He walks with purpose through the courtyard, gray hair brushed back, smiling a greeting. As pleasantries are exchanged, so too is an immediate sense of trust.
Of course, that sense of dependability is no surprise. The man returning to campus on this glorious, sun-drenched morning embodies the epitome of what the Degheri Alumni Center does best: strengthen the connection between people.
Bert Degheri, a 1961 history graduate of the San Diego College for Men, has certainly bonded with his alma mater. Though he may resemble a favorite uncle, Degheri is also a no-nonsense person who chooses his words carefully. But a recent visit to campus demonstrated two things: he enjoys spending time at USD and he cares deeply about preserving what the university means to him.
“I had a wonderful time at the school,” he says, alternating between perching on a leather couch and pacing in the center’s living room area.
Degheri spent just the last year and a half of his undergraduate years attending San Diego’s College for Men. He began his higher education at Santa Clara University and played tennis against Bay Area notables Arthur Kono, Chris Crawford and Whitney Reed. He later provided a generous gift to Santa Clara, which, in turn, named a facility the Degheri Tennis Center.
San Diego didn’t have a tennis team but Degheri formed lasting friendships at the college, then located across the street from USD’s current main entrance.
“I think there were 80 men [enrolled] when I attended, but I knew everyone and we all got along,” Degheri says. “The camaraderie was special.”
He fondly recalls watching USD’s football team pull off a 21-20 upset of a San Diego-area team comprised of Marines in 1960. Memories of his college experience and the ensuing friendships are especially resonant when he sees old classmates at Torero men’s basketball home games.
Degheri sits courtside for games alongside Vice President for Mission and Ministry Monsignor Daniel J. Dillabough ‘70 and President Mary E. Lyons. He enjoys seeing longtime history professor Iris Engstrand, who is the advisor for Travis Degheri — one of Bert’s two sons to graduate from USD — as he prepares to finish a master’s degree in history and then start a PhD program this fall.
Degheri has never forgotten the sense of belonging he felt from the first day at USD: “Everyone was always so nice to me down here.”
In 1999, he became co-trustee of the Theresa and Edward O’Toole Foundation, named after his late aunt and uncle who ran a church-goods business, the largest of its kind in the United States. While most of the foundation’s philanthropy was centered on the East Coast, Degheri expanded its reach to include West Coast Catholic institutions, including USD.
“This is where I went to school. This is where I got my degree. There’s a kinship here,” he says. His wife, Patti, says that when her husband visits USD, “It’s like going home.”
Through the foundation, Bert Degheri has been very generous taking care of this particular “home.”
The Degheri Alumni Center is the campus living room and social center for all of USD’s alumni. The 28,000 square foot edifice replaced Harmon Hall in February 2004. Along with housing several University Relations department offices, the center also features numerous personal touches. Spectacular vistas can be viewed from the curve of “Danny’s Arches” — named for Bert’s son— as well as from “Travis’ Vista.” The courtyard area is a frequent setting for celebrations and special engagements, and also serves to welcome prospective and new students to campus.
Two of Degheri’s other highly visible contributions on campus are Bert’s Bistro in Mother Rosalie Hill Hall — a gift that he says was a thank you to teachers who, like his Aunt Theresa, “are so important in all our lives” — and O’Toole’s, a popular lounge within the new Student Life Pavilion’s La Gran Terraza. O’Toole’s features sumptuous wines, handcrafted beers and tapas, including, of course, Degheri’s favorite food, onion rings. And perhaps most important, the foundation also provides significant student scholarship support to assist with educational aspirations.
“The Degheris have been, and are, in a close relationship with USD, one that spans many, many years,” Lyons says. “They love the students, and the students love them. This relationship has been marked by the outpouring and exchange of love, respect and goodness; a relationship that has yielded an abundance of generosity from Bert and Patti, and an abundance of gratitude on our part.”
In recognition of his philanthropy, Degheri received the inaugural Order of the Alcalá award at 2008’s Alumni Honors event.
For his part, Degheri gets satisfaction in knowing the campus community and alumni have gathering places to enjoy the University of San Diego, which he calls a “one of a kind place.” For example, when Travis asked his father what he considered to be the university’s defining characteristics, two of Bert’s top answers were the consistency of the Spanish Renaissance architecture — “it just makes everything flow” — and the campus facilities expansion that began in the late 1990s: “The last 11-12 years, it’s just been unbelievable.”
He knows he’s not alone in his dedication to USD, but expresses a desire to see more people sharing his passion for giving back. “Even a small donation, even if it’s $100 a year, it adds up — and it gives the university a better view.”
To find out how you can give to USD, go to www.sandiego.edu/giving.
Feature Illustration by Allan Burch