One might say that when Gary Pennington slipped on a pair of boxing gloves and climbed into the ring in a boxing club in a rough and tumble area of Vancouver, British Columbia, his life changed.
For Pennington, boxing provided a glimpse into a world outside of the walls of the cramped rooming house he lived in with his siblings, all raised by a hard working single mother.
Although he insists he was “no Rocky,” he did okay in the ring. With growing confidence in his athletic capabilities—and with skills to boot—he went from inside the ring to out onto the field, playing soccer with some of Vancouver’s top youth teams. Although he was fast on his feet, he found the game limiting and the playing field conditions less than ideal. This led him to try another sport—rugby, “a sport I found to be much more in keeping with my free-to-move spirit,” he says.
This is more than a story about an athlete who liked to dabble in a panoply of sports in pursuit of excellence. Name a sport—including the above and tacking on basketball, baseball, handball, track and field—and Pennington, a 1959 graduate of Seattle University, has likely excelled in it. Not just in a way to pass the time but as a bona fide and competitive athlete. His love for sports carried over into his college days at Seattle University. The Vancouver, B.C., native and father of seven feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to know some of SU's legendary players and All-American athletes from Elgin Baylor to Ed O’Brien and Johnny O'Brien, Cal Bauer and others. While SU has produced many stellar athletes over the years, Pennington’s story is unique not only for his abilities to play well in several sports but also his longevity. Nearly seven decades since he first stepped into that boxing ring, he’s still active in the game of the sport and the game of life.
“Sports was my way out of what were very trying circumstances growing up on the streets of downtown Vancouver,” says Pennington, who credits many mentors, friends and his education for shaping the person he is today. Effortlessly, he seemed to excel in whatever sport he took up. He did well in track and field as a naturally fast runner (he continues to run today, participating in half-marathons.) At SU he won sprint races and the long-jump at the school's track meet.
In eighth grade he started playing basketball at the local church and by the time he was in high school he was a team captain who once scored 45 points in a game. He was on the SU team as a freshman and decades later still is active in the game—he won silver and gold medals in basketball at the master's level games in Australia.
“Sports have been a big part of my life and the most important thing for me are the fine people I have known and the relationships that I have enjoyed. I have tremendous regard and much nostalgia for the people I have played with and who have coached me in the course of over seven decades of involvement in sport.”
—Gary Pennington, ’59
But of all the sports, baseball is his “longest lasting and greatest love,” Pennington says. “I remember playing hooky from school in 1948 to hear the World Series game. I was 12 years old at the time.”
As a second grader he discovered he had some talent in the game when he found he could actually swing a bat and make contact with the ball. His love of baseball continued into high school, where his small high school won two city championships and he was the winning pitcher and top hitter. His prowess on the field caught the attention of major league scouts. While many seniors in high school are charting their next move, typically work or college, Pennington was fielding offers to turn pro, with offers from major league teams including the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. After considering his options and talking to his basketball coach at the time, he decided to forgo entering the big leagues for university life and was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, on a baseball scholarship.
Missing home and feeling out of his element, Pennington left the University of California with all intentions of returning home for good. For a while he stayed up north, doing odd jobs and considering his next move. During this time he was in touch with Al Brightman, the famed basketball coach at SU at the time, who encouraged him to come to Seattle University. Soon Pennington was in Seattle and at the university, playing basketball and varsity baseball on scholarship. The teams were full of excellent players, he recalls, and the education he received was top notch.
“I treasure the days I was at SU, the many friends I made, the outstanding teachers and coaches and the education I had,” he says. “As a former university dropout, it was amazing to me to be able to graduate Cum Laude my senior year.”
Following graduation from SU Pennington went on to earn a master’s in education. Mid-way through his studies he went to spring training with the Tri-City Braves in California. A separated shoulder injury ended his chance to go pro in baseball. So he finished his degree and returned to Canada to teach at a junior high school.
Later he would return to the States to earn a doctorate at the University of Oregon. There he captained the university’s rugby team. When he earned his degree he again headed back to Canada, where he started a long career teaching at the University of British Columbia, serving in various roles including as an Associate Professor of Education as well as teaching in the Arts Faculty. He is currently associate professor emeritus.
After taking a 15-year break from baseball he returned to the game as a member of a senior league that was starting in Vancouver. He played for a couple years and had the opportunity to play in a top level league in Australia when he was there to teach.
Now in his mid-70s, Pennington is still active in the game, playing in senior leagues in Canada, Australia and the U.S., and coaching and mentoring up and coming players. Every fall he returns to Arizona to play in baseball’s Seniors World Series. During the past 10 years he’s won several Senior World Series Championship rings with the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
When it comes to describing his passion for baseball, above all the sports he’s excelled in, he quotes his childhood hero and baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who once said, ‘People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.’"
The education Pennington received at SU and the experiences here left an indelible and positive mark on his life. He says he felt welcomed from the first time he stepped on campus.
“I want to thank Seattle University for being such a big part of my formative years and giving me another chance to play sports and learn,” he says. “I think that much of what transpired there has given me the foundation to be a lifelong player and to live out the expression that, ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’”