Opinion Power to Speak: Kermit Alexander’s Remarkable Return
UCLA All-American brings his tale of overcoming personal tragedy to KELPS brother Rahim Javan’s Sports Harbour
By Thomas Pleasure, UCLA KELPS ‘61
Word traveled quickly through the UCLA KELPS’ network of several hundred members last month that Simon & Schuster had just published Kermit Alexander’s heartbreaking book, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption.”
A First Team All-American who went on to be a first-round NFL draft pick and later president of the NFL Players Association, Kermit is a legendary KELP from the 1960s.
The KELPS, UCLA’s first religious and ethnically integrated men’s group, existed from 1948 to 1970 at the express urging of head coaches John Wooden and Red Sanders. This elite spirit group was comprised of the Big Men on Campus: star athletes, student body presidents, select fraternity presidents, the campus humor magazine editor, head cheerleader and only the most daring of pranksters. The diverse KELPS were the ultimate student membership.
Kermit, now 74, was living a life earned by athletic excellence when in 1984 fate visited upon him a tragedy that none of UCLA’s 500 initiated KELPS ever had to deal with: the senseless murders of his mother, sister and two young nephews in South L.A. by a street gang hitman who struck the wrong house.
Thirty agonizing years later, Kermit has broken through that horror to the other side and brought with him a terrific tale of redemption, co-authored by two criminal justice professors.
Fellow ‘60s KELP Rahim Javan, who was a Bruin All-American wrestler, has invited Kermit to sign copies of his book on Tuesday at Rahim’s popular Sports Harbour Bar & Restaurant in Marina del Rey. Barnes & Noble will be on hand with 100 copies.
We KELPS hope to get Kermit’s redemp-tive story on the national bestseller list.
Rahim says signings will happen in front of his wall-sized photo of the 1951 KELPS of UCLA Bus, with its zany members hanging anti-nuke messages out the windows.
“I had just transferred from Fullerton JC to UCLA and joined the Fiji fraternity. All of a sudden I was a member of the KELPS — their only member from Iran — sitting on the 40 yard line at games, protecting the campus from invading Trojans, traveling to foreign campuses to cheer the basketball team on,” reminisces Rahim. “It was Heaven. I was Mr. Inside, instead of who’s that …”
Kermit and Rahim, who both earned All-American honors in 1962, will discuss their long friendship during the signing. These two were bosom buddies, Kermit tells me: “We looked alike. We were brothers from the same lodge, but from different countries.”
I asked Kermit how his membership in the KELPS benefitted him, a college student who at the time already had a national reputation.
“This was a rare integrated group of men who wanted to know each other; they wanted to have better relations with one another. With Kennedy’s election the Civil Rights Movement was heating up. The diverse KELPS — the BMOC — were proof of UCLA being an ‘open campus,’ one where minorities were not segregated but were part of the heart of UCLA.”
I reminded Kermit of the brutal joke telling sessions at our monthly meetings.
Laughing, he answered that “because we were pranksters, we joked with each other. Blacks made their jokes, whites made their jokes, Jews made their jokes and the Mormons defended themselves.”
After a short, thoughtful pause, he continued: “This is how prejudices are broken down; this is how racism is defeated. What was important is that we had the opportunity to express ourselves without it being seen as a derogatory attack. All those interactions, as funny and as biting as they were, were done with the knowledge that we trusted each other. With trust, our comments couldn’t be misinterpreted. We had each other’s backs. This camaraderie had nothing to do with color and everything to do with a ‘spiritual’ connection.”
Spiritual, I interjected, as in the nude initiation rite in Santa Monica Bay in the dead of night?
“Spiritual events were never photographed; hard to say what happened,” Kermit replied with a chuckle.
“UCLA, originally the ‘Southern Campus’ of UC Berkeley, always had the reputation of being inclusive,” he continued. “The history of African-American athletes at UCLA goes back to before the KELPS, to the late ‘30s, when Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Strode played thespian, javelin thrower and wide receiver on a football team run by “General” Kenny Washington. Even Los Angeles’s five-time Mayor Tom Bradley ran track at UCLA before World War II.
“In my era, NFL Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, also a KELP, was a role model for African-American athletes. He blazed a trail from UCLA to the ‘49ers that no one in the NFL has yet to duplicate. We follow the elders, and we try to improve upon their achievements,” he said.
When I finally brought up the nightmarish killings of his family, Kermit’s response was heart-wrenching but not surprising.
“Reading the book is pain,” he said. “There’s anger. Worse is the feeling of helplessness. Coming to grips with the reality that there is nothing you can do but pray that you survive.”
Tuesday’s book signing, however, will be a nostalgic reminder of the good times before tragedy struck. Even one of the 12 original KELPS of ’48 is coming.
In the final analysis, Kermit’s triumphant return illustrates the character it takes, and the belief system required, for one to emerge from the valley of the shadow of death.
Kermit Alexander signs “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption,” from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, at Sports Harbour, 13484 W. Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. To reserve a copy, call (310) 823-0933.
Thomas Pleasure, author of “Venice of America: The American Dream Come True,” is currently at work on a memoir titled “Autobiography of an Activist: A Serendipitous Journey from Brooklyn to Venice Beach.” He was initiated into the KELPS in 1961 as their only railroad switchman.