Coming Full Circle
By Mary Daily
Published Sep 30, 2011 12:00 AM
When officials of the international Special Olympics recently announced that UCLA would co-host the 2015 Summer World Games, no one was more pleased than Rafer Johnson ’59. A former UCLA student body president, Johnson was someone to whom Eunice Kennedy Shriver turned for input in 1963 when she started the Special Olympics, initially as a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities. At that time, families often hid relatives with disabilities.
Johnson, a two-time Olympic medalist, was moved by Mrs. Shriver’s plan to give that population a chance. "Being a person of color, it was very clear to me that sometimes decisions and opinions are falsely made about people based upon their color or position in life," he says.
Five years later, in 1968, Johnson was working in Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president and was present when Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson helped stop gunman Sirhan Sirhan and turned the gun over to police. Distraught, he grieved until Mrs. Shriver convinced him to honor the slain leader by helping establish a Western branch of the Special Olympics. To Johnson, his alma mater seemed the natural place to start.
"Because I'd gone to UCLA, that was kind of my home base, and it became the Special Olympics’ home," says Johnson, who recently returned to campus as special assistant to the athletic director. "For California and the western United States, UCLA was where the Special Olympics grew to what it is today.”
Special Olympics athletes came to practice at UCLA, and in 1972, the campus hosted the international Games. With Johnson heavily involved, practices continued at UCLA, which hosted more than 20 statewide games over the next 30 years.
UCLA's reputation made it a logical home for the program, Johnson says. He recalls that he decided to attend UCLA partly because of its history as a college for people of all races.
"And it's not just because of UCLA's long history with athletes of color," Johnson says. "While I was touring campus, I saw pictures of the former class presidents, and one [Sherrill Luke '50] was black. 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."
For Johnson, the Special Olympics has been a way to give back and help others. “In my collegiate career, people helped me all the way. No one can be their best unless someone helps them.”
Alison Hewitt contributed to this story.