April 29, 2008
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - On a weekend of happy and poignant remembrances at UCSB, one event in the whole All Gaucho Reunion stood out -- the dedication of the Phil Womble Hall of Champions late Saturday afternoon.
Several hundred people filled the foyer of the Intercollegiate Athletics Building to experience the christening of the mini-museum in Womble's name. The highlight was a 15-minute speech delivered by Womble himself. It was not an easy task for the 71-year-old honoree, who was born with cerebral palsy, but he articulated every word as best he could, in the spirit of his motto (and the title of the book he wrote): "Never give up!"
"You're putting my name on the UCSB Hall of Champions is beyond merely an honor," Womble stated. The UCSB Gauchos' #1 fan Phil Womble, who's in his 70s despite being born with cerebral palsy, is joined by, from left, UCSB sports information director Bill Mahoney, athletic director Gary Cunningham, and associate athletic director Diane O'Brien.
Womble, honored at the insistence of an anonymous donor to the project, is beyond merely an athlete, coach or everyday fan. He is a transcendent figure. For the past 40 years -- decades beyond his projected lifespan -- he has been a constant source of inspiration to the Gaucho sports community and to everybody outside that fellowship who has gotten to know him.
Donn Bernstein, the emcee for the occasion, worked as UCSB's director of sports information when Womble became involved in the athletic program. He recalled that Womble once told him, "Never feel sorry for me. I was born this way. Feel sorry for Roy Campanella [the Dodgers' All-Star catcher who was paralyzed in a traffic accident]. He had something taken away from him."
Longtime friend Jack Fox said the first time he had a conversation with Womble, he misunderstood the nature of his disability and spoke very loudly. Womble said to him, "Jack, I have cerebral palsy. I'm not deaf."
Congresswoman Lois Capps told how her husband, the late Walter Capps, bonded with Womble 15 years ago after he saw the man in a wheelchair flashing a "thumbs-up" sign at him during his Vietnam class. Other speakers included UCSB athletic director Gary Cunningham and retired baseball coach Dave Gorrie.
Womble's last words -- "Go Gauchos always" -- must have been heard in San Luis Obispo, because that very evening the UCSB baseball team defeated Cal Poly 8-4. And the next day, the Gauchos wiped out a 3-0 Cal Poly lead in the ninth inning, climaxed by Brian Gump's two-out grand slam home run. The 5-3 victory -- Bob Brontsema's 400th as their coach -- lifted the Gauchos into second place heading into a three-game series May 2-4 against first-place Cal State Fullerton.
"Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," said Womble, who loves all sports but is especially passionate about baseball.
The Hall of Champions dedication was among many commemorative events during the All Gaucho Reunion, an annual welcoming of alumni back to UCSB. It included the dedication of the Mosher Alumni House, a handsome edifice that is being celebrated as "the cornerstone of the campus."
Over 300 people attended Saturday's last event, a dinner and induction ceremony for the Gaucho Athletic Hall of Fame class of 2008.
All the new members spoke warmly of their experiences as Gaucho athletes, even tennis player Don Gaynor, who told an interesting story about his trip to the 1964 NCAA College Division Championships in Indianapolis. It seems the university did not have the funds to send Gaynor and doubles partner Lee Reid to the tournament. Coach Ed Doty came up with enough money to buy them a one-way airline ticket. Gaynor and Reid proceeded to win the national doubles title. Then they found somebody in Chicago who hired them to deliver an automobile to Los Angeles, from where they hitch-hiked back to Santa Barbara in time for graduation.