Seventy-five years ago next Monday -- May 19, 1939 -- tens of thousands of Berkeleyans flocked to the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island for Berkeley Day.
"Six months of preparation will be climaxed tomorrow," the Berkeley Daily Gazette breathlessly reported the day before. "Fair Incorporated as Berkeley Suburb" the paper headlined on Berkeley Day. The event "virtually vacuumed this community's school children to the charm island ... it was a school holiday and apparently more than 13,000 local boys and girls in special buses and trains and in private cars, started Fair-ward before 10 o'clock this morning."
The day began with a review of 12,000 junior traffic police, 600 of them from Berkeley who arrived aboard a special Key System train. The traffic police parade came behind "the nattily attired 100-piece Berkeley High School Band."
Next, the mayor, city manager, and officers of the Chamber of Commerce received golden keys, presented by the assistant to the head of the GGIE, who noted he was a class of 1910 alumnus of Cal.
"It is my pleasure to bring greetings from the friendly City of Berkeley, a city of beautiful homes built upon the hills," Mayor Ament said. "Smiling and content, we look out from our windows facing the West and see the towers and pinnacles of a magical city, like Atlantis rising out of the sea in all the glory and color of the fabled grandeur and splendor of past ages. We come today bringing with us the pride and glory of our home city, our boys and our girls, our most valued treasures -- all dressed in radiance and to adorn the streets of this magic city that is as beautiful and breathtaking as a dream in the fragrance of lotus flowers."
The review was followed by a pageant, the "Berkeley Epoch of Romance and Progress" staged on the athletic field of the GGIE. "More than 4,500 Berkeley public school children, representing every school, participated as dancers, singers or band members."
The pageant depicted six stages in Berkeley history, each in period costume. The performers included four bands and a choir of 400 drawn from the junior and senior high schools. "Mrs. Violet Richardson Ward, supervisor of physical education, trained all the dancers. Mrs. Florence Schwimley, dramatics teacher at Berkeley High, directed the production and gave to it a true professional touch seldom seen in amateur offerings. Following the pageant came flag drills, accompanied by folk dances and patriotic airs of the various nations".
The official Exposition Band then gave a concert for the Berkeleyans in front of the Alameda-Contra Costa building, followed by a reception inside. Mayor Ament got to turn on the exposition grounds night lighting, and the Berkeley Young People's Orchestra gave a concert.
The next day, May 20, Berkeley's older students had their day in the sun, when graduation took place at the University of California. It was reported that 3,583 received diplomas (including graduate degrees) in California Memorial Stadium.
The rest of the weekend was marked by tragedy. Cal student William Milton died in a fire in the annex of the Chi Psi fraternity on Piedmont Avenue. Friends recalled him coming home from a "fraternity anniversary banquet." Berkeley's fire chief said he thought Milton might have accidentally set his room alight after smoking and falling asleep. The same day, 32-year-old UC engineering instructor Virgil H. Cherry's "unclad body was found ... stretched across the bed in his home at 1187 Keeler Avenue." The house appeared to have been ransacked. Police pieced together a story in which strange men had been seen earlier with a woman who lived there; Cherry himself was divorced.