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James Duncan

James Duncan
When James Duncan discovered dance and UC Santa Cruz, he was already a broadcast engineer with a geography degree from UC Berkeley.

After attending a performance of Yugoslavian folk dance in San Jose, he was inspired to study dance even though he had no previous experience. He sought out classes at Cabrillo College and attended a dance camp in Mendocino. It was at the camp in 1980 that he met UC Santa Cruz dance instructor Rena Cochlin.

She suggested that he audit the modern dance class, offered within the Office of Physical Education, Recreation & Sports (OPERS). He did. And ditto on jazz, folk and ballet classes. “What I lacked in talent, I made up for in perseverance,” he says of his discovery of dance at age 30. He went on to perform with the Santa Cruz Ballet Theater, Ariel Dance Company (a lead in “Cats”) and the Santa Clara Ballet.

In 1996, he gave up dance and started his own company, OKAY Multimedia, which provided networking, computer, and web services for businesses. Now retired, he jokes that he lives in the same manner as when he was an undergraduate, but only now he has a microwave.

James’ frugality and a family inheritance have given him the resources to include a gift in his will to establish an endowment for dance instruction. He wants the program to thrive in perpetuity and worries that it could be eliminated due to tight budgets and a focus on career oriented classes. It is important to him that people be able to weave fulfilling activities into their lives outside of work. He recalls that his father postponed his non-career interests until his retirement, only to have his life cut short by a terminal illness.

This gift is not the first time James has given back to UC Santa Cruz. While a student, he gave a boost to the dance program by contributing music that had been discarded by local radio stations. He also purchased and installed a new sound system in the studio. James has a lifelong interest in music (he collects Andean folklorico, Russian, and rare Renaissance music) and knows how important this element is to the classroom experience. In addition to studying dance at UC Santa Cruz, he also did a stint as a KZSC engineer in the 1980’s.

James describes dance as a complex melding of social, aesthetic and physical aspects, and says he “brought his organizational sense and detailed nature to the vocabulary of dance.” He brings that layered ethos to many pursuits— astronomy, genomics, meteorology and developmental psychology, to name a few.

Although his dancing days have past, James remains connected to UC Santa Cruz. He is excited by the diverse research happening on campus – particularly in genomics and astronomy. For someone like him, who has diverse, overlapping and ever expanding interests, UC Santa Cruz is the best neighbor he could imagine. James says, “UC Santa Cruz represents everything I value.”

He grew up in the region and lives close enough to campus that it’s convenient to come often to hear speakers—and to stay for the conversations with professors that sometimes follow. It’s fueled his connection to UC Santa Cruz, where unconventional is appreciated and the opportunity to explore vast. It was natural that the university would become the focus of his philanthropy.

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