Gene Poschman, 86, died of colon cancer at his Berkeley Hills home on Sept. 8, 2021, with his beloved wife, Anne Mester, and their dog, Dasher, at his side.
An extraordinary man, Gene left a record of unparalleled public service, first as a professor of political science at Cal State East Bay (at the time Cal State Hayward), as a department chair, and as an advocate for faculty participation in governance of the university as a member and chair of the Academic Senate. Further, as Zelda Bronstein, his longtime friend and Planning Commission colleague in Berkeley aptly put it, Gene was “a towering stalwart of Berkeley civic life” for 35 years, through his membership on the City’s Zoning Adjustments Board and Planning Commission.
Gene was born in San Francisco on Feb. 17, 1935, to Gladys Bergerud Waller and Claude Eugene Waller. After an early divorce, Gladys married Ed Poschman. Gene was raised in San Francisco’s Mission and Bayview districts. He graduated from Balboa High in 1952 and from UC Berkeley in 1956. At Cal, Gene was active in intramural sports, where in touch football he earned the illustrious title of Rubber Arm Poschman for his throwing prowess. He also played varsity volleyball.
As a graduate student at Cal, he received an M.A. in political science and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in political theory and California politics. Among his notable mentors were political science professors Jack Shaar, a prominent faculty advisor to the Free Speech Movement, and Sheldon Wolin, preeminent author and political theorist. Gene’s Ph.D. was awarded in 1970.
Gene’s segue from graduate school to politics was seamless. He was active in the California Democratic Club in the early 1960s. During this period, he applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Ford Foundation legislative internship program in Sacramento. Following his internship, Gene was hired as chief consultant to the California State Assembly Public Health Committee, chaired by Assemblyman William Byron Rumford, and provided invaluable help guiding Rumford’s landmark 1963 Fair Housing Act through the state legislature. With all that experience under his belt (but as yet no Ph.D.), Gene was hired to teach in a non-tenure track position at Cal State Hayward in 1965. (The name was changed to California State University, East Bay in 2005.)
Gene’s path to tenure at Cal State was prolonged and contentious. His outspoken support for the voice of faculty in university governance and his creative teaching tactics earned him the disapproval of some senior members of the political science department and of school and university administrators who accepted these negative departmental judgments. This led to denial of tenure, dismissal from his teaching post, and a three-year struggle filled with rejections, appeals, further rejections, and more appeals, reaching all the way to the office of State University Chancellor Glen Dumke, and finally to the state courts. During a portion of these three years, Gene taught at San Francisco State University. In 1973, a three-judge court of appeals panel awarded Gene full back pay, benefits, retroactive tenure status to 1970, and promotion to Associate Professor. His years of distinguished service to the university got under way.
Gene’s skills of persuasion and organizing soon made him an outstanding leader at shaping the key elements of education at Cal State. He served as department chair, chair of the Academic Senate, and soon became, in many areas, a congenial working partner with University President Ellis McCune. Alan Smith, retired Dean of the School of Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences at Cal State said: “Gene had more to do with the shaping of curriculum and the role of faculty than anyone else in those years, indeed even more than the president.” Terry Jones, retired professor of sociology and social welfare, recalls that the moving force behind the campus Academic Senate activism was rightly known as “the Gene Machine,” an informal group working for faculty involvement and mutual understanding. Jones also remembers that before key meetings or elections Gene would call him and tell him to “round up the usual suspects,” not an uncommon experience for others who shared Gene’s commitment to getting faculty involved in campus decisions. It will come as no surprise that Gene was a staunch union man throughout his academic career. Gene retired from Cal State in 1992, serving his last year on campus as Interim Director of the University Library.
Residing in Berkeley for most of his adult life, Gene played as large a part in city government as he did in the academic world. He served in council-appointed positions on the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board and Planning Commission from 1987 to 2018.
Gene’s role on the Zoning Board quickly became significant. His fellow board member Kevin Powell calls Gene “the heart and soul of the Board,” one who strove to ensure that it not only delivered traditional fair administration of the Zoning Code but also prevented any of its discretionary zoning permits from causing detriment to Berkeley citizens. He worked to make the board a bargaining agent for citizens who might be affected by deals the city cut with developers, an agent seeking to mitigate detriments and to getting concessions useful to city and citizens. Longtime Zoning Board member David Blake reports that a developer once told him the only thing worse than being denied by the Zoning Board was to be approved on a motion written by Gene. Gene reveled in such backhanded compliments, of which there were many.
Gene was first appointed to the Planning Commission in 1996 and soon became an invaluable member. In 2000, Gene guided the commission through a major rewrite of the city’s General Plan, tailoring it to encourage mixed-use housing along commercial corridors and notably, according to long-time friend and fellow Planning Commission member Rob Wrenn, “restoring and expanding the citizen participation element, which supported notification of neighbors and required public participation in planning processes.” This was truly shades of his Cal State work to get faculty involved in pivotal campus decisions.
“The devil is in the details” was Gene’s signature watchword as he reviewed and analyzed planning issues of all sorts, and he mastered those details brilliantly. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, whom Gene mentored from his beginnings in Berkeley politics as a young Cal undergraduate, says “Gene took me under his wing. Nobody had a better understanding of the Zoning Code than he did, staff included. He taught me to speak the language of the Code.”
Gene retired from the Planning Commission in 2018, having been involved in a major way in crafting every city law and area plan that came before the Commission during his tenure. On April 24 of that year, the Berkeley City Council, headed by Mayor Arreguín, adopted a Proclamation in his honor “for his over 30 years of dedicated public service to the Berkeley community, his invaluable contributions to the city’s planning process, and his unflagging efforts to make our city more affordable and livable.”
In all these endeavors, Gene will be remembered for his unique style of persuasion and relentless organizing. His methods invariably involved not only a flexible argumentation style that appealed to logic, but also the ethical and political convictions of whomever he sought to persuade.
All these skills were on display in yet another of Gene’s excursions into securing rights for citizens, in this case dog owners. Gene and Anne had three dogs during their life together (Dasher is the third), and routinely exercised the second two, both setters, in Tilden Regional Park. In the early 2000s, the East Bay Regional Park District’s board of directors proposed draft regulations that would have substantially curtailed the areas of these parks open to dogs without leash. Gene attacked this action with his usual tenacity, conducting surveys of Tilden dog walkers’ opinions and dog-walking habits, organizing them to submit comments to the board, persuading many of them to appear before the board at public hearings on the issue, and making his own detailed presentation at these same hearings. His efforts were successful; regulations were ultimately adopted that satisfied the dog owning population while at the same time acknowledging concerns of non-dog owners using the parks.
All this took place contemporaneously with a private life filled with adventures, friendships, and a wide range of personal interests ardently pursued. As a grad student he played tennis, often with Sheldon Wolin, his one-time mentor, and at Cal State he was in charge of the annual faculty softball game. Basketball was his big sport. He played pickup basketball twice a week at Live Oak Park and El Cerrito High into his mid-60s, the Wednesday evening games capped by raucous meals rotated through the homes of teammates.
Ever the academic, Gene avidly collected books from many genres. Several thousand of these still fill the bookcases in nearly every room of Gene and Anne’s home.
Gene was a dedicated backpacker and camper, a man at home in the Sierras, the Marble Mountains in northern California, the outskirts of St. Helena in Napa County, and many other outdoor terrains, always with his wife Anne, and often with friends and family as well.
Add to the list his pleasure in wine-tasting and wine tasting excursions, and his skills at wrangling backroom feasts for colleagues at his friend Narsai David’s restaurant in Kensington. Judith Stanley, a Cal State historian, member of the Gene Machine, and a dear friend, recalls saying to Gene: “Wine tasting is an ephemeral pleasure.” Gene responded, with a suggestive glint in his eyes: “What pleasure isn’t?” Whatever the pleasures, he pursued them with wit and vigor.
Gene married Marilyn Hahn in 1953 while they were both undergraduates at Cal; they divorced in 1968. They had two sons, Jean and Jon (d. in 2006). His second marriage to Anne Mester at their Berkeley home on January 20, 1979, was officiated by longtime friend Rose Bird, then Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.
Gene is survived by his wife, Anne; his son Jean of Albany; his granddaughter Anna and great-granddaughter Nev Aria of Los Alamos, New Mexico; his sister Sandy, with whom he shared fathers; many cousins; and a wealth of dear friends and colleagues. (His sister Cheryl (Chick), with whom he shared mothers, died in 2022.)
Gene and Anne spent over 50 years together. Anne particularly cherishes memories of the annual trips she and Gene made to the Big Island of Hawaii for over 35 years, and their annual cioppino parties in mid-April to celebrate the blooming of their decades-old wisteria vines. Equally wonderful were the sacrosanct annual treks to Sara Shumer’s little A-frame cabin in the Sierras. Sara, a lifelong friend since grad school days, remembers Gene as radiating exuberance and energy. As special were the nearly 15 years of weekends spent at their getaway cottage in the hills near St. Helena in the Napa Valley, which Anne still goes to.
Throughout it all, she said: “Gene had unparalleled intelligence, wit, quickness, ingenuity, prodigious memory, thirst for knowledge, and a hard-working, full-throttle style that he applied to whatever he was currently immersed in. His quest was to know everything about his subject, whether it be related to teaching, academic governance, city planning issues, wine, barbecuing on the grill, backpacking, snorkeling — the list was endless.” He gave generously of his time and knowledge to his family, friends, students, and colleagues; and was intensely loyal to family and friends. As a neighbor remarked upon learning of Gene’s passing, “Gene was one of a kind, in a good way.” Mike Traynor, basketball pal, close friend for many decades, and Gene’s lawyer par excellence throughout his tenure battles, calls Gene “brilliant and magnanimous.”
These apt words can only begin to describe this remarkable man and his remarkable life. Two years on, he is still a legend to many, and is sorely missed.
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