Campanile Free-Fall

By: John Marr
January 3, 2012

This article was first published in Hermenaut #13 (Summer 1998). Hermenaut was published and edited from 1991-2000 by HiLobrow cofounder Joshua Glenn. Click here to read more from Hermenaut and

Sather Tower is the official icon of the University of California at Berkeley. The stately, 307-foot spire dominates the campus landscape. More popularly known as the Campanile (it’s modeled on the Campanile in Venice’s St. Marks Square), it’s the tallest bell-tower outside of Italy. The tower’s image adorns virtually every University publication and piece of letterhead. Its 51-bell carillon is famous for daily concerts that echo over the campus. The bells go silent only during finals, following a traditional rendition of “They’re Hanging Danny Deever in the Morning” on the last day of class.

The tower first opened to the public in 1917. From the first, the observation deck was hugely popular with tourists and locals alike for its stunning views of Berkeley and San Francisco Bay. But despite the hordes of stressed, depressed, and merely overwhelmed students scurrying by on a daily basis, this popularity did not extend to the suicidal. For more than 40 years, guards only patrolled the observation platform on weekends. They seldom had to deal with any crisis worse than a small child getting his head stuck between the railing posts.

Although not utilized, the Campanile’s latent potential was not ignored. A 1949 Daily Californian front page headline helpfully pointed out “Despondent? — Campanile Ideal For Suicide.” However, the accompanying article was not a how-to, but a puckish report on four “diving-board-like protruberances” installed to monitor some structural problems. Nor did the 1951 movie Night Into Morning, with its shot-on-location scene of a suicidal Ray Milland being restrained from throwing himself off the Campanile, do so much as inspire a single copycat.

It wasn’t until 1958 that the Campanile’s age of innocence ended with a sharp retort. Shockingly, the trailblazer was not a failing freshman, a lovelorn TA, or even a tenureless assistant professor. His name was Richard Saphir, a 67-yr. old retired attorney with a heart condition who had just moved from Chicago.

On the morning of April 16th, Saphir had an appointment to see a psychiatrist. But 10 AM found him, not on the couch or in a waiting room, but riding an elevator to the top of the Campanile. He chatted amiably with the operator, agreeing that yes, it was a nice day indeed. As the operator secured the elevator, Saphir stepped onto the platform. A minute later, he was gone. A student passer-by said, “I saw a gray shape hurtle down from the top of the Campanile… When he struck the brick pavement it sounded like the report of a car’s backfire.” Rescuers found his spread-eagled body face-up on the pavement 15 feet from the east side of the Campanile. The 270-foot fall killed him instantly. In the wake of the suicide, platform guard became a 7-day-a-week position.

Fast forward to January 4th, 1961 and John Patterson, a sophomore majoring in engineering. And not without success; he’d made an honor society the previous year. One “academic associate” later described him as an outstanding physics student. But his roommate told a different story, of a young man whose grades never seemed high enough. Patterson left no note, and the entire story was never told. We only know that mid-term grades were coming out, and that around Patterson’s residence hall the running joke response to adversity was: “I can always jump off the tower.” His roommate later speculated, “He might have gotten a C or something…”

Patterson walked over to the Campanile that morning. He exchanged idle banter with the elevator operator, who remembered telling him, “We need good engineers” and that it was indeed 270 feet down. On the platform, Patterson quickly drew the attention of the guard as he (a good engineer to the end) methodically checked all four sides for optimum jumping conditions. His decision made, he acted quickly and decisively. Even as the guard shouted and lunged, Patterson plummeted down in accordance with the Newtonian law he knew so well. A student below heard a shout and looked up. He told the newspapers “At first I thought it was a cushion — then I could see it was a man.” Patterson landed only a few feet from the base of the Campanile. Ironically, not only had he jumped at almost the same time of day as Saphir, he also chose the same side. Undoubtedly, the last thing that flashed before his eyes before he hit the pavement was the physics building.

Patterson’s death created quite an uproar. The Campanile was immediately closed until Something Was Done. According to campus legend, a prankster painted a bulls-eye the next day on the spot where Patterson hit. Eventually, the administration decided to enclose the platform with large panes of glass.

The improved Campanile reopened several months later. Peace reigned once more at the highest spot on campus even as turmoil raged below. One study in the ’60s estimated the Berkeley student body averaged a suicide attempt a day, with three or four succeeding every year. But, thanks to the safety glass, even during a rash of building-jumping that claimed five victims in the mid-’60s, the grounds about the Campanile remained unbesmirched. When the carillon was expanded in 1979, the glass was removed after people complained about it muffling the bells. For two years, the observation platform returned to its naked, unbarricaded glory without incident. But the University remained skittish. An elaborate set of ornamental anti-suicide bars was installed in 1981.

The following year, the Daily Californian ran a lengthy first-person article about a Berkeley student’s unsuccessful suicide attempt. Although this depressed undergrad had used pills, his piece was illustrated by a looming photo of the Campanile. No connection between this article and subsequent events was ever established, but less than a week later, around noon on November 18th, an anonymous freshman scaled the 13-foot high suicide bars (on the traditional east side, of course). For the next five hours, he stood facing outwards on the narrow ledge. At times, he clutched the bars; other times, he crouched slightly with his arms back, as if about to dive. Behind him, the platform swarmed with cops, psychologist, and pastors trying to talk to him. The area around the Campanile was cordoned off, and welding equipment called for. A marching band passing by, its drums beating out a cheery tattoo, was quickly shushed. And gawkers crowded every vantage point.

He finally submitted to a climbing harness a little before 5:00. As he climbed over the bars, he paused at the top, as if reconsidering, as the gawkers below applauded. He then descended to the platform and into historical oblivion.

Things have been quiet about the Campanile ever since, save the occasional bored rock climber and the inevitable pranksters trying to make one of the clocks look like a Mickey Mouse watch. But it is only a matter of time before someone else takes the most Berkeley of plunges.