Living La Vida Lockdown

With plans for Alumni Reunion Weekend on ice, this year’s Alumni Seal recipients reflect on their Oxy experience and their daily routine in “the new normal”

For the last 55 years, the Alumni Association has paid tribute to members of the Occidental family who represent the values and spirit at the core of the Oxy experience. When this year’s Alumni Seal recipients were announced in March, the plan was to honor them during Alumni Reunion Weekend in June, as is tradition. But in a year where tradition has been uprooted in every direction, plans for reunion weekend are on hold until a date to be determined.

We reached out to this year’s six distinguished honorees in April to see how they are faring while sheltering in place.

Gloria C. Duffy ’75 (alumna of the year) is a longtime Occidental trustee and president of the San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club, the largest and oldest public affairs forum in the United States. Duffy has had an extensive career in the nonprofit sector, journalism, and public service, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton White House.

Zaryn Dentzel ’05 (Erica J. Murray ’01 Young Alumni Award) is the co-founder and chair of Tuenti, a popular Spanish social media platform. Tuenti was acquired in 2010 by telecommunications provider Telefonica, where Dentzel serves as a strategic adviser for digital transformation. He is also the founder of Auro, a ride-share company in Spain operating over 2,000 vehicles.

Louis Hook ’80 P’12 (service to the community) has demonstrated a passionate commitment to supporting his local community, dedicating nearly 30 years of service to the Compton Jr. Posse Youth Equestrian Program. His service extends to support of his alma mater, exemplified by his work with the Blyth Fund, Black Alumni Organization, and Alumni Board of Governors.

William M. Kahane ’70 (service to the College) is a co-chair of The Oxy Campaign For Good, a former trustee, and a longtime supporter of the College. He and his wife, Elizabeth, gave generously to ensure that the Kahane United Nations Program will flourish in perpetuity, offering students one-of-a-kind experiences and giving Occidental a competitive edge academically.

Chris Varelas ’85 (professional achievement) is co-founder and managing partner at Riverwood Capital. Having brokered some of the biggest deals in finance, he was listed among the top 100 dealmakers by The New York Times. In 2019, he published How Money Became Dangerous: The Inside Story of Our Turbulent Relationship With Modern Finance.

Dale Wright (faculty emeritus), the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Distinguished Professor in Religion Emeritus, is an expert in Buddhist philosophy and joined the Oxy faculty in 1980, retiring in 2018. Wright taught courses on the religious traditions of East and South Asia and has authored or co-authored multiple books, most recently Buddhism: What Everyone Needs to Know.

How has the pandemic affected your daily routine? How are you spending your time now?

Duffy: The Commonwealth Club hosts daily in-person events, so we are heavily impacted by the need for social distancing. As our awareness of the coronavirus pandemic grew, we moved quickly to stop our in-person events on March 6, closed our building, and moved all our events to livestreams online. In the first month of sheltering at home, from March 11 to April 11, the Club livestreamed 35 events.

I spend my time in Zoom meetings with our staff and others, and hosting public programs online with guests like UC President Janet Napolitano, former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, and former National Academy of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg. I also order the food and supplies for our family, including my 96-year-old mom, who lives with us, and her caregivers. I monitor her care and also my husband’s safety, since they are both in the high-risk population.

Dentzel: I have homes in Spain and California and normally travel every month. Now I have had to stay in one place and do most of my meetings over the phone. It’s difficult to not be able to interact and meet physically with all the people in my different companies, especially so during these difficult times.

Wright: I’m amazed that the pandemic has so little effect on my daily life. I now spend my days writing, virus or no virus. Having a new book just out, I’m not out at other colleges or bookstores talking about it, but that just provides more time to write another one. I wish there were something more I could do to help, but I’m told that the biggest help most of us can offer is staying home and isolated to prevent further COVID-19 spread.

Hook: I’m still going to work every day as the COO of an ophthalmology medical group. I left retirement this past January to join classmate Richard Casey ’80 to help his organization build and execute a plan for growing the 100-employee, 12-doctor, eight-location medical group throughout Southern California. Due to the coronavirus, I’ve ended up overseeing the massive contraction of the company. As of April 17, we are down to 30 staff from 100, two offices from eight, and three physicians from 12.

We are a poster child for the impact of the virus-driven economic shutdown on a medium-sized business. Laying off people, closing offices, and managing creditors and vendors has consumed me. Through all of this, working hard to self-quarantine, while preparing for the birth of my second grandson any day now.

Kahane: I ordinarily travel a substantial portion of the year, primarily in connection with my foundation work. I was on campus in February to participate in Oxy’s U.N. Week. However, sheltering in place has confined me to my farm in upstate New York for the past six weeks. Absent the usual travel, I am actively engaged daily with the various philanthropies which our foundation supports. These are challenging times, and the needs are great.

Varelas: I could never have imagined going more than 30 days without flying, let alone driving, not eating any meal from a restaurant, drinking no alcohol or consuming any sugar. My mornings of working out, yoga, meditation, reading and writing have been a real gift. And there is no better time to teach your teenage daughter to drive than during a global pandemic.

What do you miss the most right now?

Dentzel: It’s frustrating to not be able to hop on a plane and fly wherever I feel like, a luxury I realize I have become very used to. Also going to the gym and meeting friends at bars and restaurants is something that I really look forward to as soon as it’s allowed.

Duffy: I miss the opportunity to visit with our kids and our grandkids, who live next door, but who are isolated separately. We do FaceTime with them, talk and wave from a distance, and leave a few gifts on one another’s porches!

Wright: I do miss getting together to dine with friends and going off into the local mountains and deserts to hike—these would top my list. But I love to cook and the stay-at-home requirement gives me the perfect excuse to experiment in the kitchen.

Kahane: The blessing is that I am confined with my family, the weather in the East is improving, and we all have our own space and our own work. Harry, my son, is completing his senior year of high school online. Elizabeth, a photographer, is spending her time in her studio. Our two dogs keep us company. What I really miss is the personal, less-than-six-foot interaction with friends and colleagues.

Varelas: I only miss one thing—getting together with people to make new friends or connect and share with those you care most about. Zoom can only get you so close. It cannot facilitate the creation of new friendships or truly growing existing relationships.

Have you been in touch with your Oxy friends during all this? 

Duffy: Yes, my alumni friends and I talk frequently, and there are also many calls among the Oxy Board of Trustees, who are mostly alumni, as we work together with the College leadership to bring Oxy as safely through this crisis as it has come through all the previous challenges in its 133-year history.

Kahane: I keep in touch with members of the Oxy community, as well as friends and philanthropic partners around the globe.

Varelas: We seem to all be reaching out to those with whom we have had meaningful relationships in the past, using the crisis as the catalyst for checking up on them and letting them know you care. I must be on multiple Oxy WhatsApp and text group chats. 

Wright: One result of the virus is greater communication with family and friends with whom I rarely visit. That’s been wonderful. But it’s also been a huge treat to hear from students from all eras of my career at Oxy—emails from all over the world. Some more recent students who still live in Los Angeles have volunteered to do grocery shopping—in the spirit of "Save the elders!" All of these connections to former students run deep—we shared intellectual and life adventures together and those bonds continue to be strong. I am thrilled to hear from both recent and long-lost students from Oxy.

What does receiving the Alumni Seal mean to you?

Duffy: An Oxy education provides the tools to help one navigate through unexpected and challenging situations, and I am happy to be able to share how that has been the case in my life.

Dentzel: I enjoy being recognized for the work I’ve done by the peers with whom I started college. Our college is where we start our professional aspirations and a recognition like this brings my accomplishments into perspective from the point where it all began.

Wright: To be remembered by former students after their departures and mine, to be regarded as having had an impact on the lives of students, and to have this long-term relationship honored after leaving the College—I am deeply moved and grateful. Many thanks to all of you.

Hook: Receiving the Alumni Seal is an immeasurable honor for me. Through my many years as an alumnus, I have cycled between being very actively involved with Oxy to being so busy with my own life and career that I could barely keep up with developments and activities at the College. I’ve always continued to cherish the experiences, growth, and opportunities I encountered due to attending Oxy. It is beyond humbling to have the school turn around and honor me.

Varelas: My wife, Jessica, consistently comments to me how interesting my Occidental friends are, not just in what they do but in how they do it. To be singled out from this unique group I would hope is a testament that my own walk is truly special.

Kahane: Oxy has much to do with who I am. Giving back to Oxy pays it forward, and receiving the Alumni Seal is a great honor.

Any message that you’d like to share with the Oxy community?

Duffy: The coronavirus pandemic is a terrible experience for our society. And yet, like most traumatic events, it can have useful outcomes. These include accelerating trends like telemedicine, taking advantage of the ability to work remotely, and decreasing our carbon emissions and slowing global warming. Along with better pandemic preparedness so we are never again caught as unready as we were this time, we should be sure to apply the constructive lessons we are so painfully learning.

Wright: Earlier today for the first time I heard that someone I knew had died from the coronavirus—the first time it really hit me as immediate and close at hand. As we move forward past this peak of danger and come out the other side of the crisis, I hope that we can all join together, taking this opportunity to fashion a new world that embodies greater wisdom and compassion so that we are more humane and more skillful in facing all dimensions of the future together.

Varelas: Do not let your wishes and fears be the father of your thoughts. Use this time to assess the many narratives you have come to believe. Ask why you believe them and for what ends. Think about how to connect to the other and make a sincere attempt to understand where they come from and how you can achieve common ground.

Dentzel: I think that it’s important to value the whole experience the College offers beyond the classroom. My experience in school government, summer travel grants, and the U.N. program were all really big drivers helping me build the valuable perspective and experience that prepared me to be a successful entrepreneur.

Kahane: Support the College—at the end of the day you come to realize how important the Oxy experience is in who you have become.

Hook: Our Oxy experience bonds us together forever.