Beloved U.C. Berkeley Professor Michael Rogin, at 64

More than a few professors grow intoxicated with their status as campus luminaries and the resultant parade of academic honors, seats near the chancellor during faculty luncheons and entourages of overzealous, sycophantic students.

Michael Rogin was not one of those.

A fixture in U.C. Berkeley's political science department since 1963 and the author of numerous books, articles and critiques, Rogin died suddenly in Paris on Nov. 25 after contracting a particularly virulent strain of hepatitis. He was 64.

"In our connections to the academic world, we're all a little bit of a show person; there's always some academic posturing," said Lillian Rubin, a former student of Rogin's and a close friend for more than 35 years. "There was none of that with Michael, none. And that's why his students loved him so."

Adds Rogin's wife, Deborah, "He got prizes all his life. Academics who win a lot of prizes and are real important have that atmosphere around them, but Mike was funny, natural and modest. He smoked cigars constantly when he taught. So many people told me he was their favorite teacher, they've never known a class like that. He really brought them into another world."

Rogin was born in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and grew up in Queens in what he described as "a Jewish socialist milieu" in a 1998 Bulletin interview.

The son of Ethel Lurie and Lawrence Rogin — a labor organizer who was regularly beaten by white supremacists when working with Southern textile laborers — Rogin grew up in a house filled with "Norman Thomas-type socialists who were railing for such radical things as Social Security and a 40-hour work week," according to younger brother Edward.

"One of my early memories is going up to his room and seeing a huge Adlai Stevenson poster. I think that was the '52 campaign," said Edward Rogin, a 56-year old Honolulu lawyer.

"The biggest misconception is that since Mike was a leftist, he was therefore a screamer, an irrational flame-thrower type. His views were strongly held and often off to the side. But he expressed them in a very logical way that disarmed people when they met him. He was always understated, logical and gentle in the way he approached things."

Rogin's progressive background was evident in both his written work and his lectures. Students of Rogin's "learned to see the world in a totally different way than they'd seen it before," said Gaston Alonso-Donate, who studied with Rogin from 1990 to 2001 as both an undergraduate and graduate student at U.C. Berkeley.

"If he had an intellectual target, it would be the pluralist school of thought, which sees American politics as an open field among players that have an equal amount of resources with heavy emphasis on economic interest as the proper sort of thing to fight about," explained Alonso-Donate, now an assistant professor at Brooklyn College.

"For Mike, American politics was always based on power relationships, especially based on race. It wasn't simply reduced to economic interest. You had to talk about the place of race, fantasy and family conflict and how that influenced the way people act.

"For him, politics was never the object of analysis; it was very much alive and he took such joy in studying it."

Continued Alonso-Donate: "Also, for him, politics was a place where people could be nasty and petty and mean, where inequalities were perpetuated. He had real concern with trying to understand that, and he understood it without trying to idealize it or cover up its nastiness."

Rogin was fascinated with the relationship between film and politics. In his most famous work, "Ronald Reagan: The Movie" (1987), he drew disturbing parallels between the characteristics the former actor showcased as a leading man and, later, president of the United States.

In his 1996 book "Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot," Rogin examined the sociological implications of Jews in minstrelsy — most famously Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer."

"To see this Jewish immigrant kid singing 'My Mammy' to his immigrant mother, the disjunctiveness of that," Rogin remarked to the Bulletin in 1998.

Rogin's colleagues, friends and family mourn not only the loss of a brilliant, innovative mind, but a genuinely decent person who cared deeply for his friends and students.

"If I had a problem, I could sit and talk to Michael about it the way I could to any of my best woman friends, and that's a high accolade coming from a woman," said Rubin, a psychologist, sociologist and author. "Mike had that kind of neshamah. His soul was always there, always present. There was a rock-bottom honesty and authenticity. He felt deeply for himself and others. It was so much a part of him that it permeated the air around him."

Michael Paul Rogin graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1958, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1962. He was cremated in a private Paris ceremony and is survived by his daughters, Isabelle Rogin, 29, of Honolulu and Madeleine Rogin, 27, of Berkeley; by his brother Edward and sister, Andrea Stanger of Monroeville, Pa. and his wife, Deborah Rogin of Berkeley. The couple separated in 1982. Rogin's companion of more than a decade, U.C. Berkeley English Professor Ann Banfield, was with him in Paris at the time of his death.

The political science department will hold a memorial service for Rogin from 2 to 5 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Faculty Club on the U.C. Berkeley campus. For information, call (510) 642-6323.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.