Parades have always made Gerald Freeny smile. When he was a small boy growing up in Pasadena, it was tradition for him and his family to camp out the night before the iconic Tournament of Roses parade to score the best viewing spot possible, waving to all the floats and ringing in the New Year with the entire city.
Little did Freeny know back then that one day, he would become the first African American to lead the Rose Parade on Tuesday, Jan. 1, as the Tournament of Roses’ 2018-19 president.
“I’m incredibly honored and very humbled to be leading this great organization,” said Freeny, who has volunteered for the TOR for 30 years. “When I joined way back when, I never thought to be president — I never even dreamed of it or had goals to be president. I just joined to have a good time, give back to the community and bring in the new year.”
Freeny’s presidency marks the culmination of a new era in the TOR’s leadership, one that features a culturally inclusive structure reflective of Pasadena’s ethnically diverse residents. The changes have come nearly 25 years after protests shut down South Orange Grove Boulevard over the previously all-white, all-male Tournament leadership.
Sitting down to discuss his yearlong, historic tenure at the Tournament of Roses’ stately Wrigley mansion, Freeny credited his current position to his predecessors and their efforts to open up the hierarchy, noting the long path of succession it takes to become president, given the nonprofit’s structure. While Freeny was named to the position last January, a 14-member executive committee had actually slated him for the spot in 2011, when he was voted onto the executive committee, fulfilling different posts over seven years until becoming vice president, then president. It’s been the tournament’s historic structure for years, helping to ensure the president knows every facet of the nearly 1,000-member volunteer organization.
He recalled becoming an at-large member, which was when he became a committee chair and was able to become a potential candidate for the executive committee.
“When I was made an at-large member, that was really kind of shocking, that they gave me that opportunity,” he said. “That’s when I was able to really learn the inner workings of the organization and see how the whole of it functioned. You can’t just jump in and be president — you have to learn this organization, and it takes time.”
His path as the first African American president is the result of years of purposeful planning, said Freeny, who really doesn’t consider himself a political activist, but emphasizes how grateful he is to those who laid the foundation for him to move up through the ranks in the organization. Richard Chinen was the first Asian American to take leadership, and only two women have been named president.
“Without our leadership back in the 1990s, when the controversies took place, if they wouldn’t have led our organization in this direction, I might not be sitting here right now,” Freeny said. “You have to have mentors, you have to have people that are looking out for you to give insight, give you advice. I was just blessed that being an at-large member I was able to make relationships with the presidents that were coming up. Several of them took me under their wing and mentored me along my whole path here.
“We are one big family here; we take care of each other. None of us could have reached this position without being mentored, without someone in our corner to help us.”
Freeny will serve one more year on the executive committee after his presidency, and then become a “life director” on the TOR board of directors, which is made up of all living past presidents. Next year, he will hand the reins over to Laura Farber, who will become the first Hispanic women to lead the organization.
Farber noted how proud she is to be following in Freeny’s shoes, and how different the TOR committee looks today than it did all those 25 years ago.
“As the first African American, which is way overdue, we’re so happy and proud of him in what he has accomplished and the direction that our Tournament has taken. It’s really important that we are inclusive and reflective of our community in which we live, serve and participate,” Farber said. “Gerald has had a really strong year as the ambassador of our organization, he’s really gotten out in the community and fostered and created new relationships.”
Earlier this year, Freeny announced his choice for the 130th Rose Parade theme, “The Melody of Life,” to foster musical creativity in float entries, marching bands and equestrian participants. An avid lover of jazz, Freeny also chose the theme because music represents inclusivity, spanning all ages, races and ethnicities. “Music is the universal language — it has the power to not only bring us together but take us back to memories and moments as nothing else can. Rhythm, melody, harmony and color all come together to create the soundtrack that defines our lives,” he said.
Earlier this year at the TOR’s announcement of its Royal Court, Freeny also told the crowd how music has helped him during his health struggles and in recovery. Freeny has had two kidney transplants. He also is a cancer survivor, in remission from a form of lymphoma.
No matter his health obstacles over the years, he has remained committed to his volunteer efforts. A volunteer member of the Tournament of Roses Association since 1988, he has led various committees including Formation and Parade Operations.
In addition to his many years of TOR service, Freeny served the state of California for 27 years in law enforcement, and was also president of the San Gabriel chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Pasadena Police Foundation Board and the Pasadena Police Citizens Academy. He has also been on the Pasadena Rose Bowl Aquatics Board, University Club, Pasadena YMCA board, Black Support Group at Cal State Los Angeles, Urban League Board of Governors, United Way Fundraising Committee, Toastmasters and the Pasadena NAACP. Freeny has been on the advisory board of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation since 2016, and is also a member of Legacy’s Museum Committee.
Freeny resides in Altadena with his wife, Trina, and his daughter, Erica, who is also a volunteer with the TOR parade operations. As a child, Erica would tag along with her dad on early mornings to help wipe down the bleachers or test drive a float.
Trina Freeny, whom Gerald calls “his rock,” said she has loved being a part of her husband’s presidency this year. Together, the Freenys chose Chaka Khan, the multiple Grammy-winning vocalist known as the “Queen of Funk,” as grand marshal of the parade, and getting to know her over dinner was one the highlights, she noted.
“It’s kind of like being the first lady,” she said, laughing. “It’s been such an honor, we’ve had a great year and had so much fun choosing the grand marshal. We’ve had such a great time going to see all the bands and getting to know the kids.”
For Tournament CEO David Eads, who was hired at the organization just as Freeny became executive vice president, Freeny has become a mentor and always made himself readily available.
“His passion for the organization is just outstanding. Obviously, as the first African American president of the association he has set a new standard, but for me personally, he’s been a great mentor and a great coach, providing me with incredible insight on an organization that I knew nothing about before I came here,” Eads said. “He’s a terrific leader and is incredibly regarded in the community; he’s just been an incredible representative for the organization and we’re so excited for him to ride that vehicle down Colorado Boulevard with his family on New Year’s Day.”