“Our state’s most revolutionary, innovative, and brightest” was the phrase Gov. Gavin Newsom used to describe the California Hall of Fame, according to a press release announcing its 16th class of inductees Aug. 14. Two of the seven remarkable inductees were UC Berkeley’s very own alumni — Olympic gold medalist and educator Archie Williams, ’39, and pilot and physicist Maggie Gee, ’48.
Although he was a skilled track athlete in high school, Oakland-born Williams came to campus with the intent of studying mechanical engineering, according to a 1993 oral history preserved in the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center. Williams later joined the campus track team in 1936, where he set a 400-meter race world record at the National Collegiate Athletics Association with a time of 46.1 seconds.
Williams proceeded to win a gold medal in the 400-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In the California Hall of Fame Virtual Induction Ceremony, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom regarded Williams’ victory as symbolic for challenging Hitler’s goal of spreading racist and antisemitic ideals.
In the oral history, Williams noted that after graduating UC Berkeley, he began work at a civilian pilot training program at the Tuskegee Army Flying School. Although the school became more open to Black pilots, Williams and fellow Black instructors were still subjected to racism.
“A lot of people there were bigoted,” Williams said in the oral history. “The white guys didn’t want to fly with them and all, but they found out these guys could fight, could shoot good and protect bombers.”
After years of instructing and flying through World War II and beyond, Williams retired from the Air Defense Command and Strategic Air Command in 1966 as a lieutenant colonel, according to former Cal staffer Gabrielle Morris in the oral history.
Williams then went on to teach math and computation for two decades at what is now the Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo.
Similarly to Williams, Berkeley native Gee had an immense passion for flight that led to her spending hours at the Oakland airport watching planes, one of which was piloted by Amelia Earhart, according to the Induction Ceremony.
During World War II, Gee halted her studies at UC Berkeley to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots as one of the only two Chinese-American women accepted into the program. Although she trained combat pilots and co-piloted during mock dogfights, digital records show that she and her fellow female pilots faced blatant sexism by the American government.
“We were never militarized,” Gee said in a 2007 oral history project at the Oral History Center. “Militarize these ladies, or disband us. [laughs] So they disbanded us. Congress did away with us. Even though, there was no question we did a good job and there were thirty-eight women that were killed.”
After the war, Gee returned to Berkeley to study physics and continued proving women’s worth in male-dominated fields by working at the Lawrence National Laboratory.
There, she researched war systems used in the Cold War, according to the National Museum of the United States Army.
“Both (were) distinguished U.S. military veterans, they followed their dreams with determination, excelling in their fields in the face of the obstacle of racism (and sexism in Gee’s case),” said Executive Director at the California Museum Amanda Meeker in an email. “Not as well-known as some others in the 16th class of the California Hall of Fame, their achievements richly deserve the recognition this official state honor confers.”