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From 'Flash' to Jefferson Award winner — Roland Gordon is lauded YJ4L

He came to BW with a basketball in hand and dreams of making his mama proud. His lightning-fast speed on the court spawned the nickname "Flash." Today, Rev. Roland Gordon '67 is a Jefferson Award honoree.

Gordon alongside a small section of his Great Cloud of Witnesses mural

He received this prestigious award for his illustrious work as a pastor who has fed the minds, ambitions, souls and stomachs of San Francisco's youth and adults for 46 years.

It is a proud accomplishment for the faith-filled man from Gary, Indiana, whose exaltation of "Big Daddy" (his words) leans gently into the motherly adoration he has for a kind-hearted woman whose strong religious belief shaped his childhood and life.

Gordon receiving his Jefferson Award. (Photo courtesy of Ingleside Light news organization)

"My mother was so beautiful to everyone. She was a solid Christian woman who loved people so much. She used to call me 'preacher' as a young kid. That molded my life. When I was very small, I can remember falling down while walking, and my mom saying, 'Get up, preacher. Try it again, and don't ever give up.' That taught me to be persistent, to get up and keep on trying, and to not give up," he recalled.

"I had no aspiration to be a preacher, but I see now that I was being prepared to do the Lord's work all along. I put a lot of energy into people, especially children. I have unfortunately lost a few kids to gun violence, but many have gone on to earn degrees, start businesses and live constructive lives. When they come back to visit, many bring their children and grandchildren. This is the joy of my life," he went on to say.

"Whatever I learned in my life, I've tried to pass on to young people," he said with thoughtful reflection. But in addition to sharing his own life experience, Gordon created a visual collage that has become the largest black historic mural of its kind in the nation. It began with boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

BW is featured among the many clippings. Below the photo of Kennedy is a reference to Baldwin-Wallace College.

In 1980, Gordon put up a photo of the champ on the gymnasium wall at Ingleside Presbyterian Church to inspire youth to follow their dreams and never give up. This simple gesture by Gordon — who began his ministry at Ingleside two years earlier as a seminary student hired to preach on Sundays because the church couldn't afford a full-time pastor — has become a visual legacy called The Great Cloud of Witnesses.

Today, the collage covers the entire gymnasium, multiple rooms, stairways, hallways and all three levels of the church (except the sanctuary). It consists of newspaper and magazine clippings, posters, framed prints, painted murals and other objects that depict prominent individuals throughout history.

It includes athletes, politicians, entertainers, neighborhood residents, program participants and everyday people. In 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, at the recommendation of San Francisco's Historic Preservation Commission, designated The Great Cloud of Witnesses, as well as the building designed and constructed by noted master architect Joseph Leonard, among San Francisco Historic Landmarks.­­­­­­­­

The Ingleside Community Center, also located at the church, is another valuable resource started by Gordon. The center serves students in grades K-8 with after-school tutoring, technology training, athletics and summer programs. It also offers a food bank program as well as technology classes for adults.

Jefferson Award winner

Youth playing basketball at Ingleside can look to the walls for inspiration.

Gordon is one of the five 2023 recipients of a Jefferson Award from the organization Multiplying Good, which seeks to cultivate greatness through service to others. He was awarded the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities. For over 50 years, the Jefferson Awards have been the highest and most prestigious honor recognizing public service in the United States.

While this honor ranks as a pinnacle moment for Gordon, his list of achievements spans a lifetime. As president of the board of the former San Francisco Council of Churches, he was seated in the VIP section when Pope John Paul II visited San Francisco in 1987.

In addition, he had a lengthy conversation with President Bill Clinton at a reception and made his mark with dignitaries, Hollywood stars and notable musicians.

But among his cherished keepsakes of memories is an encounter with rock star Tina Turner at a street festival in L.A., where Gordon was selling original artwork and greeting cards he created back in the 1970s.

The visual tribute appears everywhere except the sanctuary.

It was before his seminary days when his budding creative talent lured him to try his skill as an actor as well. At the time, Gordon said he was amazed to see Turner come to his booth to buy several of his Mother's Day cards. They exchanged a few words, a smile and a moment that is still pleasantly embedded in Gordon's captivating collection of anecdotes.

Lasting encounter of Brown & Gold

Born into a family of nine children, Gordon came to BW because of Booker Griffin '62, who was from the same hometown of Gary, Indiana, and also had an affinity for basketball.

Griffin later made his mark in the entertainment world as a publicist for Motown Records, a radio talk show host and a boxing publicist hired by promoter Don King to handle the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight in Zaire.

In the early 1960s, Gordon saw Griffin proudly wearing his Brown & Gold attire when he came back to visit Gary from college. After hearing what a great college Baldwin Wallace was, Gordon became BW-bound.

Gordon studied education and minored in business. He was co-captain of the BW varsity basketball team under coach Don Swegan, who Gordon said was like a father figure to him because his own dad had died when he was nine. It was a relationship that continued for decades, even after Gordon graduated. Likewise, Gordon formed a lasting friendship with Dr. Obie Bender '62, who was there when he received a 2004 BW Alumni Merit Award.

"Flash," so named in the BW yearbooks, was a leading scorer for BW

"Because of my relatively high college basketball performance level and statistics, I decided that pursuing basketball professionally, though a challenge, presented a real possibility for me to earn the kind of salary needed to build the great home my mother deserved to honor everything she did and meant to me," explained Gordon.

But it was not to be. She passed away at age 47 before he graduated from BW. It was then, Gordon says, that his passion for playing professional basketball ended and his lifetime joy of serving God through the Christian church began, just as his mother had foreseen since his early childhood. 

Legacy of love and commitment

On February 13, Gordon will be 80 years old. Though the results of a medical examination determined he should no longer attempt any fast moves, the man known as "Flash" to many is still considered to be one of the masters of the hardwood.

His wit, wisdom and compassion are the strongholds that endear him to youth, his congregation, his community and most of the people he encounters.

The legacy he carries forward goes beyond the boy whose mama saw his charitable path long before he did. His legacy is that of love and commitment — a sacrifice draped around a cross like the shroud of the savior whose life he tries to emulate.

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