100 W. 78th Ave. on Manhattan’s West Side is not really that far away, or far removed, from the Del Playa “Cabin” in Isla Vista. That is when the coastal connection considers UCSB Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Famer Donn Bernstein.
After my fifth New York cab ride of the day, I jumped out to be greeted by “Bernie,” standing in front of his city home since 1982, roaring for the neighbors to hear that he had “so meant to have sent his car and driver for me.” After “a thimble-full” of adult beverage that Bernstein invited, I settled into his den, surrounded by a life’s worth of wall-hanging memorabilia. There were photographs of priceless people he knows and has known, some I personally knew, and some we would reminisce about that night. The colorful memories and Santa Barbara stories poured like the libations, as fresh as the ice cubes in our glasses.
Bernstein camped at UCSB from 1964 through 1972 as the first sports information director in the school’s history. Prior to his arrival, he had marked a trail of personal connections and lifelong friends from Lowell High School in San Francisco, a hitch in the Marine Corps and a journalism degree from UC Berkeley. His first bivouac in Goleta was the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. Already a growing legend by the time he bought the Cabin on Del Playa in 1967, Bernstein had embraced all the athletic teams and athletes, the Greek houses, student government, faculty, administration in the Gaucho community. He also — naturally and without plan, scheme or design — was an emissary to the city of Santa Barbara from UCSB during a historical time of tumultuous political activism and social disconnect, division and hostility. Through social upheaval, Bernie was the stable element for athletes and students regardless of their political inclinations.
When UCSB’s football program was discontinued in 1972, Bernstein went to Seattle and the University of Washington’s athletic department. He remained there until 1976 when Roone Arledge and ABC Sports beckoned him to head NCAA athletics programming. Bernie assumed an office a few doors down from the famed Howard Cosell.
Enjoying his 70th year, he still works part-time in public relations, breathes in and into the life of New York City, and travels to the West Coast and Santa Barbara at least twice a year for reunions, commemorations and other social rituals. Speaking to him by telephone from Santa Barbara after my visit, he was gearing for the finish of the New York Marathon which always ends up at the Tavern on the Green, not far from his house.
“It’s global, he explained. “It’s people from all over the world bringing this big energy and excitement to not only New York but to the neighborhood. I love it.”
When I thought about those parting comments in the context of Bernie’s impact on Santa Barbara, on me and my UCSB peers and, I must believe, all he has come in contact with, he really exposed himself. One could not drop by the Cabin on Del Playa in the mid-1960s without running into a jock, a fraternity guy or sorority sister, an unaffiliated student, a sportswriter from the Bay Area or a university faculty member. When the National Guard and law enforcement squads marched to restore civil order on campus and in Isla Vista in 1969, the Cabin was a place to go for refuge. To stop by there was to reaffirm the sunnier and friendlier spirits that connected them all.
Decades later, Bernstein’s character still connects the alums who reunite every couple of years, by the hundreds, to warmly reflect on the Santa Barbara experience. It is his personality that has been uniting people ever since those innocent Isla Vista years, from coast to coast.
I have, since my brief visit with Bernie, reflected on those taxi rides around various parts of the Big Apple that I had taken that day before meeting up with him. As is typical, they were driven by five different cabbies hailing from five distinct points on the globe; Russia, Yemen, Tibet, Ghana and Brooklyn. New York is now Bernstein’s home but so is Santa Barbara and I suppose so is the world. I asked him after a second “thimble full” whether he observed, as it was seeming to me, that New York was resonating and extending a friendliness I had not felt in past visits. He agreed and offered that New Yorkers came together and were revealing a more sincere welcome and shared humanity after 9/11. I did not offer a response then, but I have to think that the 8 million New Yorkers now are singing from Bernstein’s hymn book.
Michael Berger is an attorney in Santa Barbara.