It seems safe to assume that when they were UCLA undergrads, Sally Lew ’70 and Lynn Nomura-O’Connell ’83 never imagined that decades later they’d be hosting a dozen student guests, unknown to either of them, playing “Name That Bruin” as an icebreaker — with all guests sporting on their backs, “Kick Me”–style, a card displaying the name of a famous Westwood alum. “We were once worried a young undergrad wouldn’t know who, say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was,” Lew says.
Then again, maybe Lew and Nomura-O’Connell would have conjured this improbable scene. They were hosting this intimate gathering as part of Dinners for 12 Strangers — “D12,” colloquially — a university tradition now in its 54th year. It began at UCLA in tumultuous 1968, devised by the Gold Shield Alumnae to — as the group stated — “encourage communication and understanding among the various parts of the university family.” It has since spread to other schools nationwide.
Dinners are held wherever on Earth 12 Bruins can gather — Copenhagen, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi and Fiji are some of the farthest-flung recent locales.
Willing hosts sign up for one of three D12 dates, which typically occur early in the calendar year. Lew, who lives in Marina del Rey, and Nomura-O’Connell, of Manhattan Beach, met on the Alumni Association board and have held a half-dozen such dinner parties. Alumni dinners are held wherever on Earth 12 Bruins can gather — Copenhagen, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi and Fiji are some of the farthest-flung recent locales — while those for students take place in homes within 20 miles of campus. Attendees, assigned a spot by the university, are just what the event name suggests: perfect strangers to one another. Many D12s start with a get-to-know-you game — Name That Bruin, “Something About Me,” maybe UCLA bingo.
Then comes the sit-down. Lew and O’Connell have theirs catered; others, such as LeeAnn Yelavich-Wade ’77, M.Ed. ’82 and her husband, George Wade ’79, cook. “Students say they’re so happy to have a home-cooked meal,” LeeAnn says. Forget the official head count, too. “We never limit our dinners to 12.” The couple hosted three student dinners when they lived in Calabasas, and they’ve held one for alumni since they moved to Reno, Nevada, four years ago. (For local dinners, a faculty member is often one of the guests.)
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Guests are generally on white-tablecloth behavior, though milder mishaps are inevitable: Janice Brittain M.A. ’71, a retired LAUSD administrator, once hosted a D12 the night of the Academy Awards. “People were distracted,” she says ruefully.
Dinners in 2020 and ’21 were virtual, and while a true sense of camaraderie (to say nothing of the heady smell of warm crab dip) is difficult to conjure via Zoom, the silver lining was that Bruins worldwide could commune whether the meal coincided with the breakfast hour or last call. The dinners proved to be a desperately needed bright spot in the pandemic: In 2020, some 100 virtual gatherings of more than 1,000 Bruins were held around the globe — including, for the first time, some current parents.
Last year saw the publication of a free cookbook, A Taste of Westwood, a compilation of beloved D12 recipes that even extended to updates on dining-hall fare such as lentil Bolognese with whole-wheat rotini (download the cookbook.) There were 39 Westwood-area dinners for students and 79 elsewhere for alumni, along with 10 virtual ones. And while Covid-19 remains the pesky ant at these picnics, Yelavich-Wade says that “we look forward to having Bruins return to our home.”
As guests depart, fortified by fond memories, new friends and maybe a networking contact or two, they might get a swag bag, a doggie bag ... or a postprandial dose of school-spirit. No matter whether the students can or cannot identify Kareem ’69 or Agnes de Mille ’26, if they’ve been hosted by Lew and Nomura-O’Connell, they’ll be sent off with a loud, proud eight-clap. It’s a shouty, percussive symbol of the bonhomie that inevitably results whenever Bruins — closest of friends or complete strangers — gather to share UCLA pride and break a little bread.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.