‘Renaissance personality’: Former UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Watson ‘Mac’ Laetsch dies at 86

Former UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Watson “Mac” Laetsch, who was also a professor emeritus of plant biology, died Jan. 5 at the age of 86.

According to Laetsch’s obituary, which was written by his colleagues in the campus College of Natural Resources, Laetsch was “loved and respected as a man of boundless intellectual curiosity and a profound generosity of spirit, always seasoned with quick and self-mocking wit.”

Born in 1933, Laetsch received undergraduate degrees in history, botany and zoology from Wabash College in Indiana and won a Fulbright Scholar award to study at the University of Delhi in India, according to the obituary. While at the University of Delhi, Laetsch met Sita Priyadarshini Capildeo, who is described as the “love of his life.” They were married for 61 years until her death in 2019.

Laetsch earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before joining the botany department at UC Berkeley in 1963.

“Mac took on administrative assignments that allowed—he would say demanded—more money, people, and organization,” wrote Robert L. Middlekauff, campus Hotchkis professor emeritus of history, in the opening to Laetsch’s oral history, which is available at the Bancroft Library. “They were not for him just assignments, they were passions. He disguised the passionate engagement with a friendly, often joking, and sometimes-funny demeanor. But the range and depth of his involvement in what he did for the campus is clear to those who have known him.”

In the obituary written by Laetsch’s colleagues, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman credited Laetsch as “the driving force” in expanding racial diversity of admissions on campus. Laetsch supported affirmative action policies that greatly increased the graduation rates of students of color at UC Berkeley. He also built a more diverse faculty within UC Berkeley, according to the obituary.

As a botanist, Laetsch founded the California Native Plant Society, which works to preserve native plant species in California. In his role as director of the UC Botanical Garden, Laetsch played a “major role” in keeping it open, according to Lewis Feldman, the current executive director of the Garden.

“Today, the many educational programs the Garden now sponsors are directly attributable to Laetsch’s vision,” Feldman said in an email.

Laetsch is remembered as a “renaissance personality” whose eclectic interests included traveling the world, making preserves, gardening and reading, according to the obituary.

Laetsch is survived by his two sons, John and Krishen, who request that those who wish to honor Laetsch donate to the Friends of The Bancroft Library or the UC Botanical Garden in memory of Watson “Mac” and Sita Laetsch.

“Mac passed away at his home – as he had wanted and, in his sleep, as he had admired of others,” the obituary states. “Perhaps now both free spirits, Mac and Sita, are walking hand-in-hand on River Road after a picnic and along Mayaro Beach, Trinidad on their way to the Taj Mahal where they first kissed.”

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.