From now until the start of the 2015 West Coast Conference Basketball Championships, WCC columnist John Crumpacker will be profiling the WCC Hall of Honor Class of 2015. This week, Crumpacker examines the remarkable journey of Odell Johnson of Saint Mary's College.
If ever there was an example of a life well lived, and still going strong, it has to be Odell Johnson, Saint Mary's Class of 1958.
Closing in on 80, he's happy to report that he is still 6-feet, 2 ½ inches tall - the same height as when he played guard with distinction on Saint Mary's basketball teams of 1955-57, once pouring in 40 points against Pepperdine decades before the shot clock or 3-point shot.
"I haven't shrunk,'' he said with a laugh.
Even in a telephone interview, a listener could easily envision Johnson having a twinkle in his eye as he enthusiastically recounted events from 50 and 60 years ago with such clarity they might have happened yesterday. That big game against San Francisco at the Cow Palace on March 6, 1956? Johnson remembers how many people were in attendance, down to the last fanny.
"Fifteen thousand seven hundred and thirty-five. Largest crowd ever on the West Coast at the time. There were no pro teams on the West Coast then.''
In the decades since he played in Moraga, Johnson has been a math teacher and basketball coach at San Joaquin Memorial High School, executive director of a community center in his adopted hometown of Fresno, Dean of Student Affairs at Saint Mary's, Vice President of the College of Alameda, President of Laney College and now on the Board of Regents of his alma mater.
He was also the flash point of a protest in which five African-American basketball players at Saint Mary's walked off the court when his contract as the school's Dean of Student Affairs was not renewed in 1972. More on that later.
While six of his nine siblings experienced some form of cancer in their lives, Johnson was not one of them. He says his health is good, that he still goes to the gym to lift weights and ride a stationary bike and that it wasn't all that long ago that he used to jog around Lake Merritt two or three times a week.
"I feel guilty,'' Johnson said. "My life has been so wonderful. Why me?''
When it was suggested that Johnson might live to be 100 the way he's going, he said, "I hope so. My wife's hanging in there, too. She's two years younger than me.''
Odell and Virginia Johnson have been married for 57 years. They still live in the house they bought in the Crocker Highlands area of Oakland for $37,500 in 1969. It's worth a tad more than that now.
In a life filled with honors - he was named the 10th best player in Saint Mary's history, received an Urban Services Award in 1967 from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and had the campus theater at Laney College renamed the Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center - Johnson is about to receive one more.
On March 7 in Las Vegas in conjunction with the West Coast Conference basketball tournament, Johnson will be inducted into the conference's Hall of Honor along with nine other people, all of them representing their member institutions.
"I was shocked,'' Johnson said. "I didn't really know about the Hall of Honor. I'm very active out at Saint Mary's and I talk to and meet students all the time. It had been mentioned to me I'd been selected. I was shocked that I was selected, and happy and honored, all that. Truly an honor.''
Johnson said he'll have about 20 people with him in Las Vegas for the Hall of Honor ceremony at the Orleans Hotel, including his wife Virginia, son Brent, relatives from Fresno, Bakersfield and Los Angeles and friends and former colleagues from Laney College.
Johnson is also bringing his 17-year-old grandson, Miles Odell Lawrence, with him to Las Vegas. Miles has been living with the Johnsons since the death of his father a couple of years ago. Like his grandpa, Miles is also a basketball player, for his charter school in Oakland.
"It's a low-key basketball introduction for him,'' Johnson said. "He's getting better all the time. He loves the game. He's a wonderful young man, on the academic honor roll at school.''
Those who know Johnson are happy he is being honored by the conference for his years of service to Saint Mary's.
"He is someone who celebrates life,'' said Ted Tsukahara, a Saint Mary's faculty member who saw Johnson play for the Gaels as a high school student while on a visit to the college. "He comes from humble means in terms of economics but great roots.''
Bob Hagler was an assistant coach at Saint Mary's from 1955-60 and holds Johnson in high regard, as much for his character as his ability in basketball.
"Not only a great player but a true gentleman,'' Hagler said. "Truly a great ballplayer, one of the best the college has ever had. He's a great person. He's willing to help anyone. That's why I'm working to get his jersey retired at Saint Mary's. He's more than deserving.''
The story of Odell Johnson reads like something out of John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." Johnson, one of 10 children, grew up the son of a migrant farmworker in rural Arkansas who moved his family first to the Imperial Valley in Southern California and then to the Fresno area to take advantage of the agricultural boom in the Central Valley post-World War II.
"I'm proud of my family,'' he said. "From whence we came, it's quite a story.''
Once the family settled in Fresno, Johnson worked in the fields like everyone else, picking grapes, watermelons and figs. He'd sleep three to a bed with two of his brothers, saying, "We didn't know any different.''
As late as his freshman season at Fresno City College Johnson was still working in the fields to support himself, albeit on the sly.
"You're embarrassed. You didn't want anyone to know,'' he said.
Little did he know that his family's occupation would earn Johnson an influential ally. After his sophomore season at Fresno CC, a Saint Mary's alum named John Henning visited the Johnson family and encouraged Odell to come to Moraga to play basketball and get a degree in a pleasant, small-college atmosphere.
At the time Henning was Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation. He would go on to serve as Under Secretary of Labor from 1962-67 and as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand from 1967-69. He was also a friend and ally of Cesar Chavez.
"He was the one who sold us on Saint Mary's,'' Johnson said. "We came up for a visit and I thought, `This is for me.' It was a small school, 400 students at the time, just what I needed. I was poor, I was shy, I was unsure of myself, moving from school to school, being the poor kid in the group. I am deeply indebted to Saint Mary's and the Christian Brothers who took me under their wing.''
Johnson played for Saint Mary's from 1955-57. He started 52 games over that span and averaged 16.4 points per game while leading the Gaels to a 33-19 record. The 40 points he scored against Pepperdine in 1956 is the No. 2 single-game total in school history.
After receiving his degree in 1958, Johnson went to work as a math teacher and basketball coach at San Joaquin Memorial High, positions he held for four years. He was then tapped to be the Executive Director of the Trinity Street Community Center in West Fresno as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty.
Saint Mary's reached out to Johnson in 1968 to be the school's Dean of Men, a job title that expanded to Dean of Student Affairs in 1970 when the school started admitting women. Johnson signed a four-year contract with a clause that stated Saint Mary's could choose without prejudice not to renew it. That's what the school did, and it precipitated a basketball walkout, a campus-wide protest and ultimately, needed change in 1972.
The non-renewal of Johnson's contract was misconstrued as a firing, and five African-American basketball players walked off the courtin support of their beloved Dean. They were brothers Roy (Class of '72) and Herman Brown ('75), Al Strange ('72), Nate Carroll ('75) and Maurice Harper ('75). Under no-nonsense coach Bruce Hale, that act signaled the end of their basketball careers at Saint Mary's, although they remained in school and ultimately graduated.
"He wanted to kick them off the team, kick them out of school,'' Johnson said of Hale. "Brother Mel (Anderson, President of Saint Mary's) said, `No, we're not going to kick them out of school and we're not going to take their scholarships away.''
As quoted in an article on the Saint Mary's website, Herman Brown said, "We went through with it because of our love for that man, Odell,'' while Strange added, "He was our dad, our big brother, our friend.''
"I'm at home when it happened. I said, `Oh, no!' `' Johnson recalled. "Without my knowing it, the students were raising holy hell about it. Saint Mary's was pretty much a white school. The world is changing all around the college and I said I don't think that Saint Mary's is ready for that. There was a lot of pressure in the community. The John Birch Society was very active at that time in the area. The majority of the people moved out that way to get away from the inner city lifestyle.''
At this tumultuous time in the history of Saint Mary's, Johnson told Anderson that the school needed to change with the times and hire two assistant deans from minority backgrounds to reflect the changing demographics. Within two years the school had an African-American assistant dean and a Latino assistant dean.
"It changed the campus,'' Johnson said. "I'm proud of what happened, the way it happened with class and dignity. They shut the whole campus down for eight days, students and faculty. They wanted me to stay. It was time for me to move on.''
Johnson moved on to the College of Alameda, where he served as vice president for seven years. Moving on again, he settled at Laney College in Oakland and ended up after 18 years as the school's longest-serving president.
"It was the most wonderful thing for me,'' he said. "I loved the work. ... I can do my best work with the poor and disenfranchised students in terms of letting them know they can make it.''
Now that he is being honored for his service to Saint Mary's, Johnson has come full circle, from poor farmworker's son to accomplished player to respected administrator and finally beloved symbol of social change.
"I love what happened at Saint Mary's,'' he said. "I came out of a migrant farmworkers situation with my family. Basketball got me out. Life has been good. Everything that happened has turned into a positive.''
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.