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Porter, left, and Altoon

Photo by Philip Channing

Building Relations

It’s been a long time coming, but Ron Altoon ’68 and Jim Porter ’66 can now claim a part of the USC campus as their own.

As first envisioned, the expansion of USC’s School of Social Work was conceived as a simple enlargement of its existing structure, built in the early 1980s. That is, until the architectural firm Altoon + Porter came on board.

The founders of the L.A.-based company, Ron Altoon ’68 and Jim Porter ’66, had a different idea: to transform a building that, in Altoon’s words, “actually pushed people away,” into one that “creates exterior social space.” Although the site was tiny and hemmed in by a parking structure, Altoon + Porter’s new addition added a landscaped public forecourt as well as a private garden for faculty and staff. According to Altoon, the redesign fulfills President Steven B. Sample’s vision of expanding “the influence of the first epoch of this university to its perimeter borders,” which, in this case, meant taking the brick and limestone style of USC’s core, classic buildings all the way north to Jefferson Boulevard. And as Altoon proudly relates, the school’s faculty and staff are “tickled pink” with their new digs.

Despite budget constraints that nixed some aspects of the project’s original design, Altoon and Porter are similarly thrilled about having fulfilled a commission at their alma mater. They are currently working on another USC assignment: creating a master plan for refitting the USC Law Library, a project that may eventually involve adding to that building as well.

A Simple Plan
The redesign of the USC School of Social Work Building, as envisioned by architects Jim Porter and Ron Altoon.

Art courtesy of Altoon + Porter

The design duo met in 1973 while working for famed architect and fellow Trojan Frank Gehry. Porter moved on to Charles Kober Associates in 1974, Altoon followed him there three years later, and then, in 1984, the two men formed their namesake firm.

Altoon describes their partnership as “yin and yang,” with himself on the “design and communications side” and Porter “primarily focused on project and firm management.” Another aspect of this push and pull relationship: Altoon is a risk-taker, Porter a pragmatist.

“The metaphor we use,” Altoon explains, “is a tall ship, where I’m the mast and sails and Jim is the ballast and hull. One without the other is either listless in the water or sinks.” Porter agrees, but adds that “there are a lot of folks pulling out oars, setting the sails and charting the course.” Among their five other partners are James Auld ’83 and Gary Dempster ’77.

Both gained early career inspiration during their years at USC. Altoon recalls a transforming experience occurring on a hot August day before his last year of studies, when he volunteered to help move furniture at Pasadena’s Gamble House, the 1908 Arts and Crafts masterpiece managed by USC. He had never before “seen anything so well-crafted, so responsive to its environment.” He soon became the house’s first scholar-in-residence, living there by himself for nine months, and has since been instrumental in the landmark’s preservation.

Porter actually began his professional life as a musician, but turned his attention to architecture so he “wouldn’t have to travel all the time.” (He laughs wryly at this � as Altoon + Porter’s business manager, Porter flits about the globe, overseeing projects ranging from the 8-million-square-foot “Orchid Garden” retail center in Jakarta to the three-story Kingdom Centre mall in Saudi Arabia). As for his most affecting USC moment, Porter says it was “meeting [his] wife of 38 years”; but he also fondly recalls his School of Architecture mentors, including two late great professors, Pierre Koenig of LA’s Case Study House Program fame and the “irascible” Alfred Caldwell, last of the Prairie School landscapists.

The men have found myriad ways to repay their alma mater. In 1977, Altoon and Porter began a student intern fellowship program in which USC architecture students, in their last year of studies, work at the firm part-time. Each student ends up making about $10,000, which, Altoon explains, at an average of 15 participants per year, equals a contribution of “$4.2 million in intellectual capital” since the program began. Altoon also lectures regularly at USC and sits on the Alumni Association Board of Governors.

Both have also proven their benevolence beyond the boundaries of the university. Altoon, a third-generation Armenian, was so overcome after the 1988 Armenian earthquake that he led a team of architects to Yerevan to help plan the rebuilding process. On the local level, Altoon and Porter can be thanked for resurrecting the splendid art deco Bullocks Wilshire building as the Southwestern University School of Law; their firm has also been involved with the Grand Avenue master plan. As Porter sees it, Los Angeles’ future lies downtown � making it a “24-hour viable, vibrant” area where thousands of people live; Altoon, meantime, believes that one day, a beautified L.A. River will bring miles of prime waterfront real estate to some of the city’s most blighted areas.

These may sound like ambitious undertakings, but Altoon and Porter have the utmost faith in their profession.

“We shouldn’t fear buildings,” says Altoon. “Buildings should reflect both the harmony and dissonance we enjoy in a free society. We don’t restrain freedom of speech, and buildings are freedom of speech.”

� Ross M. Levine


Sonnenberg Boom

President of Legg Mason Real Estate Investors and a member of the USC Board of Trustees, Glenn A. Sonnenberg ’77, JD ’80 assumes a different set of responsibilities this fall as the incoming president of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors. The longtime USC devotee shares his vision for a culturally enriched and philanthropic Trojan Family.

What are your major goals over the next year as the USCAA Board of Governors president? First is to increase the number and improve the membership and involvement of USC alumni clubs around the world. Second is to encourage the clubs to increase efforts to fund school scholarships. Third is to work with the university to provide higher quality program content to the clubs, which generally means visiting faculty and deans, as well as opportunities for volunteerism. The last is to increase in size and scope the Alumni Association’s relationship with admissions, recruiting and other offices on campus.

One of the five major goals of the USCAA is to promote volunteerism. What suggestions do you have for alumni who want to give back to USC and the surrounding communities? I do believe that inside of everyone at some point in their lives, as they mature and develop professionally, is a seed that germinates, that says, “I want to do something positive in my community to benefit others.” The extent to which we can seize upon that drive and make at least some of that volunteerism geared towards USC, we will have accomplished a great deal. Not to the exclusion of supporting other things, but I’d like us to have enough opportunities available that alumni would naturally run to USC as one of their philanthropic pursuits of choice.

What are your fondest memories of your years at USC? It was a wonderful place to grow from adolescence to adulthood, and to mature as an individual and to have an incredible faculty to spoon-feed you all of this great information. My fondest memories are the students and faculty with whom I interacted. USC is a very warm and comfortable place to grow, not only academically, but also socially, and as a citizen and as a person.

As a member of the class of 1977, you were part of the USCAA’s first revived reunion program in 2002. How would you articulate the importance of the USCAA reunion program? I think all of us want to reconnect, not just with friends, but also with ourselves and with who we were back then. Reunions afford an opportunity for people to revisit the good old days, which seem better the older and older we get. And being able to come back to campus and to hear all the great things that are going on, it goes a long way to welcoming back family and getting them to reconnect.

What do you see as the overall purpose of the Alumni Association? It is shortsighted to view to Alumni Association as an organization that exists to entertain alumni. If that were all it did, it would neither be meaningful to alumni nor consistent to the university’s objectives. The purpose is to maintain the bond between the student and the university so that each can benefit from the other. The primary goal is not to raise money; it’s to raise involvement and commitment. With success comes alumni involvement, and with involvement comes greater success. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Medicine Men and Women

Art courtesy Mike Mathis Productions

Keck: The Miniseries

Don’t look for Richard Chamberlain swashbuckling his way through surgery, but this Discovery Health documentary brings the real-life adventures of USC doctors and patients to the small screen.

You’d never peg Mike Mathis for a Trojan die-hard. A graduate of Occidental College, the veteran TV producer’s closest connection to the university is attending the same San Marino church as USC President Steven B. Sample.

And yet, Mathis is the mastermind behind the six-part miniseries “USC Medical” that aired on the Discovery Health channel in April and May, reaching some 40 million American homes.

Had the university purchased six hours of advertising, it couldn’t have presented the Keck School in a more flattering light than this documentary highlighting the real-life stories of the doctors, patients and medical students of USC and its affiliated hospitals.

Just how did Mathis, with no direct ties to the Trojan Family, hit on the Keck School for this project? Wanting to model a series after ABC’s “Hopkins 24/7” and “Houston Medical,” Mathis says he “immediately thought of USC because it’s here in the community where I live. It’s a huge medical center; it’s very renowned and respected. And I knew there were interesting stories at that hospital. I just knew it.

“People go through life and death situations here � hurting people, frightened people, delighted people � all going through these crucial moments. We just wanted to be there with people who were willing to let us tell their stories.”

Mathis’ instinct was right.

The first episode featured a live-donor liver transplant performed on mother and daughter by USC surgeons Rick Selby and Nicolas Jabbour. It also had a segment on surgeon Melvin Silverstein’s compassionate handling of a frightened breast-cancer patient convinced she was going to die. In a later episode, Silverstein himself becomes the patient when he undergoes open-heart surgery to repair a valve. Hours later, he faces a near-death crisis with a ripped aorta � corrected in a life-saving procedure performed by friend and colleague Vaughn Starnes, a cardiothoracic surgeon. In a separate episode, Starnes operates on an hours-old infant born with a heart that only works on one side.

In all, some 30 stories lace through the six one-hour episodes. We see twins diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye; a burn patient’s excruciating skin reconstruction recovery; a heart-transplant candidate’s anxious wait for a donor organ. Student stories show the hardships faced by Amy, a USC undergraduate living with cystic fibrosis; the strain on Keck first-year students Ebonie Smith and Nohemi Gonzalez as they brace for exams; and the tender relationship that develops between surgical fellows Laura Klein and Lina Romero and their mentor, again breast surgeon Mel Silverstein, who is himself haunted by the drug-overdose death of his daughter years ago.

“There are some very moving stories in the six hours and some heroic doctors and heroic patients,” says Silverstein. “I think looking at the six hours will give a lot of people hope.”

It took nearly a year to make these six hours of television. Film crews began taping in July 2003. “We filmed almost every day for seven months,” says Mathis, whose Pasadena-based production company has made numerous programs for the Discovery networks as well as for the Travel Channel, TLC and HGTV. Before starting his own production company, Mathis directed episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” for years.

For this project, Mathis set up a field office at USC University Hospital, where his researchers were sure to bump into physicians.

“After a while, when they passed each other in the hall or rode together on the elevator, the doctors would say: ‘Hey, you know this interesting thing is happening tomorrow. Why don’t you be there?’ recalls Mathis. “Access is everything.”

The crews followed the doctors as they made the rounds through USC University Hospital, the Doheny Eye Institute, USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center. When necessary they trailed them across town to USC partner hospitals such as Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Baby Kyle
Surgeon John Gross reunites Teresa and Chris Chavez with their baby, who has just undergone surgery to reshape his malformed skull. Had the congenital defect gone uncorrected, Kyle would later suffer brain damage.

Art courtesy Mike Mathis Productions

Whenever the doctors were on duty, so were the filmmakers: “I had several late-night calls from doctors. They’d say: ‘Look, right now we’re going to harvest a heart. Do we want to be there?’ My people would jump out of bed and go,” Mathis says.

The result is a more intimate view of the Keck School than has ever before been seen. “These doctors let us right into the operating room. They said, ‘Bring the camera in, see what we do.’”

What they do, the producer found, is fascinating. In one episode, we literally watch trauma surgeon Juan Asensio remove a metal shaft impaling a man’s leg, then race up the elevator to clamp the bleeding artery of a gunshot victim already in surgery. We see how emergency physician Susan Stone balances a career in the ER with her personal struggle with leukemia. We see orthopedist James Tibone, physician to the Trojan football team, hustle on the sidelines to examine a fresh injury and, later, hustle in the operating room to reconstruct a player’s torn knee. We see epidemiologist Jim Dwyer turn himself into a guinea pig after he is diagnosed with a rare cancer for which no known therapy exists.

The key, says Mathis, is just to be there as the stories unfold. “They unfold for us just as they do for the viewer. We’re filming what happens. We don’t know how it is going to end and neither do the doctors.”

“USC Medical” is serious reality-television that takes you behind the scenes. “You don’t normally get to see a surgeon as he trains a fellow with her first surgical procedure,” Mathis says. “You don’t get to watch surgeons give people bad news. Those are dramatic stories happening all the time.”

There’s no script and no preconceived plotline. Nothing is staged and the stories don’t necessarily end happily. “Not everyone that we followed lived,” says Mathis. “Then again, there were people who looked like they weren’t going to make it who are fine. It’s just like life.”

Mathis’ crews shot hundreds of hours of digital video. Back at the production studio, a wall of bookshelves holds the cassettes, meticulously labeled, logged and transcribed before being transferred to digital editing terminals where the stories were assembled, narrated and scored.

Winning the physicians over wasn’t easy. “They kind of eye you,” says Mathis, recalling his first meetings. Their skepticism is understandable, he adds. “You’re at someone’s mercy when you let them film you. If you’re a doctor, you’ve got a career that you spent decades working on. You don’t want somebody coming in and trivializing it or misrepresenting it. At the end of the day, trust is everything: trust that you’re not just doing a hatchet job.”

Filming in deeply private, sometimes life-and-death situations involved a great deal of red tape. Mathis spent four months just getting the ball rolling. “I’ve never worked on a show that had as many legal issues as this one had,” says the Emmy-nominated, 20-year-veteran TV producer and director. Once they had finished negotiations with USC’s attorney, he explains, “We had to turn around and do it again with all the different hospitals involved.”

That Mathis himself has no background in medicine he considers an asset: “I come to everything like a viewer. I don’t know what retinal blastoma is: I have to learn like everyone else,” he says. The program’s director and camera operators are seasoned medical filmmakers, however: it wouldn’t do to have the crew pass out during surgery, Mathis jokes.

The rest, he says, is just follow-through. “Once the doctor says, ‘You can come with me and meet my patients and listen to me talk to them,’ and the patient says, ‘You can come home with me and see what it’s like to have a baby with this condition,’ our job is just not to mess it up.”

� Diane Krieger

The Discovery Health Channel is repeating “USC Medical” on its “Lifeline” series in August. For listings and times, check the cable station’s Web site at

Now & Then:

1892 photo from the Trojan Gallery; modern-day photo: Amy Tierney for Lee Salem Photography

Gradations of Graduation Joy

Just try to wipe the smile off the face of a new USC grad. This May, more than 8,000 elated graduates received their degrees to the clapping adulation of 40,000 family and friends. Following the main Commencement proceedings, the new degree-holders dispersed for their photo ops, including the chance to take a celebratory group shot in front of Tommy Trojan (below right). Travel a century and change back in time, however, and proceedings were decidedly more somber. The graduating class of 1892 (pictured below left) consisted of three women and two men, none, apparently, elated enough with their accomplishments to crack a smile. Perhaps those accouterments are to blame. While today’s graduates sport free-flowing robes, the departing Trojans of yesteryear wrestled with tight hairdos and tighter collars. At least their “sheepskins” (diplomas) came wrapped in a cheery ribbon.

A Season in Photos

Photo credits: 1. Leroy Hamilton; 2. Lee Salem Photography; 4. Lee Salem Photography; 8. Christine McDowell/The Image Artist.

Spring in Our Step

Honorable alumni, elite athletes and philanthropic do-gooders dominated the Trojan landscape this vernal equinox.

1. Governing Trojans
Close to 600 USC alumni and friends turned out in support of the USC Black Alumni Association’s 26th Annual Alumni Awards & Scholarship Benefit, held in April. The Outstanding Alumnus and Alumna of the Year Awards went to Los Angeles councilmember Bernard C. Parks ’76 and Jacqueline Bowens ’81, vice president of government and public affairs at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The event raised more than $200,000 in scholarship funds. Pictured are, from left: Young Alumni Award recipient DeVon Franklin ’00, actress Terri Vaughn, Kilgore Service Award recipient Monique Hunter-Dennis ’79 and film director Christopher Erskin. Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder, chairman and CEO of Act 1 Group of Companies, served as honorary benefit chairperson of the event.

2. Hitting a High Note
Opera singer Marilyn B. Horne ’53, a four-time Grammy winner, is presented with the Asa V. Call Achievement Award, the university’s highest alumni honor, by USC president Steven B. Sample. Over the course of a half-century, mezzo-soprano Horne has performed more than 1,300 recitals in opera houses around the world. A longtime supporter of the arts in public education, she established the Marilyn Horne Foundation in 1993. The Asa V. Call Achievement Award recognizes alumni who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to the university and community by giving generously of their time, energy and leadership. Past recipients have included businessman and USC trustee Edward P. Roski, Jr. ’62 and Marine and former astronaut Charles F. Bolden, Jr. MS ’77.

3. Gone Swimming
USC couldn’t wait until summer to throw a pool party. At the 24th annual Swim With Mike benefit at McDonald’s Swim Stadium, more than 500 swimmers took to the water to raise money for the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarships Fund. This year’s event honored 12 disabled student athletes, including eight USC students. Among the day’s highlights was a relay race pitting coach Pete Carroll (shown here with the swim’s namesake, Mike Nyeholt ’78) and the Trojan football team against the USC Song Girls in friendly competition. Carolina Panthers quarterback Rodney Peete ’89 and his wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete, received this year’s Gerald and Betty Ford People Helping People Award, presented annually to an individual (or individuals) who has been an active member of the community and who has given his or her time to a wide range of charitable organizations.

4. The Art of Giving
Chester Chang MS ’87 (far right) presented USC College dean Joseph Aoun (left) and Korean ambassador Han Sung-Joo with pieces from his private collection of Korean art to commemorate the USC Korean Studies Institute’s 2003-2004 Ambassadorial Lecture Series. Chang’s collection has been showcased at LACMA and the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

5, 6. With an Eye Towards Change
Paramount Pictures’ Hollywood studios provided the backdrop for an April benefit sponsored by the Luminaires, a volunteer support group of the USC Doheny Eye Institute. Seated before the fountain courtyard are, from left: former USC trustee Richard Van Vorst MA ’56, Luminaires member Connie Van Vorst, USC life trustee Kenneth Leventhal, Luminaires member Elaine Leventhal MLA ’89, USC trustee and Luminaires member Lorna Reed ’58 and husband Chuck Reed. The Luminaires have helped to raise more than $4 million for the Doheny Eye Institute, which provides a full range of ophthalmic services.

7. Final Bow
Celebrating the life of Emmy Award-winning actor John Ritter ’71, the John Ritter Memorial, sponsored by the USC School of Theatre, took place in early May at Bing Theater. Pictured in front of a plaque at Bovard Auditorium honoring the late actor are (from left) theatre school dean Madeline Puzo; Geoffrey Lind ’06, inaugural recipient of the John Ritter Memorial Award, which honors the theatre student who has given the most outstanding comic performance during the season; and three of John Ritter’s children, Nancy M. Ritter, Carly Ritter and Jason Ritter.

8. Aging Gracefully
After more than 17 years of leadership, Edward L. Schneider stepped down as dean of USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in June. Schneider, who is also a professor of gerontology in USC’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center and a professor of medicine in the Keck School of Medicine of USC, will embark on a two-year sabbatical to write and explore new academic areas before returning to USC as dean emeritus and a faculty member in the schools of gerontology and medicine. At a dinner held in his honor in May, Schneider expressed appreciation for the well wishes he had received but emphasized that he was not retiring. “I’m moving at high speed toward a new career,” he said. “The way to stay young is to change careers and start new ones.” He quoted the playwright Seneca, who said, “While we teach, we also learn.”

9. Watershed Moment
USC women’s water polo coach Jovan Vavic (center) celebrates with his team after the Women of Troy won the 2004 NCAA Championship, beating Loyola Marymount 10-8 and going undefeated (29-0) for the season. The USC water polo program made a double splash this year: the USC men’s water polo team won the 2003 NCAA Championship in December. The women’s victory marks the second time that the USC men’s and women’s teams have won a national title in the same school year. With the victory, USC now has won four national championships during the 2003-04 school year (football, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s water polo), the most team titles since 1976-77, when USC teams registered a combined five championships.

10. Architectural Artist
At the USC School of Architecture’s 45th annual Architectural Guild Dinner in May, longtime art and production director Henry Bumstead ’37 received the 2004 Distinguished Alumnus Award. Posing at the dinner are, from left, architecture school dean Robert H. Timme, Bumstead, his wife, Lena Bumstead, and their daughter, Carolyn Ehret. Proceeds from the event support scholarships for USC architecture students.

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