Friday, December 11, 2009

A Wedding and a Great Man

SAN DIEGO – As I was prepping for coming home to Lebanon next week, a wedding took me to Upland, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles east of Pasadena at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Upland is an escape from LA bustle with big old homes with spacious porches lining wide thoroughfares with walking paths between the towering eucalyptuses on the street medians. The weather was Southwest corner perfect.

The wedding was a cacophony of cultures. The bride, Tawnie Cook, my wife’s second cousin, has an all-American paternal side, and maternal grandparents who emigrated from Mexico many years ago. The groom, Joey Ferrara, is Italian and several of his family members flew over from Sicily.

The ceremony was held in the large and well-appointed St. Denis Catholic Church in Diamond Bar.

The reception, including dinner, was at the beautiful Spanish-styled Padua Hills Theater in Claremont, where the mountains begin their steep ascent to the heavens. Cultures, age groups, and a variety of lifestyles celebrated together, a special feeling.

The bride’s sister and maid of honor Natalie, or “Cookie,” is close to our daughter. This spring, Cookie graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a dream-like campus on the ocean about 100-miles north of Los Angeles. Sarah visited her there UCSB before deciding to attend San Diego State.

So Sarah was almost a member of the wedding party without being in the wedding.

Beautiful bride, handsome groom, glorious setting: the entire day was just about perfect for a traditional wedding. Tradition crossed the world from Italy to Mexico to the Southwest corner. The vibes made me feel good. I even smiled in Italian a couple of times.

For me, a special part of the evening was the reception. Our assigned table included the brothers of the bride’s father and their wives. Maureen and I sat next to Rafer Johnson and his wife Betsy. Betsy’s mother was the best friend of the Tawnie’s grandmother and Maureen’s friend when they were growing up.

Betsy and I shared delightful conversations. She even found the Vanderbilt, South Carolina football score on her blackberry for me.

But I said little to Rafer.

There were many things I wished ask Rafer. But it did not seem appropriate to launch such discussion at a wedding reception – I later reflected this reluctance to invade another’s space as probably a good reason for not pursuing news reporting as a career.

I have since discovered many people no longer recognize Rafer Johnson when I mention his name. Rafer won the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and earned the title of “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” He also captained the USA team.

After the Olympics, Rafer acted in movies with Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, and Woody Strode. Following acting, he rose to vice-president of Continental Telephone and drew crowds as an active member of the “People to People” international goodwill program.

As good friend of Robert Kennedy, Rafer was at his side when the presidential candidate was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968. Rafer was credited with restraining the slayer, Sirhan Sirhan, from fleeing, and retrieving the murder weapon.

I could not help but feel I was in the presence of greatness. Rafer exudes a gracious, quiet presence. The reticence in talking to him was mine. I suspect he would have abided had I been more forward.

Since the reception, I have thought often about Rafer and our dinner together. I have winced at the non-regonition when I mentioned his name to others.

Rafer should be the athletic model for our children (and us adults as well) to emulate. He should be the one everyone immediately recognizes when his name is mentioned.

Instead we talk about vain and very rich baseball, basketball, and football players, who make headlines with dysfunctional and even illegal behavior.

Rafer overcame prejudice, injuries, and other misfortunes to rise above and succeed through hard work, maximizing his athletic potential without performance enhancing drugs. And he has succeeded in life, big time.

I wish today’s college and professional athletes would have taken their cue from Rafer, not their agents or the media which fuels their fire for fame, rather than living well.

Regretfully, I do not think that is going to happen anytime soon.

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