Monday, January 5, 2015

Our time at the Ontario Argus Observer

By Larry L. Lynch

Don Lynch fidgeted in the straight-back chair facing his Royal upright and placed his wire rim glasses on a pile of copy paper to the typewriter’s right. He sat surrounded by stacks of notes, clippings and old newspapers --- saved for story ideas and background.

Lynch leaned forward, closed his eyes and used his long fingers to massage his temples. At thirty-seven, he looked almost handsome despite his slightly asymmetrical cheekbones, a carry-over from the polio he suffered as a youth. He had a full head of wavy hair, a twinkle in his eye and usually displayed a half smile that showed off his dimples.

The other desks crowded into the front office of his twice-weekly newspaper, The Ontario Argus-Observer, were vacant. Lynch had saved this quiet Saturday morning, August 30, 1952, to find the right words to explain to readers why he was starting a personal, front-page column. The simple truth was that he wanted to do it and his news editor, Hugh Gale, was still on best behavior. It would be months before Gale would begin putting the phone down on a particular country cousin correspondent and walking away while she droned on.

The name Lynch chose for the column, “The Argus Observes,” almost selected itself, given the name of his newspaper. The mythological Argus, Lynch would explain to readers, had one hundred eyes, thus its use for newspapers. What’s more, it slept with only two eyes closed. Still, the name had its shortcomings. The Greek Argus failed had failed as a bodyguard, the assignment that made it myth-worthy. Bored by a lengthy bedtime story, the monster fell totally asleep and was slain.

Lynch knew it would be a mistake to come off in his new column as overly impressed with himself, but after five years and nine months as editor and publisher, he’d grown sure of his place in town. He wanted to “write easily” about his experiences and ideas using the “informality of the first person.”

For more than five years, as I passed through high school and on to college, my father did just that, aptly commenting on life in a small western town in the 1950s.

For the previous five years, he had run his newspaper under the close guidance of a veteran partner, Bernard Mainwaring, whose large bald head and vigorous physical presence was matched by a dominating personality and equally impressive intellect. My father once observed that his older partner, who avoided alcohol, had “little understanding of the inclination of others to drink because he was two drinks ahead of the average guy all of the time.”

Mainwaring owned the daily Nampa, Idaho Free Press when my father went to work for him in 1944. The Nampa publisher found something special in the former meter-reader reborn as an ad salesman and sports writer. After two years, Mainwaring decided to stake his salesman to a half interest in a weekly newspaper, one of two then serving Ontario, Oregon, population about 4,200.

Before Mainwaring and my father purchased it, The Argus had settled into a deep slumber that hardly noted the changes going on in town. In one of his last columns, the former editor and publisher made fun of himself in print for driving through a newly installed stop light on which he’d reported the week before.

Another sign of the lack of activity occurred one weekday afternoon in the fall of 1946. While my father and Mainwaring sat for two hours in the weekly’s office haggling over the details of the purchase, the phone remained eerily silent. That silence drove Mainwaring to distraction, but it didn’t scare him off.
My mother, my brother Dennis, and I rarely saw my father during the first four months of the new operation. That was the time it took to locate and buy a small, white clapboard house on a tree-lined street of mixed homes with an ample scattering of vacant lots four blocks southwest of downtown Ontario. At first, the three of us were stuck without a car in a massively ugly and cold grey stone rental house in nearby Payette, Idaho. Our wait was only relieved on Thursday afternoon when my father drove us to Ontario to join the madhouse of publication night.

I liked the smell of the mix of old newspapers and ink that pervaded the tiny store-front newspaper plant, but I hated the racket the machinery produced late on the evening of publication day. A printer stood on a platform at the side of a huge roller atop a two-page press feeding sheets of paper into place. To produce a four-page section, the operator turned the paper over, exchanged the forms holding the pages of lead type, and sent the sheets through a second time. On each revolution the press roared as the roller spun on its axis, then groaned when it reversed directions, and roared again. When the press run was far enough along that my father fired up the folder, its sound added exponentially to the cacophony, clanging away, folding and stuffing the printed sheets into something that resembled a newspaper--- when it didn’t shred them.

This was our quality family time. Women enjoyed my father, and he returned the favor. His appeal rested mainly with his ability to flatter them by listening intently. On these evenings, however, he forgot that compulsive diversion of his. And my mother, a short, striking, dark-haired dervish put to good use the work ethic she absorbed growing up on a dairy farm near Caldwell, Idaho. On these nights our parents accomplished something together.

From the outset, The Argus’ new owners planned to convince the publisher of the town’s other weekly newspaper to sell out. Mainwaring provided the operating cash for my father to undercut ad sales for that paper, the Eastern Oregon Observer, by practically giving away ad space in The Argus. They also arranged for The Argus to be delivered to everyone in town, whether paid subscribers or not.
My father’s patience with this approach began to wear thin by spring, however. He’d learned that everyone in town seemed to read the paper even though almost no one would buy ads.

Then, as he tried to keep up the pressure on the Observer, a piece of luck presented itself in the form of an editorial mistake.

Harry Peterson, a town patriarch who ran a furniture store at the other end of Oregon Street from the old Argus plant and also operated a local funeral home. One morning as my father walked through town to make a call on Peterson, he mulled over a new problem. He’d heard that Peterson was steaming because The Argus printed the wrong time for a funeral, and people around town were calling to complain.

“Harry, I’m sorry, that was a mistake,” my father shouted as he entered the store and climbed to the top of the stairs leading to Peterson’s desk, where it overlooked the furniture displayed on the floor below. “But if this mistake is so important to our readers, how is it that we don’t have any value as an advertising medium?”

From that time on, Peterson’s furniture store advertised in The Argus. Other merchants followed his lead and began to buy paid space.

That summer, the competition with the Observer came to a head. Compared with The Argus, which traced its first publication to 1896, the Observer was an upstart. Elmo Smith, an acquaintance of my father’s from Smith’s college days in Caldwell, had started the paper late in 1936 and had made a success of it, becoming a power on the local scene. He served as Ontario’s mayor during part of World War II. But by 1946, he was ready to move on. He sold the Observer that December to Jessica Longston, who also owned the St. Helens (Oregon) Sentinel-Mist as well as a newspaper and radio station in Burley, Idaho. As part of his deal with Longston, Smith had agreed to run the Observer for a limited time. Eight months later, with the competition wearing on both papers, something had to give. Mainwaring offered Longston more money than she could make by continuing to operate The Observer, and she agreed to sell. The Ontario papers were combined into one beginning in September 1947. Elmo Smith soon bought another paper in John Day, Oregon and began a career in state politics.

Through the decade my father operated the Argus-Observer, his biggest business headaches involved how to keep a back shop purring with country printers and unreliable equipment. Press breakdowns were commonplace, even after a refurbished, high-speed eight-page press was installed in a new building. The turnover among printers was even more maddening. They’d walk in the door looking for work, be assigned a stone-slab work table for assembling type, turn out a few weeks of decent ads and printing jobs, then collect their checks and disappear.

And yet the worst problem my father ran into with a printer was quite the opposite.

Before the end of this printer’s first week, the back shop foreman discovered he had to position the new guy at a make-up bench far away from every other employee and especially far away from a particularly cranky linotype operator. The guy smelled so foully of drink and bodily filth that no one could stand to work close to him. This printer required cash for his work on a daily basis. If he was paid weekly, he’d be broke within a day or two. Even so, the foreman wanted to keep him on the job until someone who could replace him walked in the door.

It didn’t work out that way. My father’s patience ran out when the printer missed a day of work but didn’t realize that he hadn’t shown up. He disrupted the entire office with his insistence that he receive the money for two days when he had only worked one.

The odiferous printer came from Yakima, Washington, so my father bought him a ticket for home, packed him a lunch, took him to the bus station, handed the ticket to the driver, and watched the bus pull out with him aboard.
He then called the printer’s wife to tell her that her husband was on his way: “She wailed, ‘Why did you have to send him home?’ She thought she’d gotten rid of him for good.”

At the end of 1952, Mainwaring sold his interest in the Argus-Observer to my parents to help finance his purchase of the Salem, Oregon Capital Journal. My father used “The Argus Observes” column of February 5, 1953 to pay tribute to the man he described as “at least a near genius as a newspaper publisher (and) the nearest thing to a genius of any one I have ever known.”

He noted that Mainwaring impressed people by acquiring a depth of information along specific lines and using it freely in conversation. He never smoked, never drank, and during the war went “careening all over Nampa on a bike, pell mell like a 25-year-old kid....I have seen him take a highball to avoid awkward explanation and then pour it down a sink or set it aside at the first opportunity. However a stranger at a cocktail party might think him the life of the party because his animated voice can be heard above the hubbub of others.”

My father believed in the value of child labor. I began working at The Argus when I was eleven, hauling bundles of freshly inked newspapers to the bus depot, drug stores and coffee shops, and riding my bike to small neighborhood groceries. Downtown I usually covered on foot. I gathered up an order or two and headed out of the back door of the plant, past a one-room cement jail that sat behind city hall. Occasionally, I stopped to jaw with a drunk still stuck inside come late afternoon. By the time I was in junior high, I picked up an extra dollar now and then by making cigarette runs for the guys drying out in the old jail. One day a printer saw me making the exchange, and reported it to my father, who put a stop to the arrangement.

By 1952, my father had fallen in love with the news side and would have been overjoyed to devote himself to it full time. But he knew that the business depended on him to sell the ads that brought in the money that made the newspaper financially viable.

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed news editors frequently walked in the front door without notice to inquire about a job. If one didn’t drop in at the right time, they were easy to procure through a help wanted ad in the industry bible, Editor and Publisher.

The turnover at the editor’s desk came to an end for three years during the summer of 1952. My father hired Hugh Gale, a veteran reporter, as news editor. Gale provided the time my father needed to begin his front-page column. And Gale provided me, at an impressionable age, with an intriguing example of what a newspaperman could be like.

To function well as a country editor, my father reluctantly conceded, it was necessary to have not only a little flair but also to be self assured enough to go your own way, despite what some of the townsfolk might say or think of you. Hugh was maybe the most independent --- certainly the most addicted to hanging out in the local bars --- of those who came along. He also possessed the ability, perhaps too rarely used, to charm most anyone with a gruff compliment. He was a pudgy, gnome-like man with a bushy shock of light, grey-streaked hair hanging over a florid face.

When he was going good, he sat hunched over his typewriter at his desk facing a long window looking into the back shop, using the nicotine-stained middle and index fingers of both hands to pound out stories.

Hugh kept his distance from the society editor at one end of his row of desks and from the two women behind him, the bookkeeper and circulation manager who took care of the front counter. But that didn’t stop the women from taking an interest in him. They learned that he was married but had left his wife in Washington, and they began to ask him repeatedly when his wife would arrive.

“My wife is a very, very large woman,” he said. “I doubt that anyone here is going to welcome her.”

When his wife walked into the office for the first time some months later, she proved to be petite and beautiful. Or, as my father used to say, “I’m really not sure how a guy who looks like Hugh and drinks like a fish ever got such an attractive woman to live with him.”

At the time he was hired, Hugh was warned “that sometimes the news was sparse and it took hard digging to get out an interesting paper,” my father wrote in a January 5, 1953 column.

“After a few weeks, he asked what I meant by dullness… The news seemed plenty active enough for him. In his first month… a man burned to death in a trailer house fire, there was a Grade A public row over the failure of the school board to rehire two teachers, the Malheur River flooded and then the Owyhee really flooded --- all on top of an active situation in school district, city and county news and plus the regular flow of the news.

“But in the in the dog days between the Fourth of July and the county fair he found out what I had been talking about. He almost walked a hole in the tile on the office floor trying to dream up stories good enough for the top front page positions.”

As time wore on --- and this was obviously related to why his wife took some time to follow him --- Hugh’s lifestyle began to impinge on his productivity.

“He is always late,” my father complained as summer turned to fall in 1954. Years later, in one of a series of pieces he wrote as part of an effort to syndicate a column about being a country editor, my father recounted the workplace sins of an anonymous “reporter we had once’’ --- who might have been easily identified by readers in Ontario:

“The talented but unstrung reporter came to work so late so often that finally I had to tell him, if he was ever late again I’d expect him to just ask for his check without waiting to be fired.

“After that, when he was out very late at night, he’d park his car in front of the office before he went home. About 9:30 the next morning, he’d come running in the back door with his hands full of notes, as if he’d been on an early morning news assignment at the city hall. He’d rush up to his desk and begin typing furiously, never looking up.

“It was easy to tell that he hadn’t been awake 15 minutes. However, even though he was an hour late, it was earlier than he’d been coming to work. So I let him think he was fooling me.”

Earlier, my father had played a different tune on his typewriter keys when Hugh actually moved on July 21,1955 to run his own newspaper in Kirkland, Washington.

Opening his column with the admission that he hated to see his editor leave “more than I had thought I would,” my father noted that Gale had “worked at the news with the abandon of a volunteer fireman. He was forever getting up at daylight to photograph the blowing of a gas well strike, or flying off to Jordan Valley to a cattlemen’s convention, or taking a rangeland tour to study the problems of range management. He took jaunts of this kind almost every week, generally on his own time.

“And he got around. He lived with the men in the street and the farmers in the fields. He made it his business to know what was going on in the community, what the average citizen was thinking. There is no substitute for this intense interest in society and not many news men have the quality in the degree possessed by Hugh Gale.”

After Hugh’s departure, my father put his column on hold. But he revived it in early 1956, and the timing of its return was less than accidental. A subject presented itself that my father badly wanted to write about --- the rise of his old acquaintance Elmo Smith to the job of governor. On January 31, of that year Oregon Gov. Paul Patterson died of a heart attack. As president of the State Senate, Smith succeeded him.

Less than a month later, my parents visited Eugene for a social event with the Smiths. Returning home, my father published a column describing how “the governor took off his coat and shoes, loosened his tie, flopped on my hotel room bed in Eugene. He looked beat from his first 17 days as governor of Oregon.”

Some of Smith’s friends in the Ontario area were concerned that the man they knew as Elmo would change under the pressures of his new job.

My father suggested they “needn’t worry.” At an evening cocktail party with old friends, Smith had “trotted around the lobby with his hands jammed in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward, his coattails flying, his hat pushed to the back of his head, and one hand periodically raising in that ‘hi’ salute, a mannerism that is uniquely his. He looked almost exactly like he did peddling ads on Oregon street ten years ago.”

During the following months, my father threw every ounce of editorial support he could justify, and some he couldn’t, into helping his friend win election to the governor’ post that November. But it wasn’t to be. Smith lost to the Democrat, Bob Holmes, a radio station manager from Astoria.

My father never admitted as much to me, but knowing the restlessness that was brewing in his soul, I’m almost certain he hoped that a Smith victory would mean a job for him in the new administration in Salem, a chance to get away from the newspaper --- and from family demands --- a least for a while.

The next May while I was off at college and my brother was in high school, he announced that he had turned the publisher’s job over to our mother so he could take a position helping to manage classified ad sales at The Statesman newspaper in Boise, Idaho, 65 miles to the east.

“This change was only possible,” he wrote in his May 23, 1957, column, “because Mrs. Lynch was willing to assume the rather demanding job of being editor and publisher of The Argus-Observer….

“In this particular case the wife is better qualified to manage the newspaper than she realizes. She has been closest to its problems for a long time, and has worked at all of the tasks required --- reporting, advertising and accounting. This is a broader background than my own because I couldn’t do the accounting.”

Time proved my father correct about my mother’s publishing skills. She whipped the staff into the kind of shape that increased profits year over year until 1963 when she decided to sell because neither one of her sons was interested in returning to Ontario to help her out.

My parents divorced and my father went on to a long career as a newspaper business manager, editor and writer. But he never again found work that was quite as satisfying. Late in life, he tried to develop a book out of his columns for the Ontario newspaper, but he couldn’t make it work. “All that old newspaper stuff and Ontario stuff as I wrote it in the rough draft would never be read today,” he concluded in a letter to me, written May 10, 1995 at the age of eighty. He then willed me his papers in the hope that I could re-direct the material “to the interests of today’s audiences.”

And in a draft introduction to the book he would have liked to write, he summed up his experience quite simply yet eloquently:

“A half century ago we had outlived our time mechanically. We were still using the same method of inking a raised impression and pressing paper against it that Gutenberg had worked out 500 years earlier. We were still printing with stinking-hot melted lead, clanking linotypes, and noisy presses. Even so we still had a sort of built-in community influence that is now as out of date as a horse and buggy. It was 45 years ago when I got in on the final years of that ancient world. I was one of the last of the old-fashioned country editors. What a privileged way to start a lifetime of journalism.”


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Friday Night Lights -- Eastern Oregon style

Jovial, chunky Dutch Kawasoe takes little credit for the remarkable showing that his state champion (Vale) Vikings have made on the gridiron this year. … After Vale won the (state) title Saturday, Dutch told the excited crowd of fans, “I wish Jerry Cammann was up here instead of me and that he had coached these kids with my help as it was in former years….Jerry knew this would be a great team, and that’s why he was willing to resign and let me to take over this particular bunch of boys. He wanted to leave me in safe hands.”… From The Argus Observes by Don Lynch, November 29, 1954

Today Vale is a still a small ranching town and still the unlikely Malheur County seat. It’s one of those scattered-seeming agricultural communities that cropped up across the West during the first half of the twentieth century. Some died. Vale has hung on. Situated on the edge of the Eastern Oregon desert, it’s not much changed from 1954 when my father penned this column about the able coaches of its dominating high school football team.

Malheur County’s old court house that was built of the same foot-square chunks of jutting grey-black sandstone as my family’s one-time and long-rued Payette home has been replaced by a plastic-paneled building that is equally characteristic of a certain age. The neon lights along A Street still welcome tired cowboys from out Juntura way for Saturday night action. Recent homage to the town’s heritage can be found in the form of a 1900 Sears Roebuck Bed and Breakfast, The Oregon Trail Inn. More typical of the Old West character that still rules in Vale, however, are the Sagebrush Saloon and BBQ and 197 A. St. E and the 7U Hunting Ranch and Sports Clays not far outside the city limits. The population, in the year 2000 census, remained stuck just under two thousand. 2,000. In 1954 it was about fifteen hundred.

The football dominance of Vale’s Vikings over nearby Ontario, Oregon, a town with population that has stayed five times Vale’s, seems to continue largely unchanged since my class at Ontario High graduated in 1956. We expected to break that hold, but failed. That’s a loss most of the class has never forgotten, even those of us who didn’t play in the game. In a way it was only fitting that in September of 2006, while our surviving classmates were in Ontario holding our fiftieth class reunion, the black-suited Vikings traveled to Ontario to power their way to another win.

To attribute Vale’s 2006 prowess to the lingering influence of the men who coached there in the 1950s would seem more than a slight exaggeration. And yet I think my dad’s November 1954 column fell short of aptly noting just how good Cammann was at coaching high school football players and at developing a program that lingered for years. The single tribute he paid Cammann was to note that “Vale has built football into a great tradition and no other person is as responsible as Cammann.”
There was no explanation of why he was so good. Maybe there was no acceptable way to say what he really thought when he had a son coming up through the Ontario football program with a class that everyone in our town expected to end Vale’s nine-year reign the very next year. By reputation, Cammann was a demanding, no nonsense coach who never let up on his kids and never, ever cracked a smile.

I think of myself in relationship to our Vale games as Ontario’s own Dick Nixon. I was fodder at the practices. But I got something beyond more somewhat more humility than Nixon took with him, which of course is not saying much. My humbling experiences as a want-to-be athlete striving alongside the talented kids in my class shaped attitudes I’ve carried through my life, just as their more accomplished victories and significant defeats must have shaped theirs. I learned early to accept that there were a lot of people better than me at baseball, basketball, football, tennis and track, just about any sport I’d decide to try out. And as good as they were, they must have learned that eventually someone would come along who was more adept.  That didn’t necessarily mean accepting defeat --- and they didn’t. Not Larry Horyna who went on to play at University of Oregon and become a major force in Oregon’s vocational education programs. Not Jerry Doman who poured his heart onto the field at Oregon State, or Earl and Verl Doman who have nurtured many good players still working their way through the football program at Brigham Young. Not Stanley Olsen who made himself into a leading local architect. Not Junior Evans who became a military aide to the president of the United States, nor Kenneth Osborn who earned a degree in dentistry, came back to town to make his contribution and, the last I knew, was still running the first-down markers when the Ontario Tigers play their football games at home.

For me, failing on the playing field meant learning how to fill the void with other pursuits. That combined with growing up at The Argus-Observer likely dictated my lifelong tie to reporting and writing as a way to be important in the lives of others.

The true benefit of high school efforts is in the player and not in the game. And it can last a lifetime, of course.

My first meaningful sports lesson centered on a home run, or not a home run. The house where I lived in Ontario fronted on a broad, graveled street and was flanked on its south side by a narrow strip of grass. Beyond that strip of grass, a wider swath of open ground ran from the alley to the street. When I was ten, that weedy strip of land made for a passably large baseball diamond through the spring, at least until my parents planted it in summer vegetables.

Most of the pick-up softball games in the neighborhood occurred on that land, with the street serving as the outfield. A home run had to clear the street without getting caught. The foul lines were less distinct, usually running along an imaginary line from home plate to an Elm tree or a fence line across the street.

I almost never hit long balls, not at ten and not at thirty. That was well understood by my nemesis, a big, mean kid with a Huckleberry Finn shock of hair and all the muscles I imagine Huck must have had. He lived in the run-down brick house across the street just behind center field and was playing for the opposing pick-up team that day. When I hit that ball, he announced that it was foul, and I began to scream that it definitely landed fair, inside the tree line.

I would not back down and, since he’d been looking for a good reason to beat on me --- or anyone else younger and smaller --- Huck-personified had no need to give in. With half a dozen neighborhood kids looking on, I weighed in fists flying, struggling to trip him to the ground. Instead, I ended up on my back looking up at a canopy of leaves and the cooling evening sky just outside our kitchen window, unable to move and feeling like I was being choked to death. I looked over to see my mother watching out the window and grimaced hard, hoping to convince her to put a stop to the fight, stalling for as much time as I could. She never showed. I thought I might pass out before I could force got out the words “Uncle! I give up! Let me up!” And I before I was actually freed, I had to agree the ball was foul.

At dinner I asked my mother why she hadn’t helped me out.
“You need to learn to fend for yourself,” she said.

By my sophomore year in high school, I had developed an understanding of my place in the athletic hierarchy of the Ontario High Class of ’56. I thought of basketball as my best sport, but the farm boys that attended country schools came to town for high school, and 6’ 5” Julian Laca was among them. The class behind us had at least five kids who were as good as I was on the court, most of them better, and I knew they’d be the ones the coaches would want to give game experience. Still, when I was cut from the frosh-soph traveling squad as a sophomore, I mooned around the school hallways, hiding out at various unused entrances, all during the lunch hour that the list went up. Nothing much eased the pain: In Eastern Oregon at that time of year, the days were too cold and stormy to turn to tennis, even though I expected to make that spring season’s seven man team. (As it turned out for the next three years I played on the second doubles team, rarely climbing above number six or seven on the boy’s team even though most of the school’s athletes were busy that time of year with track and baseball.)

My most successful sport turned out to be football --- simply because it required 11 players on the field at once. As a freshman, I was assigned to play center behind Larry Horyna. Our sophomore year, he was promoted to the varsity early in the season. From then on, I was a starter for the JV team, and we ran over every team who’d play us but Vale.

Meanwhile, my high school years were premium ones for spectator sports in the Snake River Valley. Some of the athletes who entertained us would have been appreciated anywhere in the country.

In the beginning, the most exciting player in our area was R.C. Owens, who began to redefine the position we still simply called “end” in football. In 1952 Owens came to Caldwell, Idaho, from Santa Monica, California, to play for the College of Idaho football team --- becoming the first black to attend the school.

At the time, my father was beginning to take an interest in the college’s governance problems, and traveling with him to that small city 35 miles to watch Owens play became a special treat.

R.C. would line up well wide of the rest of the line on the right wing of the offensive line and rarely throw a block --- he apparently judged it sufficient that he took a defensive player out of the action just to cover him. By the time he reached his sophomore year, covering him proved extremely difficult at this level of college competition. He was taller and faster than the opposition players, although the College of Idaho’s quarterback sometimes struggled to get the ball to him. When Owens flew down the right sidelines, the pass had to be high and long enough to be catchable but short enough to be within his reach. If the throw was good, R.C. almost always caught it and often scored a touchdown.

Here’s how my father described Owens’ play in a November 12, 1953 column, written after the College of Idaho finished its season undefeated in league play.
“A year ago Owens was sort of a sensational joke. He was a talented pass receiver but he never played any football. He just stood at his end post except on a pass play and then, covered by good blocking, he ran out to make the catch. He never played any defense. He never even threw more than one or two blocks a game. Strictly a specialist.

“This year he has been taught to play football. Now he even pulls back to play linebacker on defense, makes bruising tackles, blocks most effectively, and has learned the ball carriers’ tricky shoulder block to bound off a tackler….

“On (one) play, two Whitman lads had Owens boxed downfield right after a pass reception. Then (he) did something probably never done before on a football field. He held out the pigskin like it was a basketball, teasing the Whitman men, faked once to the right, once to the left and then trotted right between the two for a touchdown.”

When I place a parenthesis around “he” in that last graph I was covering for a grim reality from those days. My father had actually described Owens as “the big colored boy.” Contrasted with the description of the “Whitman men,” it doesn’t sit well. It was not an example of conscious racism on his part, but it shows the way he, and almost everyone who was white, thought at the time.

Owens went on to play in the NFL from 1957 to 1964 and win two Super Bowl rings while with the San Francisco 49ers. Recently --- in the spring of 2007 --- he was still actively working with youth and raising money for charity while living in Manteca, California, just north of Modesto.

One of his major contributions to the College of Idaho was to help lure Elgin Baylor there from Washington D.C. for a single basketball season.

Baylor led the College of Idaho Coyotes basketball team to an undefeated season that school year, 1954-55, scoring a record 53 points in his last conference game of the season, played at Nyssa, just south of Ontario.

Owens played with Baylor on that team, and the two were a major force in a league that had seen nothing like the pair.

Baylor, for the season, was a man among boys. His favorite two plays indicate just how dominant he was. In his Argus Observes column published March 3, 1955, my father described how on a pair of free throws, Baylor’s teammates would try to aim their second shot so that it would bounce Baylor’s direction off the rim. If the bounce was right, he’d leap high to catch the ball and flick the ball through the net.

And when he had a chance to dunk, “he jumped high in the air, shot his wrists over the rim before reaching the peak of his jump and whipped the ball downward into the net with a sharp wrist snap. Then while he completed upward motion to the peak of his jump and appeared thus to hang suspended in air, he quickly brought his hands downward in a parenthetical arc to the bottom the net and caught the ball as it emerged from the net.

“He would return to the floor with the ball having been out of his hands for the barest perceptible instant of time and toss it gently to the referee.”
The next season he went to Seattle, sat out a year, then carried the Seattle University team to the NCAA championship game in 1958, where they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats. By the next year he was playing with the Minneapolis Lakers, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1960.

It was during the early 1950s that our area produced its most famous locally grown athlete of recent years. That was Harmon Killebrew of home run hitting fame, who grew up in Payette.

My first memory of Harmon is the sight of his bulk carrying half our football team toward the goal line in the fall of 1953. He didn’t have much blocking and never made a touchdown in that game, which we won 40-0. But he went on to be named Idaho’s number one high school running back. A victory over Ontario was about all he was to be denied that year.

The summer of 1954 belonged to Killebrew even though the excitement only lasted about a month.

That June, Payette used a local semi-pro baseball team, the Border League Payette Packers, to show off Killebrew’s hitting talents. Teenagers and their parents from throughout the Valley found their way to the high school field in Payette for the Packers’ home games to marvel at his swing. During one stretch of three games, he batted twelve times and got twelve straight hits, four home runs, three triples and five singles. It quickly became clear he was going to be offered a professional baseball contract.

Before the end of June, Harmon signed to play for the Washington Senators, getting a $30,000 bonus up front and a salary of $10,000 year --- essentially guaranteeing him $50,000 over two years. It was a huge amount for a rookie at that time. He flew east to make his major league debut on June 29, 1954, under a new rule that required major league teams to keep their bonus babies on the major league roster for two seasons, even if they rarely got into a game.

On June 21, the Monday after the amazing youngster signed his contract and eight days before Harmon’s 18th birthday, my father’s column carried an account of the young man’s debt to his father --- stories passed along by Harmon’s brother Eugene Killebrew, editor of the Payette Valley Sentinel, which was published in nearby New Plymouth:

“Young Harmon had chores to do at home as a boy and sometimes when he was playing sandlot baseball his mother would send the father to fetch the son home for family duty. If Harmon was playing ball his father just couldn’t bear to interrupt. He would come home quietly and do the chores himself so his prospective ‘big leaguer’ could get in a few minutes more of precious practice.”

My father noted that his brother Eugene “has been Harman’s business manager during recent weeks when 12 of the nation’s 16 major league (teams) were trying to sign him….Harmon had about decided to go the University of Oregon, play football and then move into baseball. But when the bonus offer got so big, he couldn’t afford to turn it down. He will do his college work in off-season months until he does get his degree.”

My father later recalled talking with Eugene Killebrew during the contract negotiations they discussed whether signing before college was a good idea. One scout, apparently Oscar Bluege of the Senators, had said that the young man could be one of the great hitters in baseball. My father thought that “this is just a bunch of bullshit” and told Eugene “This guy is trying to lead you on.”

Even later, when Killebrew had proven his hitting prowess and won his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dad maintained his signing so young had been a mistake.

But for all of the interest in Killebrew, no sports event raised the interest of folks around Ontario so much as the annual football game with Vale.

My high school class' pursuit of a victory in that game came to an end on mid-fifties November night. That year it was our turn to travel to Vale for the anticipated match-up. The evening was cold and we had no locker room --- just our school bus --- to use to get out of the weather. As I recall, we were at full strength with four strong running backs in the three Domans and Stan Olsen as well as a high-functioning quarterback in Reed Vestal. The critical center of the line was at full strength with Horyna snapping the ball and anchoring the defense and Evans and Osborn at guards.

We knew that Vale’s team included one of the strongest players in the state in Gene Bates, who worked well with his backfield partner Tater Smith. But we had a strong starting eleven with a half dozen solid back-up players. As my father would write in the aftermath, “before the game sports writers and opposing coaches generally considered Ontario the better of the two teams.”

The Argus-Observer’s story of the game does not, in my mind, quite do justice to the knock-down battle I watched that night from the bench. But most of the details are there in the Nov. 7 account. The game did not start well for us:

“The Vikings received the opening kickoff on the thirty-two and carried to the forty-six. There they failed to break through the Tiger defense and were forced to kick. On their first play the ball was fumbled by Ontario and Vale recovered on the Ontario thirty-seven. From here the Vikings started their drive goal ward. A twenty-two-yard pass from Bates to Derald Swift put the ball on the nineteen where Bates kicked for a field goal.”

Bates started the Vale drive that led to his teams second score by intercepting an Ontario pass at Vale’s at midfield early in the second quarter. Swift and Kay (Tater) Smith pounded out a series of short gainers to put the ball on our ten-yard line. Bates then powered it over the goal line but the play was called back on a penalty. It was a short reprieve. Smith punched in from the three a few plays later.

What followed was our most successful sequence. As the Argus-Observer story described it: “The Tigers put the ball into play on their own forty-nine. With a short pass from Reed Vestal to Norman Olson and a series of short runs by Stan Olson the ball was brought down the Vale 24 where Jerry Doman took a pitch out from Vestal and galloped around the left end to the one. From here J. Doman again took the ball and plunged through the line to pay dirt.”

But then our kick for the extra point failed, leaving the score 9-6 at half time.
For most of the third quarter the teams moved the ball up and down the field without getting close to a score. Then as the quarter drew to a close, Vestal connected on a long pass to Verl Doman who carried to the Viking 18 before he was brought down.

With that play as a jump start, our hopes to turn the game around rose to take the lead rose high in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. On a series of short runs our backfield punched the ball to the two. There a big hole opened up in the Vale line, but the ball tumbled to the turf and although we recovered the fumble, we had stalled out. On Vale’s first play from scrimmage at the two yard line, he was caught for a touchback. The score stood 9-8 Vale’s favor and another Bates interception later in the quarter sealed the game for the Vikings.

My father felt the loss as keenly as we in the senior class.

He penned an editorial for the paper that aptly described how he felt about some of my classmates. Titled, “These Were Our Boys,” it concluded:

“It was hard to hold back the tears driving home from Vale that night. That was partly because we knew from experience the nobility of these kids in defeat as well as their grandeur in victory.

“You see, they played knothole baseball for us five or six years ago. And they really learned how to take it. They were under-age, playing with a league of older kids in order to fill out the league schedules for summer play. If we ever won a game that summer, it has long since been forgotten.

“We couldn’t help but wonder if we hadn’t given some of these youngsters such adequate early training the philosophical acceptance of reverses on the playing field, if the result might not have been different at Vale on the critical evening this November. No bunch of kids ever wanted more to win a ball game. We know because we’ve listened to them work on it conversationally for the past nine years.
“For all that, we wouldn’t trade away that summer. What a sight it was to watch the Doman kids come in to town, covered with the dust of a day’s work in the field, and then take on an evening’s work on the playing field. And Larry Horyna, crouched behind the bat, whipped the gang in those days to higher performance, just as he has in recent years.

“Another sight we’ll never forget. Horyna eating watermelon --- seeds and all --- at the kids’ picnic in our backyard. That Larry could go through more watermelon in less time than any kid we’ve ever seen.”

In basketball, most of the same athletes with some help from the towering Julian Laca earned some payback. We trounced Vale three times on the hard court that season and went on to take second place in the state A-2 tournament, with Earl Doman and Jerry Doman named to the All-State first and second all-tournament teams.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Trout fishing near New Meadows, Idaho

From the then editor Don Lynch's "The Argus Observes" column
in the August 20, 1953 issue of The (Ontario, Oregon) Argus Observer

Zimm had told me where to fish. And it had worked out all right accorind to my standards, those of a dub who does not require many or very large fish to be happy.

“There’s some dandies right here in the meadow but you have to knowhow to catch them,” he said.

It was his busy season. For two months he had refused the temptation to fish with other summer guests. But he broke down one evening last August and took me fishing in the meadow.

First we worked the pools close to the cabins using a fly and caught half a dozen little squaw fish. They were to be our bait.

Then we drove a couple of miles down the meadow and walked in a little ways to a big deep pool where the water hardly moved.

We skinned the thick meat off the sides of the squaw fish and folded it over our hooks until they were concealed.

We wore tennis shoes instead of boots so we could wade waist deep. We worked opposite sides of the stream. Our lines were pretty well weighted and we threw them in above the deep water letting they work into the holes with the current.

The action started slow. I caught the first two --- nice ten-inch trout.

There was a point and a little brush in my way and the current was wrong. It kept me from getting into the deep hole.

Then after a half hour or so Zimm caught a better one. He motioned for me to come over to his side.

I waded across. My feet found a sand bar and I walked along it close the deep water.

The dusk settled in. I could just barely see my line against the dark water. I thought I had a bite and tried to set the hook. There wasn’t any jerk and I thought the weighted line had just hit a rock or log.

Then it started to move. Clear across the pool, deep. I set the hook a little harder and went to work.

It took all the skill I had. We battled for several minutes before I gained ground and reeled him a little closer slowly.

I didn’t have a landing net and knew I didn’t dare try to lift him. So I walked backward slowly along the bar, and then moved gently to the bank.

Well sir, sliding that boy out onto the grass was a real thrill. He measured just 15 inches but it was the biggest trout I had ever caught and an experience to remember for a long time.

If all goes well, as this is read we will be back in the same region trying to play a repeat performance of the same experience. This coming weekend has been set aside for our summer fishing trip. --- By Don Lynch