Duke Russell stands on a parking lot where tennis courts are planned. Next… (Katie Falkenberg / For the…)
Duke Russell is in a familiar place. He's sitting at the back of a meeting room in his dark blue glen plaid suit. His gray hair is slicked back. His talking points are typed out. He's ready to make his case.
When his turn comes, he voices the appeal he's made for years to local college leaders, politicians and others. "We have to save the field," he says.
On this night, he's at a meeting of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council on the campus of Los Angeles City College. The field — or rather, the land he hopes to preserve for a sports field — is just outside.
It's a giant crater on the campus' southeast corner that college officials say is destined to become a student union. Rebar for the building's foundation is starting to be placed, but Russell has not given up. To him, that space could be a gateway to education, a splash of green that could entice young athletes from the neighborhood to attend college.
"Many of them are going to come here, and that field will change their life," he says — just like the one that changed his, when he was a young GI fresh from serving in World War II.
Now, the 85-year-old, who briefly played baseball at City College in the 1940s, has become a tireless advocate for community college sports, particularly at his alma mater.
In 2003, he was among LACC alumni who opposed the razing of Snyder Field, the original field where many of them played baseball and football when the college was a sports powerhouse. Since then, he has urged college officials to create a new playing field, one that could again be used for both sports, even though the campus no longer has intercollegiate athletic teams. He envisions the field covering the student union site and adjacent land where another structure and tennis courts are planned.
For years, Russell has given the same speech, making the same arguments, at meetings of the Los Angeles Community College District's Board of Trustees. He has visited politicians and called up activists, diligently prodding them with regular phone calls and hand-written letters.
But even his allies say he is pitted against the forces of time, bureaucracy and the evolving realities for a community college in the urban core.
"Duke has been the one person trying to change the course of the river," said City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a City College alum who has known Russell for decades. "But the river is not going to change course."
Russell says he is accustomed to long battles and even longer odds.
He helped save baseball twice at City College before the team played its final season in 2008. He spent years trying to resurrect athletics at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar. He was also the driving force behind Jackie Robinson Day at L.A. City Hall, honoring the community college alum who went on to break the color barrier in baseball.
"He's such a bulldog," said Phil Pote, a former City College baseball player and coach who has known Russell since they joined forces to keep baseball at the college in 1986.
Others may lose hope but not Russell, his friend said: "It doesn't stop Duke. He just keeps at it."
Russell persists because he's never forgotten his one semester at City College. From there, he went to Chapman College and Loyola University, then signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and played in their farm system. He later spent years working stage lights for ABC's television studios.
In recent years, he's found himself drawn back to his old neighborhood and its college. He remembers being a mediocre student at Hollywood High who kept his grades up because of sports. Just as he remembers being part of the flow of veterans — many scarred, physically and psychologically — to community college campuses after the war. "Playing sports," he said, "gets them away from the horrible memories they've had."
Yet Russell may be longing for an era at City College that has come and gone, replaced by a time of financial constraints and students who aren't as prepared for college as they once were.
In a recent interview, City College President Jamillah Moore described a campus facing severe challenges. Money is so tight that among other cuts, the college considered canceling this year's summer session, and most incoming students require remedial courses in math and English.
She said those are issues that "weigh much more heavily compared to athletics."
Moore said she doesn't disagree with the points Russell makes. But if athletics are crucial to a student, there are other schools in the nine-campus community college district that still have teams, she said.
In addition, she said, it's not her call to drastically change the building plan. The decisions have been made through the school's system of shared governance, which includes input from faculty, students and administrators, who decided a student union is needed.
"I can't look at it as a pile of dirt," Moore said. "I look at it as progress."