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June 28-July 5, 2006

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Denice Denton

Photo courtesy of UCSC

Denice Denton Remembered

Community leaders and colleagues honor the memory of the UCSC chancellor


Neal Coonerty | Mimi Hill | Cynthia Mathews | Lynn Robinson | Linda Rosewood | Paul Wagner

While UCSC Chancellor Denice Denton's apparent suicide made national headlines this weekend, it triggered waves of shock, sadness and soul-searching here in Santa Cruz.

An accomplished academic, her record seemed tailor-made to fit a progressive community's ethos: As a woman, she'd made unprecedented headway in the male-dominated field of engineering. As a lesbian, she was committed to the causes of feminism and diversity. And as the youngest chancellor in the 10-campus UC system, she was promoted as a source for change and innovation.

But all that seemed to be forgotten once Denton arrived in town. The UCSC chancellor's 16-month tenure here was beset by controversy and outright hostility, as she became a lightning rod for controversies, a number of which were not of her own making.

When word went around town this weekend that the 46-year-old Denton had plunged to her death from a San Francisco skyscraper--just hours before the city's Pride activities were set to begin--the most common reaction seemed to be disbelief giving way to dismay.

The following testimonials, from community leaders and people who directly worked with Denice Denton, may encourage many of us to see her in a different light. In instances of suicide, therapists reassure those left behind that the decision ultimately belonged to the deceased. But at a time like this, one can still hope that we as a community (and, more specifically, myself and others in the media) will be moved to reflect upon the manner in which we treat one another, and then act accordingly. In the end, that may prove to be our greatest consolation. --Editor

Neal Coonerty

I did not know Denice Denton. I do not know the overwhelming sorrow that brought an end to her young life. The black sadness of suicide leaves all of us stunned. Her family, friends and colleagues who knew her must bear a sadness that others can only imagine.

I know she was a woman of uncommon accomplishments. My mother was a math major at Berkeley in the '30s. She was an only girl raised with six brothers. She had the ability and desire to be an engineer. However, women were not allowed to attend engineering school at that time. Instead, my mom became a teacher.

Denice Denton fought to change that traditional exclusion of women from the sciences. She excelled in that important fight and her efforts made a difference for women, the sciences and our belief in ourselves as a just and fair society.

Her fight made her a public figure. A reward for her accomplishments made her the chancellor of UCSC. Unfortunately, the campus troubles became her troubles, emphasizing more what she represented than who she actually was. It was an appointment made with hope, but it has now ended with enormous sadness and personal tragedy.

At this sad time, we should not speculate on why Denice Denton took her own life. We should not make this woman into an abstraction of psychology or politics. Instead, we should sincerely mourn the person we have lost to a terrible sorrow. We should comfort her family and friends. And we should remind ourselves to be more gentle and kind with each other.

Neal Coonerty is the Santa Cruz County District 3 supervisor-elect.

Mimi Hill

I was lucky enough to be one of two people who provided Denice Denton with personal computer technical support for the last six months. Here are some memories I have of Denice that I would like to share.

At our initial meeting, I felt it was important to come out to Denice about my volunteer involvement with the Wo/Man's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (wamm.org). I was afraid of a headline reading something like: "Chancellor's Technical Support Raided by DEA." Denice's response: "I have the feeling that if I started eliminating my co-workers based on their affiliations, I'd be alone in Santa Cruz."

I once asked her for the most important survival tip on my job with her. Her response: "Learn as much as you can about "plausible deniabiity." Then she laughed.

My final memory of her was from about three weeks ago.

I was installing a computer in the public part of her residence and she came home for a short break between meetings. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt, looking beautiful and powerful standing on the mountain directly behind her house. With one hand she was throwing a ball to her dogs and with the other ... she was holding a speech she was practicing. I remember thinking: "This is the most focused person I've ever met."

In all our conversations, the fact that we were both lesbians was never a topic we discussed. I believe that Denice was such a firm believer in inclusion that the fact that we shared this in common was irrelevant. For those of you who are lesbians out there, can you imagine how good this felt?

I stand proudly among those honored to have known Denice Denton. She will be deeply missed. For the record, I never once found her depressed.

Mimi Hill is UCSC Help Desk support.

Denice Denton

Photo by Noah Glazer (City on a Hill Press)

Cynthia Mathews

Denice Denton's death is a terrible tragedy--for her friends and family, the University and the causes she advanced with great conviction. It can't help but cause us to reflect with sadness on the personal turmoil that must have overwhelmed her.

Denton assumed the role of chancellor at a particularly challenging time in UCSC's history, including both the opportunity to shape the future of the campus and the need to face deep community concerns about projected University growth. It was not an easy post to step into.

At this time, the important thing is that Denton be remembered for her own trailblazing professional achievements, her commitment to an inclusive view of academic opportunity and her high standards for the future of the University.

Cynthia Mathews is the mayor of Santa Cruz.

Lynn Robinson

I think we are all just stunned by the magnitude of this sad day. I have to believe that giving others a very real and wonderful experience like I had with Denice Denton may make a difference in people's perception of her. I was able to meet several times with Denice to work on how we could make a difference with UCSC and the community.

The first time was very soon after she came to campus early in February of 2005. Deborah Elston and I, two of the founders of Santa Cruz Neighbors, went up to the chancellor's residence and had a wonderful and very worthwhile first meeting to help her begin to understand some of the off-campus, neighborhood and longstanding community issues. I so vividly remember that first time we met; she wore this really beautiful maroon silk pant suit and had very unusual and striking eyes that got my attention.

What I loved best at that first meeting was that she had been on the go without eating breakfast and asked if we would join her for a bowl of yogurt and fruit. Sitting out on the patio under the trees on an unusually warm winter morning, we proceeded to have a very casual, enjoyable and inquisitive conversation. Also with us were Martin Chemers and Donna Blitzer, whom we both knew, and everyone was really comfortable with the purpose of our conversation, the direction and the extremely relaxed way in which we all related to each other. It was like having breakfast with a friend.

The next time we met was when we were creating the Town Hall agenda with the chancellor for our Santa Cruz Neighbors forum. We met in Denice's office, and again I recall her memorable physical presence. She was simply wearing jeans and a turquoise blouse, which sounds rather mundane, but on Denice it just stood out. Somehow the color turquoise was invented for her and it really complimented her. Again at that meeting it was a very relaxed time as we helped her understand the lay of the land as we knew it from the off-campus neighborhood experience. It felt like she really accommodated us and appreciated our helping her reach out to the community as the new chancellor. In a lighthearted moment she also shared some of the white chocolate slugs from her investiture celebration.

When we held the Town Hall, this was one of the first opportunities for the community to meet her. She didn't know exactly what to expect, especially as there had been some student protests occurring around that time. After being introduced, she very graciously and genuinely told the packed police community room that Deborah and I were two of the first members of the community that reached out to her upon her arrival at UC-Santa Cruz. That someone of Denice Denton's stature should mention this reminded me how positive intentions can have their quiet rewards.

I cannot begin to put into perspective this sad moment in time for Denice Denton's family and friends as well as her many UCSC colleagues. I just sincerely hope our community knows how to do the right thing right now. The days ahead will be a test of our city's character.

Lynn Robinson is the co-founder of Santa Cruz Neighbors.

Linda Rosewood

There is a lot to be said about Denise Denton's contributions to UCSC; her intelligence and integrity are the source of most of them. There's one area of University life where she made a tremendous difference for staff. She was the first chancellor who treated labor unions as legitimate representatives of employees. She respected both union members and the collective bargaining process. Despite what you will read in the papers, it's not all about dog kennels. Labor unions at UCSC had been able to work constructively on those few problems where chancellors have the authority to make changes. She quickly learned what the issues were and what she might be able to do to resolve them. At a meeting of labor leaders last year she told us that she would try to learn where labor relations at UC had "gone off the rails"--a situation that is apparent to all, but never before acknowledged to us by university management.

It is unlikely that another chancellor will be as supportive of staff as Denise Denton was--it's just not something that chancellors are chosen for. It is something for which they are remembered.

Linda Rosewood is the UCSC ITT Support Center supervisor.

Paul Wagner

There is, I've come to understand, an appropriate and acceptable way to talk about the tragedy of a life cut short; namely, to not talk about it. Even at day-after memorial services we hear that "we are not here not to grieve for the deceased, but to move on." That intonement, usually delivered in full basso profundo, is not a suggestion, it is an order. Move on. Let's go. There's much to do.

I've never been good at following orders, and as of the time of this writing, some 24 hours after news of the death of Denice Denton, I'm not ready to move on. I'm lost in the tragedy of the event, of the circumstances that preceded it, and most of all, in the memory of Denice Dee Denton's beautiful eyes.

It was a chilly winter night, fog hanging low and slowly settling in, on the one occasion I saw those eyes up close.

While standing on the frigid stone steps of the Holy Cross Church, taking the last few drags of a cigarette, a light-stepping figure, topped with curly blonde hair backlit by the outdoor lights like an angelic halo, approached.

We were introduced. This is the chancellor. Hello. Wow, hello to you. "I just came out to get some fresh air," said Denton. "Me too," I said, holding up the last inch of my cigarette. "A different kind of fresh air," she said. "Indeed--chemically enriched," I responded. We laughed. And then, as Joan Rivers might say, we tawked.

The exact details aren't important. Suffice it to say that as we tawked--and, in doing so, as I apologized on behalf of the community for the tawdry way that she, her partner, their relationship and her requests for improvements to an important public facility had been treated, and as she responded--I found myself being struck by several things about Denice Denton.

The first was the gorgeous quality of her speaking voice. It was richly intonated and lightly flexible; the voice of someone whose vocal apparatus is unblocked; someone who employs the voice to speak unguardedly, uncalculatedly, fully and truthfully.

The second was her physical flexibility. Far from the rigid self-important posture that public figures often adopt, Denice Denton moved continually. Leaning forward, arching back, opening and closing, swaying, pointing, gesticulating. She inhabited her body with the naturalness of a happy child.

And finally, those eyes. The word "sparkling" comes close to describing them but omits their fluorescence; their dancing quality, their sense of play, delight and possibility.

Our encounter ended a little while later, as a dark gleaming car approached to take her to another event. "My chariot has arrived!" she exclaimed. Business cards changed hands. A future meeting was offered. Acceptance and gratitude was indicated. And off, waving and smiling, she went.

That future meeting, unfortunately, never took place. Travel schedules interfered. Communication slowed. And soon thereafter, the chancellor's staff found it necessary to tighten up, to close in, to literally circle the wagons, both physically and procedurally, to protect Denton from the increasing number of incidents involving invasion, harassment, physical obstruction, death threats, and ultimately, ever louder talk of resource cutoffs and legal hostilities, all of which seem to have become common, acceptable and virtually unremarkable political coinage in our deteriorating contemporary culture.

I will always, however, treasure the meeting we did have. Rarely have I met anyone as joyously vibrant as Denice Dee Denton. Nor have I ever thought, as strongly as I did in the wake of her warm presence, that it was no error that someone had succeeded as fully as she had in every stage of her life previous to this. She was a natural. She glowed. Brilliantly.

Thank you, Ms. Denton, for that memory. And now that your last chariot has arrived, may it take you to a place where all beings glow brightly, where your love of people, easy laughter and kindness are rewarded; and where all voices are truthful, all bodies are lived in lovingly, and all eyes dance brilliantly. You certainly deserve it. Peace to you and yours.

Paul Wagner is a Santa Cruz community housing advocate.


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