This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After 20 years in education, William Wade was pretty sure he had seen it all.
But when the first-year principal at Roberts Vaux High School opened up an out-of-the-way room in the stately building at 24th and Master Streets, he was shocked at what he uncovered.
“I’ve been in urban schools forever,” laughs Wade. “But one thing I’d never seen was fencing equipment.”
Just a few months later, Vaux is taking advantage of the extra resources it now receives as one of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Promise Academies to start one of the first fencing clubs in a Philadelphia public school in recent memory.
But Wade’s discovery didn’t just open the door to a new opportunity for his students. It also revived memories of the amazing journey of a Philadelphia public high school student – from nearby Benjamin Franklin High School all the way to the 1972 Olympics.
On a bright November morning, maestro Mark Masters, the founder/owner of the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, is leading a demonstration in the Vaux gymnasium.
As 25 Vaux students file into what they thought was their second period gym class, their eyes widen at the unfamiliar scene of two combatants, dressed all in white and wearing fly-like metal mesh masks, thrusting at each other with thin swords.
“What the hell is this?” a girl finally asks.
The dictionary answer is that fencing is a combat sport involving one of three types of bladed weapons – foil, épée, and sabre. Combatants attempt to “touch” their opponent with the tip of their blade. With the sabre, a blow with the side of the blade is also allowed.
“Fencing takes time and study, precision and technique,” Masters tells the students, launching into his presentation about the 10-week series of enrichment classes that he will be offering at the high school this winter.
He is met by polite but bemused looks from the teens; only a handful have even seen fencing on TV.
“Fencers have the third most powerful quadriceps of any Olympic athletes,” Masters continues, ramping up his sales pitch.
For the moment, it looks as though fencing is going to be a tough sell at Vaux High.
Forty-six years ago, an eerily parallel scene played out just 15 blocks away, at Benjamin Franklin High School. From a similarly inauspicious beginning, though, emerged one of the more astounding success stories in Philadelphia sports history.
In 1964, Tyrone Simmons was a Franklin 10th grader. A friend told him that Jim Moss, a history teacher at Franklin, was starting a fencing team.
“I said ‘What’s that?’” laughs Simmons, now 61. “[But] when he said it was sword-fighting, I said ‘I’m going.’”
As a child growing up in the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia, Simmons says he and his friends would dodge gang members to scavenge a nearby lumberyard for old wood, then “make our own swords and play all kinds of games we probably shouldn’t have been playing.”
But as a teen, navigating the dangers of the housing projects was more difficult, especially because Simmons was struggling to find his niche. No good at baseball, not big or fast enough for football, and locked into the vocational curriculum track at Ben Franklin, Simmons figured he would finish high school, then become a machinist or a carpenter.
All that changed when he showed up for the first fencing tryout.
“It was like fencing was made for me,” remembers Simmons. “It was just a natural thing for me to do.”
He spent the first couple of months serving as a self-described “pincushion,” letting the other students practice their moves on him while he tried parrying their attacks.
But by his junior year, Franklin fencing had gone from a club to an actual team, and Simmons had become the best fencer in the state.
“That year, I won the city and state championship. Then I won the junior Olympic championship,” recalls Simmons. “Twelfth grade, I did the same thing.”
By that time, fencing had started to open all kinds of doors for the slender boy from 11th and Fairmount.
“[Coach Moss] would take us to under-19 tournaments in New Jersey and Connecticut, all on his own time,” he remembers. There was a national tournament in California and a trip to Europe – all firsts for Simmons.
“My world just opened up,” says Simmons. “Friends I grew up with were standing on the corner, drinking wine. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. Fencing was an avenue for me to make my way out.”
“I wasn’t expecting to go to college,” he continues. “But Coach Moss said ‘I want you to start taking college prep classes in math and language as soon as you can.’ The very next semester, I changed my [classes].”
The Franklin team’s remarkable scholastic success ultimately resulted in scholarships for Simmons and two of his teammates to the University of Detroit.
While there, Simmons won two NCAA championships and a gold medal as part of the U.S. fencing team in the 1971 Pan-American Games.
A 1972 Sports Illustrated profile introduced Simmons to the country (see sidebar).
Shortly afterwards, Simmons reached the pinnacle of his sport as part of the U.S. fencing team in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
“I had the right attitude and I always wanted to learn,” Simmons says now, almost 40 years later. “I was always a person who liked to be the best – and who liked to look good while I’m kicking your [butt].”
Back at Vaux High in 2010, Mark Masters and his staff members are finishing up their demonstration. Despite their initial skepticism, almost 15 students have signed up.
“It just looks fun to do,” says senior Kirstan Amaker. “I liked the strategies.”
“I think it might help me with my footwork for basketball,” explains junior Shawn Williams.
Both students are still taking in the dizzying menu of opportunities that are suddenly available at their school. Amaker is also part of Vaux’s new school newspaper club, while Williams has joined the new Scrabble club.
Most of Vaux’s enrichment activities – all told, 21 different clubs – happen between 3 and 4 p.m. as part of Vaux’s extended day program, now that it is a Promise Academy.
“It’s about broadening students’ horizons and creating connections to the school,” says District Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran, who heads the Promise Academies.
“We want kids to have opportunities they’ve never heard of.”
So far, he says, it’s working. Attendance at Vaux is up 12 percent from last year.
And who knows where it will lead?
Now in his self-described “old age,” Simmons stayed in Detroit after college and the Olympics. He has worked in data processing for almost 40 years, and he has two athletic children – one a kickboxing champion, the other on the women’s volleyball team at Brown University.
“I tell kids to use [opportunities] as a catalyst to go places,” says Simmons. “Once you have that exposure as a young kid, the whole world will open to you.”