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Alumni Relive Times in the Tents

October 09, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, Pasadena City College students were mad about sports, undaunted by the Depression and unconcerned that their classes met in tents.

Last weekend, more than 300 of those former students--members of the classes of 1934 through 1937--returned to campus. Now mostly "slightly retired," in one alumna's phrase, the alumni played golf and played the horses at Santa Anita. But mostly they remembered the brief convergence of their lives at what was then called Pasadena Junior College.

All of them had attended classes in 50 wood-and-canvas tents, erected after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 weakened campus buildings, several of which had to be demolished.

"During the summer they were hot and we were bothered by flies," said Pasadena resident Shig Kawai, 69. "In the winter the wind would blow the flaps and we'd have a few chills going through us as we tried to concentrate."

"If you tired of the lecture in your tent, you could listen to the next tent's lecture," recalled Payton Jordan, 69, who retired as Stanford University's track and field coach in 1980.

Rain sometimes dripped on their textbooks and there was even a freak snowstorm during the Tent City years. But the apparent consensus, at least in retrospect, was articulated by a smiling former coed:

"It was fun," she said.

Blurred Distinctions

Some of the returnees, including reunion chairman Kenneth W. Hoge, had finished high school on the campus, which then served 11th- and 12th-graders as well as junior college students.

Fifty years ago the college men and women tended to snub the high school boys and girls, but time has blurred that distinction. The alumni laughed as one when Herb McDonald, a former PJC track star, proposed at a Saturday morning convocation, "I would like everyone who has not gained a pound in 50 years to raise his hand. Will you please stand up and we'll applaud you?"

Throughout the weekend, the group marveled at the changes in their once makeshift alma mater. Kawai, who is Japanese-American, was amazed at the large number of Asian students on campus.

"There's soy sauce and chopsticks on the tables in the cafeteria," he said. "I was flabbergasted."

The returnees told each other that they looked great and smiled at the memory of summers spent in Balboa. They brought each other up to date on the unpredictable courses their lives had taken--who could have imagined in 1936 that Kawai and other Japanese-American alumni would be interned during World War II?

They also recalled deceased classmates, including baseball great Jackie Robinson, actor William Holden and 212 PJC students who died in the war.

In the 1930s Pasadena was one of the largest junior colleges in the country. It had about 9,000 students, many of whom rode the Big Red trolley to and from campus and worked at side jobs to pay for their books and fees.

The Pasadena Board of Education's decision to keep the junior college open after the quake was a special boon to working-class youngsters.

"It was during the hard part of the Depression and we went to school wherever we could afford to go," said Jordan, who commuted by bike each day from Sierra Madre.

Jordan, a college track and football star who coached the U.S. track and field team in the 1968 Olympics, recalled the Tent City days as a time of "great esprit."

"We made our own fun," Jordan said. "You didn't buy it. One of our big treats was to go down and get a 10-cent Coast ice cream malted milk."

Cheap Thrills

You could dance to Kay Kayser's band at the Civic Auditorium for 25 cents. Jordan recalled less orthodox cheap thrills as well, such as unhooking passing trolley cars from the overhead cable, forcing the conductor to emerge angrily to hook it back up.

Pasadena was sports crazy in those days, many alumni said. The football Bulldogs played in the Rose Bowl for crowds of 60,000 or more. The track team was so rich with talent that the coach had to flip a coin to see which of his eight best sprinters, all capable of a 9.5-second 100-yard dash, would run a particular race.

In a school that idolized athletes, none was more respected than Robinson, who would make history in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in major-league baseball.

"We knew then he was the world's greatest all-around athlete," recalled classmate Sam Mardian, 67, a former mayor of Phoenix. Like several others, Mardian characterized young Robinson as intelligent, friendly and fiercely competitive.

Excelled in Sports

At Pasadena Robinson starred in football, basketball and track as well as baseball. He was also a fine tennis player.

Herb McDonald recalled an occasion when Robinson hit a home run for PJC, rushed to a nearby track, set a junior college record of 25 feet, 8 inches, in the long jump, suited up again and rushed back to finish the ball game. Pasadena won.

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