Seven Occidental alumni joined the Athletics Hall of Fame class last Friday at the college’s third annual induction banquet. This year’s class brings the select group of Hall of Fame honorees to just 23, out of over 10,000 athletes who have played as a Tiger at some point or another. The official induction ceremony took place at Occidental’s Jack Kemp Stadium, with honorees, friends, family and faculty in attendance.
This year’s first honoree, Roy Dennis ’33, was represented by his son Jim, who also honored the other posthumous inductees. In 1945, Dennis became the head coach of the football team after the sport took a two-year hiatus during World War II. He led Occidental its first conference championship in nearly two decades, and later oversaw the team’s Raisin Bowl victory in 1948. He also served as assistant basketball and baseball coach.
Jim, however, remembered his father for his good-hearted nature; how he would pick up trash “because it has to be done,” and how he was friendly with each of the Occidental maintenance workers. He quoted Sandy Lee, a friend who eulogized Dennis at his funeral, saying, “Roy Dennis must’ve had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known, because he gave a little piece of it to every athlete, every student, everyone who came along.”
Maxine McMasters Mitchell ’45 was a four-time Olympic fencer. In 1947, she earned fifth place in her first time at the Amateur Fencing League of America nationals, a rare feat, according to an article on Mitchell in Occidental’s alumni magazine. Five years later, she took the top spot at the event, earning a place on the U.S. team. While competing in the Helsinki games in 1952, she found herself in a four-way tie for first and participated in an unprecedented four-way fence-off to settle the score.
Mitchell would also compete at the summer Olympics in Melbourne, Rome, Mexico City and missed qualifying in Tokyo by just a few points. In 1984, she came back to the Olympics in Los Angeles—this time as a coach, and under a different flag. Mitchell coached for Panama’s fencing team that year, as she sympathized with the country’s financial struggles at the time.
Mitchell was also known for her sense of humor, Dennis said. After her first gender verification test for the Olympics, she told Sports Illustrated, “I have four children and eight grandchildren. I wondered what I was going to tell them.”
John Barnes ’52 also participated in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but for the track and field team. He excelled in the 800-meter, for which he took top honors in at the 1951-52 NCAA Championships. His most noted feat, however, was an event with the the acclaimed “best-in-world” relay team. Along with U.S. teammates Bill Ashenfelter, Reggie Pearman and Mal Whitfield, he set a world record in the 4×880 relay at a meet against the British Empire in London. His daughter, Sally Barnes, accepted his Hall of Fame title in his honor.
Bob Ashford ’52, or “Rapid Robert,” as his baseball teammates called the former pitcher, was never supposed to play a sport. As a child, a doctor told his mother that he had bad lungs, and that she should not let him participate in physical education. She took the recommendation but, yearning to be with his peers, Ashford played at his Burbank school in secret.
Ashford would continue his career at Occidental, hitting .600 at the plate and compiling an undefeated record in nine starts on the mound. He also pitched for his team as a junior in the SCIAC championships, and would join his team in achieving a 10-0 conference record.
In presenting Ashford, teammate Roy Via drew a comparison to MLB Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, pointing to their similar height, weight, delivery and strong hitting ability. Ashford never joined a professional team, instead enlisting for the Korean War, but referred to his time at Occidental as “probably the greatest four years of my life.”
Ted Tiffany ’57, transferred from Glendale Community College before joining the men’s basketball team at Occidental. Even with a late start, he would go on to hold the record as Occidental’s top scorer—with 1,336 points—until 1993. Tiffany remembered his days on a court that was 12 feet shorter than regulation standards, with walls three feet from the end line. “We never lost in that gym,” he said. His son, Randy Tiffany, spoke fondly of his father, saying, “I could not have had a better role model in athletics.”
John McGrath ’63, was remembered warmly by his track and field teammate upon receiving his award. “If I ever needed something, I called on John,” former teammate Glenn Johnson said. Their relationship did not start out that way, however. While Johnson was Occidental’s shotput record-holder when McGrath arrived—Johnson was so bold as to promise McGrath a keg of beer if he ever beat his own numbers—the young rookie soon outpaced him, shot putting 64′ 3 1/2″ inches and throwing 193’4″ in discus. Johnson promptly presented the keg to McGrath.
After his college career, McGrath joined the U.S. National team, with which he competed all over the world. In 1960, Track and Field News named McGrath the third best shotputter in the world. Reflecting on his career, he said the high point was representing his country during the Cold War and finishing second at a meet in Russia. Despite this international recognition, he was still glad to receive his nod from Occidental. “I’m both honored and humbled by this award,” he said.
Shawn Lawson-Cummings ’86, a former track and field athlete, arrived to Occidental as “a bundle of stubbornness, idiosyncrasies, strength, and talent,” according to her coach, Bill Harvey ‘67. The stubbornness certainly made for an an occasional butting of heads with Harvey—she would think up ways, for example, of getting out of his healthy breakfast regimen. But the strength and talent would show its face as well: Lawson-Cummings went on to set seven school records in the 100m hurdle.
Upon leaving Occidental, Lawson-Cummings worked as a public relations expert for organizations like General Mills and Major League Baseball. On Sports Illustrated’s list of the 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports, she ranked above Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
“She is a terrific athlete, and an even better person,” Harvey said.
Lawson-Cummings, who recently celebrated her 50th birthday, said her induction was “truly, truly an honor.”