‘A true polymath’: UC Berkeley student Alexander Denny dies at age 26

Denny
Michaela Ravasio/Courtesy
Alexander Denny, who transferred to UC Berkeley as an English major in 2018, is remembered by friends and family for his literary passion, as well as his kindness and empathy toward others.

UC Berkeley undergraduate Alexander Denny, a literature aficionado and guitarist remembered by friends as a “beautiful person,” died unexpectedly in his bed Nov. 1.

A Bay Area native, Denny nurtured an early gift for athletics, with a career that stretched from community Little League to soccer and varsity baseball at his high school in Marin County. As he grew older, his focus shifted from the field to the fretboard, culminating in an admission to his dream of Berklee College of Music, according to his mother, Susanne Denny.

By the end of a gap year, however, Alexander Denny decided he no longer wished to attend Berklee. The subsequent years led him from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, to UC Berkeley in 2018, where he majored in English.

“Alex was a true polymath, an athlete evolved into a musician and a poet, a scholar and a jokester, a star in a couple of my short films, not to mention a leftist with an eagerness for societal upheaval,” his close friend Michael Kaplan said in an email. “Our friendship has spanned the spectrum.”

Kaplan, a writer, added that he was first drawn to literature by Denny’s fascination with the subject. According to Susanne Denny, her son would read a book nearly a dozen times to garner different meanings and could often be found explaining certain passages to his friends.

Fittingly, it was French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire who best described Denny, according to Kaplan, when he wrote in 1863 of a man with a “keen appreciation of life.

“Alex had an intimate experience of life, his enthusiasm infectious, his passion palpable whether he was speaking about Lionel Messi or Thom Yorke,” Kaplan said in the email. “He felt each moment more deeply than anyone else in the room. You could feel him feeling it.”

Denny’s zeal for life touched all those around him, Kaplan said, as he introduced his friends to interests ranging from literature and music to leftist podcasts and Buddhist sutras. According to Dan Ahern, UC Berkeley alumnus and longtime family friend, Denny had planned to continue sharing his knowledge and passion by becoming a teacher.

Despite his intelligence and fervor for his favorite topics, Denny never took himself too seriously, according to Kaplan, who called his friend “kindness itself.” He added that Denny’s authenticity and empathy for strangers set him apart.

Even as a child in Little League, her son shied from compliments, Susanne Denny said, deriving happiness from the camaraderie of being on a team rather than a desire for personal glory. As a guitarist, Denny was never the “flashiest, loudest, or most animated music maker,” according to Ahern. Rather, Ahern added, he shone, whether solo or among his bandmates, through his innate talent and warmth.

“He was really talented, in music, and writing, and reading, and teaching people things, but he never liked the spotlight,” Susanne Denny said. “He was one of the guys who kind of drew people, or saw someone kind of sitting alone, and made sure they were included in the conversation.”

In life, Kaplan said, Denny had long been on intimately philosophical terms with death, and thought often about how to draw meaning in its face.

“It might sound dark, but I’ve found lately that the reality of how miserable and terrible this life can get at times is some of the most profound inspiration to spread love and compassion as much as we possibly can,” Denny wrote in a 2014 email to a friend. “When faced with the suffering of this world we must try to ease it.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.