The first time I learned about Rafer Johnson was during the 1984 Olympics when he was the individual who lit the Olympic flame for those Summer Games. Personally, I had no idea who he was, but that was because I was too young.
My mom explained to me how he had won the gold medal in the Decathlon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. To her, he is someone she knew from the Olympics.
It wasn't until years later that I learned that he was also a very accomplished Bruin.
Not only was he a world-class track athlete, he played basketball under Coach Wooden and was a starter on the 1959-60 team. Somehow, among all this, he also found time to be President of USAC, UCLA's student government.
Last night, more than 60 years after he first came to UCLA, he was presented with the UCLA Medal, UCLA’s highest honor, in recognition of his decades of leadership in the Special Olympics and unwavering efforts supporting equality for all.
The medal is presented to those of exceptionally distinguished academic and professional achievement whose work embodies UCLA’s highest ideals.
In a UCLA press release about the award, Johnson is quoted about why he decided to attend UCLA:
It’s not just because of UCLA’s long history with athletes of color, like Jackie Robinson and Woody Strode. While I was touring campus, I saw pictures of the former class presidents, and one of them was a black student. I didn’t see anything like that at any other school. UCLA was a leader in that area, just as they also became leaders in supporting people with intellectual disabilities.
Johnson advised Eunice Kennedy Shriver and provided input into the creation of the Special Olympics and, in so doing, he became the first link between UCLA and the Special Olympics.
Johnson also holds another important place in history.
In 1968, it was Rafer and Rams great Rosey Grier who apprehended Sirhan Sirhan following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel.
In the wake of that tragedy, Rafer Johnson devoted himself to the Special Olympics to honor Bobby Kennedy's legacy.
The Bruin connections run deep in the Johnson household. Not only did Rafer's wife Betsy graduate from UCLA, but so did their daughter Jennifer who played volleyball for the Bruins while their son Joshua followed his dad's footsteps on the men's track team.
The UCLA Medal was established in 1979 and is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by UCLA. It is awarded to those who have not only earned academic and professional acclaim, but whose works demonstrates the highest ideals of UCLA. Past recipients of the UCLA Medal include several Nobel laureates, Toni Morrison, President Bill Clinton, basketball coach John Wooden, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and UCLA alumna and astronaut Anna Lee Fisher.