Friday, August 22, 2014

Francis Wai Finally Elected To UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame

It took a long time, but Francis Wai was finally elected to the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  Wai was the "Asian Jackie Robinson", replicating #42 as a four sport athlete at UCLA and ethnic sports pioneer.  However, Wai's athletic accomplishments faded into the pages of history as he was killed during World War II.  Then his name resurfaced in 2000 when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime heroics.

As a rabid UCLA football fan, I first became aware of Francis Wai when I started to collect old UCLA football game programs.   I noticed that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, UCLA had three players named Wai on the football roster, who turned out to be the Wai brothers from Honolulu via Sacramento.  An interesting sidelight was that UCLA's all time football letterman list had shown Francis Wai lettering in three years, but in fact that was the combined accomplishment of the Wai brothers.  I actually wrote the UCLA athletic department to point out the error.

I didn't become aware of Francis Wai's wartime accomplishments until reading a story about an Asian American UCLA student who went on a campaign to gain recognition for Francis Wai.  After reading about his heroics I thought Wai would be a natural for the UCLA athletic hall of fame, particularly in light of the ever growing Asian American student population at UCLA.   Consequently, I sent in hall of fame nomination papers for Francis Wai in consecutive years, but receiving no response.    Then a UCLA friend of mine mentioned that he had just joined the selection committee for the UCLA athletic hall of fame.  I thought to myself "Ha!  Finally I have an in to the process."  However, my friend told me that the hall of fame selection process was a very political one.  Many former UCLA athletes actively lobby for admission and all sorts of political pressure is exerted in choosing each year's class.  At that point I gave up hope of Wai ever making it to the hall of fame, so I was extremely pleased to read UCLA's announcement yesterday that Wai is in this year's class.

Recently, the Honolulu Star Advertiser printed an interesting article on the UCLA football team's visit to play at the University of Hawaii in 1939.  These days there's nothing at all unusual about mainland college football teams scheduling a game at Hawaii, so I never gave a second thought about UCLA's game there in 1939.  The article tells how the 1939 UCLA football team went to Honolulu by boat, which was a four day trip each way.  Besides two Wai Brothers, the 1939 UCLA football team had an unprecedented four African American football players, including three stars in Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode (later a well known character actor).  In contrast, most universities had zero black athletes in those days.  While USC had one black football player in the 1920s, they had none in the 30s or 40s decades.  So it was an interesting and historic visit which allowed Francis Wai to play before his hometown fans.

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