Tournament of Roses Pres. Gerald Freeny sings ‘The Melody of Life’

Gerald Freeny, president of the 2019 Tournament of Roses, at Tournament House. Photo by LB Monteros

by Laura Berthold Monteros

With the Tournament of Roses looking to add more “entertainment value” over the past few years, Pres. Gerald Freeny’s theme for the 2019 Rose Parade, “The Melody of Life,” seems tailor made. But it means more to Freeny than just the excitement that The Forum float with Earth, Wind & Fire brought to the 2018 parade. We had the opportunity chat at Tournament House on Monday about the 130th Rose Parade and 105th Rose Bowl Game, which will be held on Jan. 1, 2019.

“Music is the universal language. It’s something that soothes us, calms us, heals us,” Freeny said. It brings families together and makes enemies into friends, breaks down barriers, breaks down walls, identifies things we have in common. Music brings back memories of special people and loved ones. When Earth, Wind & Fire performed, he said, “everyone was dancing. It brought joy to everyone.”

With music touching nearly everyone, the theme opens many possibilities for float design. “The Melody of Life” fits well with serious and humorous themes, and opens opportunities for performers in all genres of music. Freeny noted that a choir could be on board a float, and music could be gospel, jazz, contemporary, Motown. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrating its 100th anniversary, it could even be classical.

When we asked who his favorite artists are, he had to think. He definitely favors jazz saxophone players though; he mentioned Kenny G, Grover Washington, Jr., Boney James, and Stanley Turrentine, with a nod to guitarist Wes Montgomery. Motown’s high on his list, with the Four Tops, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Lionel Richie getting first mentions.

Life in song

Freeny’s alma mater, John Muir High School in Pasadena, had a reputation for music and sports at the time. He chose sports, but he noted that there was music on in the locker room. On Sunday, he was watching ESPN and noticed how many headsets the players had as they walked out to the field and back into the locker room.

“Music, as well as bringing people together, ties families together,” he said. On holidays when family is together, there’s always music on at his house. Music reminds people of these special memories and the people and loved ones they bring to mind. He recalled watching his grandparents dance, and his grandmother playing the hymn “Blessed Assurance.”

“Family plays a major part here in the Tournament, and a major part in the holidays,” he said, emphasizing that the organization is a family as well.

By the time a Tournament of Roses member reaches the presidency, he or she has served on many committees, so we asked which one was his favorite. “I love Parade Operations, because I was in control of the whole parade,” he said, though it was challenging. He chaired the committee for the 2011 parade, with Gary Throop as  president and Paula Deen as Grand Marshal. “I wanted to give a good parade to the spectators and sponsors.” He said it was exciting to see a float being put together from start to finish, from the bare chassis to the finished product.

Freeny’s volunteer commitments are long and impressive; they are listed here. How does he manage it? He said that it comes down to good time management. Some of the work was in the past, and he’s now retired. After this year as president and next as past-president, he will be done with his commitment to the Tournament.

Themes of life

There’s another reason for “The Melody of Life.” Last year, Freeny filled in for Pres. Lance Tibbet at a Donate Life event. He spoke, and he meet recipients and families of donors, and shared his story.

“I do have some health issues. My wife watches me a lot,” he shared. “One thing is very important to me. I want to get involved with Donate Life.” Freeny knows first-hand about organ donation. He received a liver transplant on July 12, 1993 and another liver and kidney donation on July 14, 2015. “The first one lasted 22 years,” he said. In the hospital, listening to music was soothing. “I really take care of my body. That’s where music comes in. That’s why music is so important.”

With such an expansive theme, it’s difficult to make guesses about who the Grand Marshal might be. Freeny said they are working on several. He, his wife Trina, and adult daughter Erica are “praying to get who we really, really want.” They aren’t short on suggestions, though. One was Condoleeza Rice, who is a highly talented pianist as well as having served as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State for George W. Bush. Even her name is melodious: It’s derived from con dolcezza, a musical term meaning “with sweetness.” LA Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel has been mentioned, but Freeny’s frat brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi are pushing for someone from Motown. He even opined that it could be more than one, as Brad Ratliff had in the 2017 parade.

Tuning into history

The historic nature of Freeny’s position as the first African-American president of the Tournament of Roses cannot be denied. On the one hand, the Tournament is a meritocracy, and promotion within the organization is based on hours served, committee assignments, and leadership ability. The person who makes it to the top each year has a proven track record. On the other hand, it takes around 30 years to move from new member to president, so change is slow in coming, even when an organization has made a concerted effort to diversify, as the Tournament has.

The first female president was Libby Wright in 2006, and it was seven years before the second, Sally Bixby. The first Asian-American was Richard Chinen in 2015 and the first Latina will be Laura Farber in 2020. The importance of this to Pasadenans is that the city and surrounding communities from which the Tournament draws members are ethnically diverse. A glance at the annual photo of new members or the White Suiters at the Rose Parade, Rose Bowl Game, and the many other events, shows that each year that diversity is more closely represented.

Freeny said, “I’m just honored and privileged to be the president. Our organization has made great strides since I joined…. I also want to stress that in 1993, if our leadership didn’t take the steps it did, a lot of us wouldn’t be where we are. We’ve come a long way to make our organization better.”

When Freeny applied for membership in 1988, he was sponsored by two current members. We asked if sponsorship resulted in a tendency for members to sponsor people that looked like them. He said, “Now you don’t have to be sponsored by a member. You just need two referral letters. It opens up [the membership].” Referrals can come from pastors, the mayor or a council member, anyone who can vouch for the applicant’s character.

Another step towards diversity is active recruitment by the membership and public relations departments, which go into every community to expose people of other cultures and the mission and family culture of the Tournament of Roses.

“I tell them, it’s the Granddaddy of Them All!” he said, using the slogan for the Rose Bowl Game. “It’s about community, it’s about family, it’s about fun. Come join us!”

Sing your own song

“I’m privileged to lead this great organization. The board of directors has put faith in me. I don’t want to let them down.” He said that past-presidents have told him that if a president is humble and lets people know “the real you,” he or she will be successful. “Be yourself,” he added.

“Be yourself” is one of the things the young women on the Royal Court stress, when asked for advice on how to make the cut from nearly 1,000 hopefuls to the seven-member court. Freeny served on the Queen & Court Committee for two years, 1996-97. The faces on the court have also changed in the 40 years Freeny has been on the Tournament.

“We do more outreach, go to schools, talk to young ladies and tell them everyone can try out.” The committee looks for girls who can speak, are people persons, diverse, and can talk to anyone. (As someone who has spoken to many members of the Royal Court, The Rose Examiner can affirm that diversity is not only ethnic, but in personality and interests as well.)

“It’s like music,” Freeny said. “It’s universal. [We want] young ladies who can adapt to any circumstances…. More minority young ladies see they do have an opportunity to become the queen. Black, Asian, Armenian—it’s diverse. The sky’s the limit.”

We noted that the young women on the court are very aware that they are role models to youngsters, and asked if Freeny sees himself as a role model.

“The only thing I can say is that I’m involved in the community with young African-American men through my fraternity.” He said that when he joined the Tournament of Roses, he didn’t think he would be president, and it wasn’t necessarily his aspiration, but he did what he tells young men to do: “Set goals. If the door’s open, take the opportunity. Have pride in yourself, love yourself.

“Don’t [strive] to be like me. Be yourself. If you have family, take care of your family. Don’t do drugs, don’t do gangs. Take life seriously. If you surround yourself with positive people, you will be positive. If you surround yourself with people who want to succeed, you will succeed. It doesn’t matter what race you are.”

And one last word from Prez Gerald: “Come out on Jan. 1, 2019. It will be one of the greatest parades we’ve ever had. All our parades are good. Come celebrate with us!”


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