Gordon says Penn Charter was colorblind

AARON CARTER / STAFF Roger Gordon looks through scrapbook from his days at Penn Charter.
AARON CARTER / STAFF Roger Gordon looks through scrapbook from his days at Penn Charter.
Posted: July 11, 2014

Color mattered when Roger Gordon attended Penn Charter in the 1950s and '60s. And as a high school athlete, the young man who grew up in North Philadelphia was reminded nearly every day.

He enrolled at the private Quaker school in kindergarten in 1956 and may have been the first black student to matriculate straight through when he graduated in 1969 and headed for Princeton.

Along the way, he developed an unshakable passion for sports that eventually blossomed into a 48-year career coaching various sports.

Seated in front of a scrapbook inside the Elmwood Park Boys & Girls Club in Southwest Philadelphia, Gordon, 62, reminisced on his youth when significance was placed not on his hue, but on his school colors.

"Those were good days," he said, smiling. "Penn Charter only saw two colors - blue and gold."

According to TedSilary.com, Gordon, a 6-4 forward, became the school's first black basketball player to earn first team All-Inter-Ac honors when he was selected by league coaches in 1968 after averaging 15.9 points. He repeated the feat in 1969 (13.6), as the Quakers also shared the championship with rivals Germantown Academy and Haverford School.

Although a life that straddled class and culture felt solitary at times, the meritocracy of competitive sport and the desire to beat rivals built bridges between Gordon and those at the school.

"Hey, Rog, you guys gonna beat GA?" was a frequent refrain Gordon heard from parents, students and teachers. "So you had to act right because [they] thought you were something [special] . . . It made you straighten up because young kids were looking up to us."

"I thought he was one of the best leaders that I ever played with," said former teammate Ed Enoch, now Lansdale Catholic's basketball coach. "Kids just gravitated toward Roger because his leadership was tremendous."

Enoch, also a two-time first-teamer (1970, 1972), played basketball and baseball with Gordon as a freshman and later became an Ivy League rival at Penn.

"The only bad thing that happened to Roger was that he went to Princeton," Enoch joked. "To this day when we see each other we still beat each other up about that."

"Being a jock was so different," Gordon said. "Your team becomes your family. If it was isolating in some ways, [the team] was comfort. We were one big family."

At times, Gordon's proper speech and attire drew criticism when he returned to his neighborhood after school, but even then the promise of his athletic ability still trumped all.

"The guys watched out for me," he said. "And if anything happened on the playground, they'd say, 'Hey, Rog, we're gonna have a fight later on. You don't need to be up here.' So they watched out for me; guys that didn't even know me."

As far as treatment at opposing schools, Gordon smiled and said he couldn't recall any racially-motivated incidents.

"They had a hard enough time trying to beat us because we had some good teams," he laughed. "They couldn't worry about, 'Hey who is this [black guy]?' "

He eventually parlayed that success into a Princeton career where he joked that playing behind NBA-draftees Brian Taylor (Seattle SuperSonics, 1972), Ted Manakas (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) and Reggie Bird (Atlanta Hawks, 1972) afforded him, "the best seat on the bench - right next to the coach [Pete Carril]."

Later, Gordon served as an assistant under Carril and is still a vice president with the Friends of Princeton Basketball group. After law school at Seton Hall in 1977, he practiced various forms of law, including more than a decade as a trial attorney. He was also twice appointed as a common pleas judge in Philadelphia, where he presided until 2013.

However, the opportunity for a better life provided by his parents, Roger Sr., once a social worker in the city's welfare department, and mother, Herschell, who taught in public schools for 39 years, was never lost on Gordon.

After a stint playing minor league baseball, he began coaching the sport in the '70s and is still a contributor in the Phillies Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Baseball program. In fact, the still-active baseball stadium at Elmwood Park was named in his honor in 2007.

"For me, it went a long way that people tried to help me, and a lot of people came out of nowhere to help me," he said of early coaches from Pleasant Playground in Germantown.

"I've helped guys over the years that maybe didn't 'belong' in any type of college," he said, "but they got through; they did it and are raising families, and that is good to see."

Penn Charter senior Demetrius "Meech" Isaac played basketball and baseball for the Quakers. He has never met Gordon, but Isaac did grow up playing baseball in RBI leagues near his home in South Philly (around 22nd and Oakford).

And after earning second team All-Inter-Ac accolades this past basketball season, Gordon's pioneering achievement isn't lost on Isaac.

"Definitely have the utmost respect because without him I wouldn't have . . . maybe not been able to," he said, "but it could have been more difficult for me to win an All-Inter-Ac title."

The point guard and second baseman has committed Chestnut Hill College, where he'll play both sports.

However, he does have a clear vision for black students that follow him as he's followed others.

"I just hope that when I come back to Penn Charter that I see African-Americans playing hard and never satisfied with where they are . . . even in the classroom. Their grades could be great, but don't be satisfied with where you are and always strive for better."

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