By RICHARD COWEN
for Montclair Local
He didn’t know it then, but Tom Ammiano had just run the race of his life when he finished first for Immaculate Conception High School at a track meet in 1958.
Ammiano describes his then-16-year-old self as skinny, with a high-pitched voice and an effeminate way — and as a fierce competitor who wouldn’t let asthma scare him from running track. When his airways opened and he could breathe, Ammiano was fast, he said. And that first-place finish should have earned him a varsity letter, he said.
But this was the 1950s. Ammiano said a coach used to harass him, and his players picked up on it — jocks once pushed him against a wall and pounded him with punches. Ammiano said no one ever told him he didn’t get the letter because he was gay, but it was “implied” by the way he was treated.
The school’s present-day leaders don’t dispute his account.
“In high school, when you’re different, it’s always an issue,” said Ammiano, who grew up in a blue-collar household at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Orange Road. In those days, growing up gay in Montclair “was like living with a dark cloud over your head. People thought you were perverted,” he said.
Ammiano graduated from Seton Hall University in 1963, then headed to San Francisco, where he became a teacher and jumped into the gay-rights movement. A close friend of Harvey Milk and a stand-up comedian, Ammiano’s charisma won him seats on the San Francisco Board of Education and Board of Supervisors and in the California State Assembly.
But like a runner endlessly circling the track with a baton in hand, Ammiano has carried the painful high school memory of being denied his letter every step of the way.
Now it looks like Tom Ammiano’s longest race is finally over. Sixty-three years after he crossed the finish line, Immaculate Conception plans to award him the sweater with the letter that he earned that day.
“He’s deserving of the sweater and he’s going to get it,” school President Caridad F. Rigo said. “He knows it’s coming. We just have to figure out a way to get it to him.”
Rigo said the school is also establishing a scholarship in Ammiano’s name.
“That will be lovely,” said Ammiano, who is now 79. “I guess I would wear it in good health.”
Their meeting would not be possible were it not for a random act of kindness on the part of a stranger. Back in December, Stephen Saxon, an out-of-work computer engineer, was listening to an interview Ammiano did with KQED, a public radio station in San Francisco.
Ammiano was the on the air promoting his memoir, “Kiss My Gay Ass,” a sometimes painful, often-funny account of a turbulent life spent in Golden Gate politics. Ammiano recounted the heartbreaking story of the varsity letter, and Saxon was so moved that he emailed the principal at Immaculate, Michelle Neves.
Neves turned the matter over to her vice president, Patrick Dyer, and the alumni association director, Nora Bishop. They pulled out the 1958 yearbook, then phoned another of Ammiano’s coaches, Eddie Kirk, and a few teammates.
“How could we not do something?” Bishop said. “Tom has done so much for so many people. We felt we should give this to him and right the wrong.”
Ammiano, who remains a major figure in San Francisco politics, posted the news on his Facebook page. The story went viral, and The New York Times picked it up earlier this month.
“Growing up in Montclair was not an entirely unpleasant experience,” Ammiano said. “But I always felt different.”
Immaculate started the track program in 1958. Football and basketball attracted all the jocks, but track appealed to outsiders like himself, Ammiano said. “I was 106 pounds,” he said.
Some of the specifics of what happened may be lost to time. Ammiano remembers the race as a mile; some fellow runners reached by Montclair Local remember him running relays. Ammiano doesn’t remember everyone else on his team getting a letter, but some of his teammates say that was the case.
Ammiano remembers runners earned their letters by compiling points based on their finishes at track meets. His first-place finish at the year’s final meet should have earned him enough points for a letter, he said.
“That was very painful,” Ammiano said. But he said he kept that pain to himself.
Other teammates say it was simpler — every team member qualified for a letter.
“Tommy was a member of the team and he deserved a letter,” Paul Deignan, 81, who lives in Gettysburg, Pa., said. “The way you earned a letter was by running in the meets. You didn’t have to be a standout. He ran in the meets, showed up at practice and was a good guy.”
Deignan, who is albino, recalled enduring his own form of abuse.
“The kids in school called me “Whitey,”’ he said.
Another teammate, Phil Falcone, said he got a letter, stuck it in his drawer and forgot about it. He doesn’t recall Ammiano ever talking about being left out.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Falcone, 79, said of Immaculate’s decision to right the wrong. “I hope it gives Tom some closure. I would hate to think that he would continue to carry that pain with him.”
Ammiano has occasionally returned to Montclair. The last time he came back was 2009, for his 50th high school reunion.
The track runner who left with a big hurt returned a trailblazer. He wouldn’t mind coming back.
“Once COVID is over, it would be great to come out and meet the alumni association, have a martini,” he said.