John Watkins has seen a thing or two in his 91 years, but standing on the Rose Bowl stadium’s field on game day in front of 95,000 fans — with another 20 million watching on TV — gave the World War II Navy veteran reason to pause.
“I told them I didn’t sink anybody or do anything heroic to stand behind that goal line,” Watkins said. “But I felt the weight of the U.S. Navy on me; I felt I was representing them, so I just did the best I could.”
That sentiment has helped the lifelong Pasadena resident lead a long and rich life, trying his best always to do right by others. But when he was called up by the Rose Bowl production team, which wanted to honor WWII vets, he hesitated.
“I just didn’t want to take the place of someone more deserving,” he said. But they needed him, they said, and they were having trouble finding vets still healthy enough to walk the field. So Watkins did as he always has; he followed the call to serve.
This past Rose Bowl game was a tradition like no other in its 133-year history. It celebrated the 75th anniversary of the game played on Jan. 1, 1942, less than one month after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. That game almost didn’t happen because the U.S. was in high-alert emergency mode, busy turning the California coast into medical facilities and military operation hubs. But officials were able to switch the game to Durham, N.C., at the last moment. The 1942 game remains the lone Rose Bowl not played in Pasadena.
“They knew then, it was about a lot more than just a football game; it was about staying strong as a country,” said Jason Martin, production manager of the Rose Bowl game. “A lot of those men who played in that game went on to active service in the military directly afterward. So my production team and I wanted to commemorate it with something really special.”
Using their connections in the military, Martin and his team went about finding veterans to honor from each military branch — the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines and the Coast Guard. But that turned out to be a daunting task, with the number of surviving WWII veterans dwindling every day. Of the 16 million men and women who served, there are only 620,000 vets still living as of 2016, with 372 dying each day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Fortunately, with the help of military friends, Martin and his team were able to track down four vets from Southern California, with just one man, Roy Earle, coming all the way from Norway, Maine, to represent the U.S. Marines.
Rose Bowl CEO Darryl Dunn said the organization has held a long-standing tradition to honor the American spirit.
“Patriotism is part of the DNA of the Rose Bowl game,” he said, noting that to honor the WWII vets and other servicemen on the field was especially touching. “It was wonderful to have the tribute at our game; it was inspiring to all of us.”
Watkins may not have “sunk anybody,” as he says, but he has lived a life dedicated to volunteerism. It started in 1943, when he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve through Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount), to be trained as an officer and sent out on the USS Niagara in the fall of 1945.
“We knew we weren’t going into battle, but we were going to bring our boys home,” Watkins said, reminiscing about that moment they knew the war was ending.
But halfway back from the Philippines, Watkins’ ship was ordered to Bikini Atoll to take part in the 1946 atomic bomb testing there. The soldiers were sent into a lagoon 15 miles away, where they saw the bomb detonate.
“We all saw the funnel go off, like the sea was spouting water, belching out all colors of fire … going up into the mushroom cloud,” he recalled, noting that the soldiers went back too soon following the detonation and were shocked at its destruction, and later concerned about the lingering effects. “We learned this: The atom bomb is not a good weapon because it wipes out too much. There was a submarine that looked like a charred cigar.”
After the war, Watkins returned to Pasadena and began his working career in administration for the Earle M. Jorgensen steel company. He also began his lifelong passion for philanthropy, creating a bachelor’s club called Los Solteros and adopting the Boys Republic, a juvenile rehabilitation group, for the club’s charity organization. Those organizations are still going strong.
Eventually, Watkins married and fathered four children — Stephen, Katherine, Johnny Jr. and William.
Now about to turn 92 in May, Watkins is as busy as ever. He is active in the Navy League of the U.S./USS Pasadena Foundation and, among other things, helps organize the annual Veterans Day tribute.
“I think he’s lived his entire life in the service of other people,” said his son, Stephen Watkins, who also lives in Pasadena. “I think the biggest lesson that he taught me is that it’s really a requirement — if you’ve been brought up in an environment with a lot of opportunities and gifts — that it’s your obligation to share them. You have an obligation to your society and community to give back.”
Watkins attended Loyola High School in Los Angeles, where he learned the Jesuit Catholic teachings and took the motto of a “Man for All People” to heart. He still attends church every day and has made it his mission to help reform Catholic education across Southern California. He has helped to singlehandedly save struggling schools with declining enrollment within the archdiocese, especially those in poorer areas.
Historically, the priest of a Roman Catholic school would be unilaterally in charge of the decision-making, from finances to discipline to education. Watkins came in to help create private boards to help oversee the school’s management, a system that many more parochial schools have adopted as it improves efficiency and strives to reduce abuse of power.
“My dad really was instrumental in saving those schools,” Stephen Watkins said, noting that his father still works with many school boards and volunteers to counsel young men who are troubled or in prison for life.
At his home recently, after returning from a funeral, Watkins recognized those long hours of volunteerism, saying he really just enjoys helping people.
“Young people ask me sometimes, ‘How have you lived such a long life?’ and I tell them: Keep being relevant. Share your expertise,” he said, chuckling. “All of a sudden, you’re very busy.”