Reunion Alumni Spotlight

Deberra (DuBois) O'Brien

B.A. Interior Design

In celebration of her 50th Cal reunion, we interviewed Deberra (DuBois) O’Brien ’69. Born in Visalia and raised in the small agricultural town of Kerman, O’Brien is a fourth-generation Californian, who followed in her parents’ and cousins’ footsteps to attend UC Berkeley, graduating at age 20. While at Cal, O’Brien designed the Class of ’69 banner; was an Oski Doll, GDI (Independent), and one of the last graduates of the Interior Design program. 

Can you share with us the story behind the design of your class banner?

My boyfriend at the time, Mack Borgen, was an editor of the Californian newsletter. He was helping organize the graduation ceremony and asked if I could design the class banner ASAP. I agreed and quickly sketched together a theme depicting the times: University of California with a white hand and a black hand reaching out to each other, and the phrase “Fiat Lux” (let there be light) above the “’69.” Due to active protests on campus against the Vietnam War, People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement, and black and white conflicts coming to a head — and everyone yearning for “light at the end of the tunnel” — it seemed to capture the “peace, love, dove” feelings of the time. Unfortunately, the sketch turned out to be the banner; I hoped it would have been cleaned up to look a little more professional, but I had to let it be.

O’Brien ’69 and her family at Cal’s graduation luncheon, and a close up of O’Brien with her class banner. Images courtesy of O’Brien.

What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Cal?

A favorite memory was being one of 34 Oski Dolls, the official hostesses of the university. When a diplomat or football team was visiting, some of us would greet them and give them tours of campus. It was a great honor to be an Oski Doll and an ambassador for the university.

Oski Dolls page from the 1969 yearbook and Oski Dolls pin. Images courtesy of O’Brien.

I enjoyed my education at Cal and the interior design program was rigorous. I was an artist who loved architecture (but not math), so using my artistic skills to learn drafting and perspectives and to study art history and interior architecture set me on a path that would define my future career. I also enjoyed the anthropology lecturers with Professor Jane Goodall and French, physics, psychology, and ballet classes. The education I received at Cal continued to build upon the solid foundation my parents had given me growing up on a 500-acre almond orchard my dad (Class of ’48, B.S. in soils science) started from prairie land.

Can we talk more about what you have you been doing since graduating from UC Berkeley? 

The day after my graduation ceremony, I started “stewardess school” at Saturn Airways. We were based out of Oakland and flew international charters to Europe and Asia. On my 21st birthday, I spent the evening studying for the check flight exam — no champagne for me that night! This began two years of traveling around the world, using my French and seeing the places I studied in art history in real life! 

I was stationed in Fussa, Japan, outside Yakota Air Base, for about a month to do Vietnam “turnarounds.” We slept on tatami mats and I really enjoyed the little town, food, and people. For the turnarounds, we would fly into Vietnam with roughly 250 new troops (mostly my age) and pick up those returning back to the States or for R&R in Hawaii. We would leave Vietnam at night and were often targeted by tracers as we were taking off. As soon as we were out of range, the entire plane would immediately fall asleep — quite different from the excited new troops we’d dropped off earlier that day and given out lucky pennies. 

My first job after being a flight attendant was as a commercial interior designer, working for a large insurance company in San Francisco. I designed and oversaw the construction of 20 insurance offices across the seven western states — the knowledge gained from my classes at Cal paid off as I was quickly promoted into the executive level. This experience initiated my 45-year career in corporate and healthcare commercial interior design which took me all over the country and back to Japan, and allowed my husband Scott (San Diego State ’’74) and me to live in Hawaii for 14 years, designing major healthcare facilities. 

Do you mind sharing more about your experiences at Cal, and how they have made an impact on you? 

As an undergrad, I witnessed Ronald Regan have a raw egg thrown at him and hit the shoulder of his dark blue suit, while giving a speech on campus. A dishonorable event, but Governor Reagan calmly wiped the egg off and continued his talk about the goodness of America and the promise of a good education at Cal. 

I also was one of three or four students tear gassed under the Campanile one day as I was coming home from my physics class. I remember my face stinging like a thousand ants biting it and I could barely see to get to my apartment. The tear gas, meant for the protesters at Sather Gate, had dropped prematurely. At this time, “Blue Meanies” and tear gassing were regular events. To this day, I believe very few protesters were actually students … there wasn’t enough time to study and go to social events, let alone protest against the society that we were all striving to be part of once we graduated.

These experiences at Cal — and the frank discussions I had about them with my conservative parents when I’d go home for holiday or breaks — helped establish my own individuality, ethics and conviction to succeed in business and in my personal life. My favorite saying is “There are never any problems, only opportunities.” 

Do you have any advice for current students?

Yes. Please take your schooling and time at Cal seriously because it sets the foundation for the rest of your life and will reward you. My degree from Cal has been a beacon of light that has opened doors, started conversations with some remarkable people, and taken me all over the world. My B.A. in interior design, even 50 years after graduation, continues to be a source of pride and accomplishment.