A varsity letter, 63 years late: California cantor helps reverse a homophobic snub

Gabriel Greschler

(J. the Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — All it took was an email for a 63-year-old wound to start to heal.

In December, Cantor Stephen Saxon tuned into KQED’s “Political Breakdown” and heard an interview with LGBTQ activist, politician and comedian Tom Ammiano.

The 79-year-old former California Assembly member and San Francisco supervisor was discussing his memoir, “Kiss My Gay Ass,” when he brought up the fact that his Catholic high school had denied him a varsity letter for his accomplishments in track because of his sexuality.

While Ammiano wasn’t openly gay in high school, others around him knew, and he was bullied by fellow students and faculty members.

“It’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later,” Ammiano said on the radio show about the varsity letter.

Saxon, a computer engineer, musician and freelance High Holidays cantor who lives in suburban Oakland, said Ammiano’s story “stuck” with him.

He wanted to do something about it.

Through a Google search, the cantor found that Ammiano had attended Immaculate Conception High School, a Catholic college prep school in Montclair, New Jersey. So he sent the school’s administrators an email asking whether they would consider awarding Ammiano his varsity letter.

“I have no direct connection with him, with you, or even with his primary political constituency, but I was wondering if you might consider reaching out to Tom and awarding him his varsity letter in the interest of healing old wounds and paying respect to one of your alumni who has lived a good and positive life and had an impressive career of accomplishment and good works,” Saxon wrote in the Dec. 17 email.

That small bit of effort — research and writing that Saxon said took about 30 minutes — set in motion an act of reconciliation and healing between Ammiano and his school. Within two months, Ammiano got a message from Immaculate Conception.

He would get his varsity letter, 63 years later, because of Saxon’s email.

“It’s like planting a seed,” said Saxon, who was interviewed for a New York Times article. “You don’t really know if it is going to grow. But over the course of your life, some things are going to grow. This happened to grow.”

After receiving Saxon’s email, Immaculate Conception reached out to Ammiano’s former track coach, Ed Kirk, now in his 90s and still in touch with the community. The school also contacted Ammiano’s former track teammate and captain, Paul Deignan. Both men told the school that Ammiano deserved his varsity letter.

In a letter dated Feb. 5, the school wrote to Ammiano saying it “most certainly would like to ‘right’ this ‘wrong’ and we, too, are more than dismayed by this situation.”

“As a community who believes not only in education, but also in the respect of individuals, we hope that you will realize our sincerity and accept our heartfelt acknowledgement of your athletic achievements,” it added.

In an interview with J., Ammiano described Saxon’s efforts as “selfless.”

“It was extremely kind,” Ammiano said. “It’s much appreciated. The issue is obviously bigger than me. That act that he did has a lot of very, very meaningful ramifications.” (Ammiano also said he first thought the letter from Immaculate Conception was a fundraising request.)

Saxon said that despite the credit he’s getting, he is trying to direct the attention away from himself.

“They say that the greatest mitzvah is where the person doing it and the person receiving the good don’t know each other,” Saxon said. “And the more attention that I get for doing something simple that just seems kind of what a person in society should do, it almost takes away from the value of it.”

A cantor for over 30 years, Saxon’s career includes eight years at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland in the 1990s. (He also had his bar mitzvah there.) He’s known for merging gospel music and Jewish liturgy, a feat he first attempted in 2006 at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, according to a J. cover story profiling Saxon in 2010.

In addition to his cantorial gigs, Saxon works in cybersecurity and IT infrastructure.

After Immaculate Conception gave Ammiano his varsity letter, he and Saxon exchanged messages over Facebook.

“I thanked him profusely,” Ammiano told J.

He said he hopes to meet Saxon one day.

“The world,” Ammiano said, “needs more Stephens.”


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