Beating the odds

Cancer survivor Gerald Freeny becomes the first black president of the Tournament of Roses

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/1/2018

Gerald Freeny of Altadena made history on Jan. 19 when the Tournament of Roses Association announced that Freeny will serve as the first African-American president of the 123-year-old organization, presiding over the 130th Rose Parade and the 105th Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1 under the theme “The Melody of Life.”

Until recently, the Tournament had long struggled with the image that it was an exclusive organization run almost entirely by white men. An African American had never served in the organization’s senior staff until 2015, when a senior director of community relations position was created, and there have only been four African-American Rose Queens. It took decades of lobbying and protesting for the Tournament to change its diversity and inclusion policies.

Although Freeny’s presidency was announced last week, the Tournament has a seven-year succession path for its presidents and he was actually elected on Jan. 6, 2011 by the 14-member Executive Committee, the Tournament’s decision-making body consisting of seven future presidents, the current president, the immediate past president, and five rotational “at-large” members. These five seats must be held by racial and gender minorities who get a vote but are not in line to become president like the others and only serve for two years.

The at-large members were added to the Executive Committee as a compromise following protests in 1992-93 led by local developer Jim Morris and newspaper publishers Joe Hopkins and Danny Bakewell, who is also a developer. They blocked traffic with vehicles on South Orange Grove Boulevard in front of Tournament House in fall 1993 to protest the organization’s lack of diversity.

Freeny, 57, was one of the first people chosen to be an at-large member when it was created in 1993. He served from 1993-95, having started as a volunteer with the organization in 1988.

“Being one of the early at-large members gave Gerald the opportunity to be seen on the Executive Committee,” said Ronald Okum, who served as president in 2002 and mentored Freeny.

A cancer survivor, Freeny attended Cal State LA and graduated in 1983 with a degree in business administration and a minor in finance. In addition to his lung cancer, Freeny also had two liver transplants and a kidney transplant. He lives in Altadena with his wife Trina and their daughter Erica. Freeny is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi and Gamma Zeta Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi fraternities and the First Historic Lutheran Church.

Lessons of Little Rock

In the late 1990s, the Tournament hired consultant Dr. Terrence Roberts — one of the Little Rock Nine who was among the first black students to attend an all-white high school in Arkansas in 1957 through the protection of federal troops — to work with its members and staff in helping them “address complaints from various public and private individuals, organizations, corporations, and municipalities that they were essentially a ‘Whites Only’ organization,” according to Roberts’ consulting  business website.

“I told them, ‘Consider this: You’ve got a bunch of old white guys driving around in white suits, now what message does that send? Literally,’” said Roberts, who has lived in Pasadena since 1985, referring to the 935 volunteers who dress in all-white suits on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. “They were a little aghast, as you might expect. I said, ‘What we need to do is help you develop a greater sense of awareness about what’s going on here. You need to have a historical dimension so you understand why people are even considering making noise about you. You’re not just an occasional thorn in the flesh here. You are representative of what this country has stood for, for too long.’”

Volunteers serve on one of 31 operating committees to help organize and pull off the parade and game, such as the Equestrian Committee, the Parade Operations Committee, the Float Construction Committee, and so on. To move up, exemplary volunteers get promoted to vice chair and then chair of a committee. Among the 31 committee chairs, 16 are considered “director-chairs.” Among those 16, about five have seniority, and candidates to become members of the Executive Committee — and thus a future president — are typically chosen from this pool. It usually takes about 20 to 25 years of volunteer service to the organization to reach this level. This is Freeny’s 30th year with the organization.

Once a person is voted onto the Executive Committee, they are considered a vice president. After serving four consecutive years, they ascend to the office of secretary in the fifth year, treasurer in the sixth year, executive vice president in the seventh year, and then president in the eighth year. That person serves one more year on the Executive Committee after their presidency, and then they are rotated off and become known as a “life director.” The organization’s largely ceremonial Board of Directors is made up of all living past presidents/life directors.

A historic moment

Craig Washington, father of 2012 Rose Queen Drew Washington, former chair of the city of Pasadena’s Northwest Commission and director-chair of the Tournament’s Equestrian Committee, served on the Tournament’s Executive Committee as an at-large member from 2009-11, helping to lay the groundwork for Freeny’s election.

“My task was in whatever way possible to influence in a positive way Gerald’s ascension as a candidate to be elected,” said Washington. “I made a strong lobbying push by spending time with Executive Committee members, talking with them, listening to them, and getting straight to the point, asking, ‘Why hasn’t Gerald been selected? What are the concerns?’”

Freeny’s name had been brought up as a possible new presidential candidate a few times in the years prior to his actual election, but he had thus far been passed up.

The 14 members of the Executive Committee vote using an electronic tool. Everyone presses a button and the results pop up on a screen as a bar graph. With Freeny and other candidates nominated, the first round of balloting began in early January 2011. Washington expected a split result, and thus subsequent rounds of voting that he feared could last a long time.

The members cast their secret electronic votes and the results popped up on the screen. It was a clear majority for Freeny.

“I looked up at the screen and damn near cried,” said Washington. “It was his time.”

Shutting down Millionaire’s Row

Long before the Tournament did the right thing and elected an African American as a future president for the first time, racial tensions were heating up in early 1990s Los Angeles. The Tournament still did not have diverse leadership at that time, even though the African-American community had been demanding they diversify as early as the 1960s.

“African Americans were in no way positioned to be in leadership because of the structure of the organization,” said Washington. “In order for you to become a member at the time you had to be recommended by existing Tournament members. Well, geez, there were no African-American Tournament members, so the little circle just kept going. You’d never get recommended to come into this association.”

In December 1992, racial tensions were so high that Tournament officials agreed to create a new Ethnic Diversity Committee to recruit minority volunteers, expand cultural diversity and reach out to community and political leaders. The president that year, Gary Hayward, issued a statement saying the committee’s task would be in keeping with “our longstanding tradition of conducting our all-volunteer efforts on the highest order of fairness and equality.”

However, that same week, Hayward said in an interview with the Pasadena Star-News that promoting minorities who did not have seniority would “destroy morale” among the membership. Adding insult to injury, then-Tournament Executive Director John H. B. “Jack” French added, “It will never happen.”

Critics called the comments racist, a characterization that Hayward takes issue with.

“I don’t like getting called a bigot,” he said. “I’m not a bigot. It’s amazing that somebody would call somebody they don’t even know a bigot, and call an organization racial and bigoted. They didn’t even know the organization; they were just making a lot of noise to get their name in the paper. The Tournament wasn’t a good old boys club. That’s what was so funny. The only restrictions Tournament had at the time were to live or work within a 15-mile radius of Tournament House. That was it. There was no restriction on race, color, creed, female, or whatever. Tradition is what it was.”

Members of Pasadena’s African-American community, however, argued that progress was moving too slowly and that they were not receiving the same opportunities that white men were within the organization.

As the Tournament began ramping up activities for the upcoming parade on Jan. 1, 1994, Morris and Bakewell decided it was time to shake things up at the Tournament in a big and visible way.

Shortly before 11 a.m. on Oct. 21, 1993, Morris drove a rented Ryder truck and Bakewell drove a Lincoln Town Car to Wrigley Mansion, home of the Tournament of Roses Association on South Orange Grove Boulevard. They positioned their vehicles across the four lanes so that traffic coming from both directions was blocked, just as Tournament members were attempting to arrive for the coronation ceremonies of Rose Queen Erica Beth Brynes of Arcadia. Chaos ensued.

“It was absolutely fabulous, because at that time we knew that we could really move this forward for change,” said Morris. “If you look at the demonstrations that took place in the South, the only reason why they were able to make progress is because of demonstrations. We felt that if we backed down there would never be a Gerald Freeny.”

Dozens of demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk in front of Tournament House holding signs and demanding the organization diversify its leadership and membership. Tournament members verbally clashed with protesters, with one elderly woman reportedly shouting at protesters, “I could kill you,” according to a Los Angeles Times report at the time. Another member told a pregnant protester, “Shut up, you tramp.”

“We want to transform the Tournament of Roses into something truly representative of the community,” Bakewell told a Times reporter at the scene.

Police eventually called in the S. N. Ward & Son towing company, which was owned by then-Tournament President Michael Ward and contracted with the city, to tow the vehicles away.

Eventually, Tournament officials agreed to add five “at-large” seats to the Executive Committee consisting of minority members of the local community. Critics called it tokenism, because although those five people would have the same voting rights and privileges as the original nine members of the committee, they were not in line to be president of the organization like the others.

“You were there to voice your opinions with regards to the community, with regards to speaking for the common member,” Freeny said. “At-large members had every right as an individual who was in line to be president, so that means we had a vote on all issues, and we were invited to all events, but we weren’t in line to be president.”

Still, Washington pointed out, “That was a significant change in the organizational structure, in growing this Executive Committee, which created all the policies.”

Progress made

Freeny and Okum recently agreed that the Tournament has progressed in the years since Bakewell, Morris and others shut down Millionaire’s Row. Women and nonblack minorities have served as president in recent years.

“It is a very diversified organization, and I think when that happens you don’t have the sameness we had from years ago where everybody was white, everybody had the same socioeconomic background,” said Okum, adding that several African Americans are moving up through the ranks and that another African American is expected to be voted onto the Executive Committee in the next few years.

“The diversity is not even an issue anymore,” Okum said. “It’s a different organization from the diversity standpoint than it was 20 years ago.”