50 years later, these Trojans still have a place to call home

Photo courtesy of Miller Fong

The USC campus is at its best. The shrubs are manicured, the unblemished cardinal and gold flowers line the planters of Alumni Park, and thousands of white folding chairs line the grass outside Doheny Memorial Library. It’s showtime.
A sea of black gowns flood into the ceremony. Underneath the caps are mostly faces freshly into their 20s. There’s a frenetic energy in the air as the youth of yesterday transition into the adults of tomorrow.

All of the graduates find their seats, while Miller Fong waits inside the grand behemoth at the center of campus, Bovard Auditorium. Except he’s not in a cap and gown. He wears a letterman jacket from his days as a USC tennis player that is more than double the age of most of the graduates in the crowd. Peeking out from underneath the deep red of the jacket is a USC-themed tie.

It’s finally time. Fong begins the procession from Bovard Auditorium, across Trousdale Parkway and through the sea of caps and tassels. As soon as the walk starts, a roar begins to build from the crowd. One by one the black gowns rise in welcoming Fong along this sacred walk that all USC students take twice in their careers — once at convocation and once at commencement. However, Fong made this walk last year. And the year before. And the year before. Oh, and 50 years before that, on June 11, 1964.

Fong is one of a few dozen Half-Century Trojans at commencement. Every year, alumni who attended USC 50 or more years ago are honored at the ceremony for their commitment to the University and their upholding the Trojan legacy.

But for Fong, something is different about this year. As he makes his way through the crowd of students, stopping to high-five and shake hands with them as he goes, he throws up a “Fight On” sign, smiling so big his whole face is enveloped in the grin. He looks around, sees his family who came to support him, but is looking for one face in particular. He scans the crowd until he sees her, his granddaughter: Brynn.

“She saw me walk by and she was waving,” Fong said, shaking his head at the memory.

Today, they aren’t a grandfather and granddaughter separated by more than five decades. Today, they are just two Trojans joined together in celebration of each other and the university they love.

That’s the beauty of the Half-Century Trojan program, says Tanya Moran, associate director of generational programs.

“When they tell me their stories about the ’60s and the ’70s and how much they love this school, you really feel it,” Moran said. “You really, really feel it.”

Fong, the son of Chinese immigrants, grew up in downtown Los Angeles in the 1950s. He was born in the back of his parents’ antique shop, just a few blocks from USC, and grew up helping them maintain it. Fong said it was his father’s dream that he attend the USC architecture school.

In 1959, the acceptance came.

“He promised — he said if I got into the school of architecture, he would dance in the streets the day that I graduated, and he danced in the streets that day.” Fong said.

Fong said at USC he was one of “only a few Asian kids” in the architecture program. He worked through college at his parents’ store to afford the $1,000 USC charged for tuition each year.

Fong would graduate in 1964 and go on to become a successful architect, returning to the University 12 years ago as an adjunct faculty member in the architecture school. One of his two daughters and two of his grandchildren attended USC after him.

“It really makes you much more enthusiastic about the University,” Fong said. “I mean that’s really true, you’re so proud of it, that you’re a part of that journey and how much it’s changed, and it does give you perspective.”

For Janet Tonkovich, her USC journey has spanned more than a century. Her grandmother graduated from USC in 1912, her parents followed suit in 1939, she and her sister graduated in the mid-1960s, respectively, and all three of her children went on to receive a USC diploma. She even was able to walk in the Half-Century Trojan graduation procession with her mother, who lived to be 100.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Tonkovich says of her time at USC. “I kept finding reasons to stay.”

Tonkovich was a physical education major with a specialization in dance. Fifty years before the groundbreaking of the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, there were just seven women at USC regularly taking dance classes with a piano accompaniment.

The women learned all styles of dance, mostly with each other, but Tonkovich recalls one instance in which the broad, heavy-set football players joined in on a ballet workshop.

“That was pretty hilarious, standing at the barre doing our ballet technique with football players trying to do the same thing,” Tonkovich said with a laugh. “That didn’t last too long, because I don’t think the guys liked it.”

Back in the ’60s, USC enforced a strict dress code for women: nylon stockings, dresses instead of pants and closed-toe shoes. For a dance major, this posed a problem. Leotards and tights don’t exactly fit the dress code, and a wrong wardrobe decision could lead to women’s judicial proceedings, Tonkovich remembers.

“My grandmother made me this sort of shift, but it looked like a jumper,” Tonkovich said. “So if I wore my leotard and tights and just slipped on this jumper she made, it was easy to dash across campus really fast without anyone seeing that I didn’t have nylon stockings on.”

Tonkovich reminisces about her time at USC fondly, but has experienced a whole different side of USC as an alumna. As an undergraduate, she was convinced she knew everyone on campus, but she said the alumni involvements — including Troy Camp, Interfraternity boards, Trojan Guild of Orange County and Half-Century Trojans, among others — have allowed her to meet alumni and friends who she was never able to as a student.

According to Half-Century Trojan President Jim Childs, this is the goal he has for the organization: to bring alumni back home.

“You can stay involved with this University for 50 years or more and still enjoy it, still find it stimulating and fun and interesting,” Childs said.

Childs, an upstate New York native, says his love for USC began not when he stepped foot on campus, but as a child watching the USC vs. UCLA football game on national television during Thanksgiving weekend.

“You’d be sitting there freezing in Syracuse, New York, looking at this guy riding a horse into the Coliseum — that was pretty amazing,” Childs said. “And it was always in the back of my mind.”

Childs studied finance at USC before pursuing a career in law. He met his wife on campus when the two had a night class together. Childs has three children and a grandson who have all attended USC.

But more than the family connections, it’s about giving back to the University that has given him so much.

Similarly, for Wilma Pinder, the Half-Century Trojan experience breathed new life into her love and appreciation for USC. Though she credits USC as being the foundation for her nearly 30-year legal career, she said she was not as involved in University life until her 50th reunion.

“It was like I became a freshman in college all over again,” Pinder said of the reunion.

After graduating from USC in 1962, she said a class she took as an undergraduate — “Law for the Non-Lawyer” — lingered in the back of her mind for nearly a decade before she made the decision to attend law school.

She would go onto become the assistant city attorney of Los Angeles.

Now retired, she serves as a board member for the Half-Century Trojans. After all these years, she says she will still go up to people in public with USC gear and give them the “Fight On” sign — a phenomenon that Pinder says she does not experience with her two other alma maters from which she received her master’s and law degrees.

“It always had the attitude of looking out for the student well after the first degree,” Pinder said.

And the Half-Century Trojans want to continue its legacy of supporting students. The organization offered 19 $10,000 scholarships to descendants of USC alumni in this past year. In addition, the program attempts to engage alumni to return to campus and see the change that has amassed in the last five decades. From attending performances at individual schools to campus tours to museum nights at the Fisher Museum of Art, the group provides a social haven for a group of former classmates who share a love for their university.

“There’s something special about connecting with people that just understand you,” Moran said of the program.