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USF renames Phelan Hall to honor former SI regent and football legend Burl Toler, Sr.

ABOVE: From left, Martel Toler ’83, Susan Carr, Greg Toler ’80, Valerie Toler, Burl Toler ’74 and Jennifer Fruit. BELOW: Burl Toler, Sr.


At USF, the name of one SI graduate came down and the name of a former SI regent went up when Phelan Hall was renamed the Burl A. Toler Hall May 9 before a crowd of dignitaries, including University President Paul Fitzerald, S.J., and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

The real dignitaries, however, were Toler’s sons, daughters and grandchildren, who celebrated the legacy of a man who was a co-captain of USF’s famed football team of 1951, a team known for being “undefeated, untied and uninvited” after being denied entrance to a bowl game despite being one of the best teams ever to play college ball.

Why the snub? The team refused to leave behind its two African American teammates — Toler and Ollie Matson. “That’s why the team should be called ‘undefeated, untied and undivided,’” said Greg Toler ’80.

Greg’s father, considered the best player on the team, blew out his knee in a college all-star game after being drafted by the Chicago Cardinals. He later made history as the first African American referee in the NFL, the first African-American secondary school principal in the history of the San Francisco Unified School District and the first African-American to serve on SI’s Board of Regents. Toler also received SI’s President’s Award in 1996, the highest honor the school bestows upon a non-alumnus.

In 2006, he was honored by SFUSD, which renamed the Benjamin Franklin Middle School for Toler, who also served as a San Francisco Police Commissioner and a trustee for USF. For these accomplishments and more, Mayor Ed Lee named May 9 Burl A. Toler Day in San Francisco on what would have been Burls’ 89th birthday.

“The USF community of students, faculty, staff and alumni is proud to recognize our distinguished alumnus, Burl A. Toler,” said Fr. Fitzgerald. “This dedication helps to ensure that future Dons will learn his name and his story, and that Toler’s legacy will live in the heart of our campus, in the heart of our city.”

The name change is fitting given the protests USF students launched over a decade ago when they realized that James Duval Phelan, an 1881 graduate of St. Ignatius College (which later split into USF and St. Ignatius College Preparatory), worked to keep Japanese and other Asians out of California. He supported the state’s alien land law of 1913, which restricted ownership of agricultural land, and worked “to keep California white.”

 “It is gratifying to see the vision and values of our community more concretely reflected in the name of a student residence hall,” said Shaya Kara, president of the Associated Students of USF. “In memorializing Burl Toler, we are recognizing an alumnus whose story helps propel our commitment to social justice and community engagement.”

Following several years of discussion and protest about Phelan’s name on the residence hall, the student senate passed a resolution to rename it. The university is exploring opportunities to address Phelan’s complex biography, as he also served as San Francisco Mayor and U.S. Senator, worked to clean up City Hall and donated money to build USF’s Campion Hall and the Stanyan Street campus of St. Ignatius High School.

“We cannot scrub Phelan from our history nor turn away from the complexity of his story,” said Fr. Fitzgerald. “Phelan used xenophobia to gain political office, and then worked for the reconstruction of the city following the earthquake and fire of 1906. It’s important that our community recognizes that the temptation to run campaigns built on racism and fear of immigration, which was typical of Phelan’s era, continues to exist today around the world.”

Toler’s sons and daughters, who attended the ceremony, included Valerie Toler, Burl Jr. ’74, Susan Carr, Greg ’80, Martel ’83 and Jennifer Fruit.

“I know my mother and the big guy were looking down on the whole celebration with pride and honor,” said Burl Jr. “My father did an awful lot to change the landscape regarding race in America, and he did this without fanfare. He never looked for a pat on the back.”

Several of Burl Sr.’s nine surviving grandchildren were in attendance — Susan’s son Justin had died of a heart ailment some years ago — “and it was special for them to participate in the ceremony,” said Burl. “All of them had great relationships with their grandpa, and they knew the details of his journey and story.”

Also in attendance at the ceremony were five members of the legendary 1951 football team, one that had more players enter the NFL Hall of Fame than any other college football team. They led the crowd in singing “Good Night, Irene” — the team’s trademark song.

“My father would have loved to call himself an SI guy, though he went to high school in Memphis,” said Burl. “He sent his sons to SI and even coached football for the Wildcats. He always had a soft spot for SI and respected the Jesuits here and at USF. He admired everything they did, especially how well they took care of his sons.” 

Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Monday June 26
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