The picture of Muir and Roosevelt that is shown above is part of Bancroft’s pictorial collection. Letters between Roosevelt and Muir are available on Calisphere.
3. William Howard Taft (1909)
William Howard Taft visited Berkeley in October of 1909, not long after taking office, an occasion marked by tragedy.
He was supposed to have been greeted by Beverly L. Hodghead, Berkeley’s first mayor, and mathematics professor Irving Stringham, who served as dean of faculties.
But that’s not what happened.
Stringham — who had fallen ill — died the morning Taft arrived. But despite that tragic turn, Taft’s visit otherwise went smoothly, with the president making a grand entrance — complete with a cavalry troop and university cadets — at the Greek Theatre, where he delivered an unplanned 10-minute address.
More: Bancroft holds an invitation from Taft’s reception during the visit. And many of the papers of then Oakland Mayor Frank M. Mott relate to Taft’s visit to Alameda County.
4. Woodrow Wilson (1919)
Woodrow Wilson — with the fitting nickname of The Professor — visited UC Berkeley as president in September of 1919, on a tour meant to garner support for America’s participation in the League of Nations, the international peacekeeping organization established after World War I.
At the time, Wilson was eyed as a potential successor to the recently retired UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler.
Wilson, who apparently had been instructed by his physician to avoid speaking, made an unexpected speech at the Greek Theatre.
Not too long afterward, Wilson’s health began to decline. After a series of strokes, Wilson ended his tour early. Plagued by health problems, he spent the rest of his term secluded in the White House.
More: Photos from Wilson’s visit are held at Bancroft and are available on Calisphere.
5. Harry S. Truman (1948)
President Harry S. Truman delivered the commencement address here in 1948. Professor Garff Wilson, in charge of ceremonies and protocol, estimated 60,000 attended the event, but a local Republican-owned paper ran a photo of seats that were left empty on purpose, stating the stadium was “sparsely filled.”
More: BAMPFA Film Archive has an 11-minute film documenting the commencement.
6. John F. Kennedy (1962)
The last sitting president to visit Cal, John F. Kennedy spoke in 1962 on Charter Day, which marks the founding of the university. A crowd of nearly 100,000 descended upon Memorial Stadium, making it the largest audience Kennedy had addressed, and Kennedy was awarded an honorary law degree.
More: The Library holds the binder and manuscript of the speech used by Kennedy. The Library also has video recordings of the speech, which is also available to view digitally on Calisphere.
In more recent times, Barack Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, scouted UC Berkeley on her college tour — but her father was nowhere to be seen.
Malia eventually opted to attend Harvard, her parents’ alma mater.
But, hey — at least it wasn’t Stanford.
California Faces: The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection, Muir, John--POR:65. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.