I was walking across the Cal Campus last Friday past the informational tables on Sproul Plaza representing everything from Young Socialist Alliance to Campus Crusade for Christ.

Right next to Sather Gate, an undergraduate a cappella singing group was belting out sweet-sounding four-part harmonies.

And I couldn't help thinking, "How thrilling all this must be for the new freshmen!'"

The next day I was on campus again, just as the crowd was filtering out of Memorial Stadium after the football game against Colorado. (Cal won in a laugher, 52-7.) I ran into a group of Colorado students who were freaking out at the names of the campus buildings.

"Look at that!" one guy exclaimed in disbelief. "Cesar Chavez Student Center! Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union! How long has this been going on?"

"A long time," I said.

"But why?" they asked.

"This is Berkeley," I explained.

I didn't have the heart to point out the Free Speech Movement Café; I figured their minds had been blown enough for one day. But it reminded me once again what a special place Cal is -- unlike any other in the world.

Speaking of special schools, many happy returns to the College Preparatory School in Oakland, which will celebrate its 50th birthday with an all-day party on Sept. 25.

College Prep lives up to its name: 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges. But more impressive than the numbers is the way they do it.

"I think the seriousness with which I was taken as a human being at College Prep made me expect to be treated seriously in college," says one recent grad. "I dealt with my professors as fellow adults, and it worked out really well."

College Prep was founded in 1960 by Mary Harley Jenks and her partner, Ruth Willis.

Jenks had been a philosophy major at Cal, but she was told that "no respectable university would hire a woman in philosophy." So she became an educator, instead.

The school was founded on the principle of "egalitarian modesty," meaning that they wanted the kids to be highly motivated but not elitist.

They started with five teachers and 35 students, plus a housekeeper named Rosie who made tuna fish sandwiches (heavy on the mayo, as everyone recalls) for the entire staff -- starting an enduring tradition.

"To this day, we do not have a food program for the kids, but we feed the faculty every day," says Murray Cohen, the Head of School. "But not tuna fish sandwiches, though." Today, College Prep has 52 teachers 350 students. The average class has only 13.5 students.

Perhaps the most important event in the school's history was something that didn't happen: In the mid-70s College Prep was offered some prime property in affluent Lafayette. But in the end, they decided to stay in Oakland.

"It would have changed the nature of the school and made our principle of egalitarian modesty very difficult to sustain," Cohen explains.

Jenks chose the name "College Preparatory School" because she wanted to be clear about the school's mission, but Cohen admits that he and his colleagues have mixed feelings about it.

"It sounds like we're a preparation for something else, rather than an appreciation for what we have," he says. "We think of ourselves as a participatory school, not preparatory."

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sfo.com.