He was a skinny high school student who had asthma, a high-pitched voice and effeminate mannerisms. He kept his distance from football players, who he said bullied him, but when his Catholic school in New Jersey formed a track team, Tom Ammiano decided to join.
Mr. Ammiano, who would grow up to become one of the country’s pioneering gay leaders, an early openly gay comedian and a prominent California elected official, found that he loved running long distance. He helped his team win meets and in 1958, his junior year, he won his final one-mile run.
“That last win put me over the top,” Mr. Ammiano said, and when he was told he had earned a varsity letter, Mr. Ammiano recalled, “I went to seventh heaven.” But before the awards ceremony, he learned that the last meet would no longer count. Mr. Ammiano, then 16, was never given an explicit explanation, but he never doubted the reason: “I was weird and different.”
The other day, Mr. Ammiano, who is 79, received a note in the mail from his alma mater, Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, N.J., that contained some unexpected news — he would finally be getting his varsity letter.
How the school reversed its decision six decades later is a story that involves a California cantor, a 90-year-old track coach and school officials who said they were determined to right an old wrong.
Mr. Ammiano grew up in Montclair, in a house next to a Texaco gas station. His father drove a taxi, and his mother was a cafeteria worker. To help pay for his sweater where his letter would be displayed, Mr. Ammiano worked extra hours as a stock boy.
Not receiving the varsity letter, he said, “was humiliating.”
“I felt shame,” he added.
In 1959, the year he graduated, American society largely rejected and was often hostile toward gay people in an era that preceded their movement for civil rights. Mr. Ammiano never publicly disclosed that he was gay when he was in high school, but said many people knew.
“If it was discovered you were a gay kid there were two alternatives: psychiatry because they thought you were nuts, or the cops because it was illegal,” Mr. Ammiano said. “There was no place to hide. No place to run. There was just nothing.” He said he could never tell his parents he was gay.
While his track teammates treated him well, others, he said, did not. He remembers one coach who used to encourage athletes to jeer at him and once cornered him and punched him. “I was terrified,” Mr. Ammiano said.
No one talked about homosexuality in school. “If you were gay, you were evil and going to hell,” Mr. Ammiano said.
“American culture in the 1950s was one of homogenization of the heterosexual family,” said Michael Bronski, author of “A Queer History of the United States” and a professor of women’s and gender studies at Harvard University. “A feminine, gay man walking down the street could be charged with being a public nuisance.”
Mr. Ammiano said the denial of the varsity letter “was a transformative moment” and it was a wound he tucked away.
After graduating from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in 1963, Mr. Ammiano took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco. He wanted to get as far away from N.J. as he could and thought that the West Coast city might be better for gay people.
In San Francisco, Mr. Ammiano became an elementary school special education teacher, and began organizing gay teachers and battling misconceptions about them in the classroom.
He entered politics and was elected president of the city’s school board and in 1998, Mr. Ammiano was elected president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He twice ran for mayor and lost, and later was elected to the State Assembly. (He also climbed onstage, as a comedian.)
His role model was Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, who was assassinated in San Francisco City Hall in 1978.
Mr. Milk’s message to gay people, to be out and proud of who they were, resonated with Mr. Ammiano. “Harvey had the courage to say it in public,” Mr. Ammiano said.
Art Agnos, a former San Francisco mayor, said Mr. Ammiano had an “an extraordinary career,” becoming “one of the first people to demand police reform decades before it became a national issue.”
He was also the architect of the city’s universal health care plan for residents, including the undocumented. “It was Obamacare before Obama,” Mr. Agnos said.
A 1999 New York Times profile suggested that “he could be the most powerful big-city liberal in the United States.”
Still, Mr. Ammiano was not known as a bridge builder. His in-your-face style and politics angered conservatives and the business community and in 1999, when he ran for mayor against the incumbent, Willie Brown, the city’s first Black mayor, he upset the African-American community.
Last year, Mr. Ammiano’s memoir, “Kiss My Gay Ass,” was published, with the title coming from a phrase he used to heckle former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his early opposition to same-sex marriage.
Mr. Ammiano was interviewed about his book in December on the San Francisco public radio station KQED, and he talked about his school’s rescinding of his varsity letter.
Stephen Saxon, who lives in the Bay Area and is a regular KQED listener, was affected by something Mr. Ammiano said: “It’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later.”
Mr. Saxon, a computer engineer who lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic and sings in temples on Jewish High Holy Days, said: “I’m not gay. I’m not Catholic. I’m a cantor.”
But he believed that “sticking up for people who are not like me is part of my responsibility,” citing “tikkun olam,” the Jewish mandate to help heal the world.
Mr. Saxon sent an email to Immaculate Conception suggesting it award Ammiano “his varsity letter in the interest of healing old wounds and paying respect to one of your alumni who has lived a good and positive life.”
The letter was forwarded to the school’s alumni association and its director, Nora Bishop, said: “It saddened me that an alumnus had that experience. I would have hoped for better.”
The school reached out to two men who knew about Mr. Ammiano’s athletic accomplishments — Ed Kirk, 90, his coach during his junior year, and Paul Deignan, the captain of the junior year team — but who had left the school by the time he was supposed to get his varsity letter.
Both men were clear. “Tommy definitely should have gotten a letter,” Mr. Deignan, 81, said in an interview.
Ms. Bishop told Mr. Ammiano in her note that “we are in the process of having a letter custom made for you and greatly look forward to awarding this varsity honor to you, although well past due.”
She also noted his work in education, civil rights and politics, saying, “You are an inspiration.”
Caridad Rigo, the school’s president, is planning a trip to California in April and will make time to personally deliver the letter sweater to Mr. Ammiano.
Mr. Ammiano posted the school’s note on his Facebook page, and added, “I’m glad this happened before I left this mortal coil.”