Rod McKuen ’51

Rod McKuen, Class of 1951

Rod McKuen is an award winning poet, songwriter, composer and singer, and was one of the bestselling American poets during the 1960s. Born in Oakland, he ran away from an abusive home at age 11 and supported himself with odd jobs that included being a rodeo cowboy, a DJ, and a stuntman. He wrote his first poetry and song lyrics in a journal that he kept, and eventually became a newspaper columnist. Living in San Francisco and working alongside Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, McKuen began performing folk music, then released pop albums in the late 1950s.

Article from the school newspaper describing Tech’s “ambitious young disc jockey, Rod McKuen”

In 1959 McKuen left the Bay Area for New York City and eventually for France, where he began two decades of collaboration with Belgian singer-songwriter Jaques Brel, translating French pop songs into English. During the 1960s he also began to publish poetry, and his album of readings, Lonesome Cities, won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. His work as a composer for films earned recognition in the form of two Academy Award nominations, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

McKuen visiting Oakland Tech to receive his honorary diploma.

McKuen wrote over 1500 songs for performers from Barbra Streisand to Frank Sinatra to Dusty Springfield. He also wrote orchestral compositions, one of which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and performed in venues like Carnegie Hall. He retired from active performing in 1981 but continued to record occasionally, and to write poetry and prose from his home in southern California.

Rod McKuen passed away in January of 2015, in Beverly Hills, California.

The following is from Rod McKuen’s website, referencing the Honorary Diploma he received from Oakland Tech in the 1970s


Greetings, Rod. Got your CD “Beatsville” at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore last week. Coincidence! On May 12 I will go to Oakland for 50th reunion, class of ’51. I know you aren’t in that group, perhaps the year after? Anyway, I look back on those years warmly. Best wishes, Jim Lieberman

Dear Jim, A nice surprise hearing from you. I was in ‘the class of ’51, I just didn’t stick around long enough to graduate. But, if I can work it out I’ll be joining you and the rest of the fifty-oners for the big reunion.

Some years ago I went back to Oakland Tech and received an honorary diploma. I had told the faculty that as a way of saying thanks I’d give a performance at an assembly. Of course not having been in Oakland for more than 20 years I had no idea of how Oakland Tech. High had drastically changed since I was last in the city. The student body was now nearly 100% Black and (rightfully so) they didn’t have a clue as to who the hell Rod McKuen was. Never mind being receptive to a white guys songs and form of entertainment. But, a promise is a promise and I was there.

Without a doubt I was about to face the toughest audience of my life. What in the world could I possibly do to entertain thes pubescent youngsters with a culture worlds away from mine and who had probably only come to the assembly as a means of cutting class – that was always my motive for attending assembly when I was a student.

But I won ‘em. How? I turned the hour and a half into a question and answer period, where the Q. & A.’s had very little to do with me. We discussed everything from show biz to sex & along the way I sang a song or two and coaxed some of the more adventurous – and it turns out quite talented – students on stage to do their thing. It was an anxious moment, but I had a ball. In the end I got a standing ovation.

I too have some good memories of 1951 at Tech, though probably not as many as yours. I was somewhat of a misfit but enjoyed faking my way through school by pretending to be an extravert. I couldn’t complete the term because I had a living to earn and it was time for me to move on.

Looking forward to seeing you and Sandy and Jack and Bruce and all the rest. Warmly, Rod