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Epistle for Mr. McGreen

Have you ever wished you’d said “thank you” but never did?  For me, it wasn’t too late.  This essay was adapted from a letter* sent to my favorite teacher.  I just learned Mr. Wally McGreen passed away on March 19, 2022 at age 83, so share this essay as my parting tribute. 

Dear Mr. McGreen:  It’s a funny thing about life.  It takes time to realize how thankful one should be.  And, so it is with me as this letter is long overdue.  I’ve thought about writing it over the years but always found more pressing needs to consume the moment.  Today seemed perfect: St. Patrick’s Day, snowing, my children off to events, with an unengaged afternoon.

It was a very long time ago, September 1962.  I left the K–3 world of Byron Kibler elementary and began a fresh journey at a new destination, J.J. Smith.  I was one of the fortunate 4th graders to experience our first male teacher, a young man fresh out of college named Mr. McGreen. The other five classes were taught by women, as had been every teacher at Kibler.  Plus, my new best friend, Jeff Eldridge was by my side.  Surprisingly, this new teacher lived on my street in a boarding house of sorts, just a stone’s throw from our home.

Fresh out of college and a newly minted elementary teacher, Mr. McGreen, made a mark on our 4th Grade class at J.J. Smith, Spring 1963.

That fall Mr. McGreen organized the boys of our class into a football team.  Sorry girls, you were stuck playing four-square or jumping rope.  He drilled us daily through simple plays at recess.  Over and over we practiced those few calls.  Mr. McGreen entrusted me with the role of quarterback and Tim Thomasson as halfback.  Most plays were similar––I took the snap and handed the ball to Tim while linemen pulled left or right.  Mr. McGreen then scheduled a series of football games between ours and the other 4th grade classes. Though we lacked the pure talent of other teams, our tightly choreographed snaps and daily drilling resulted in clockwork plays. We crushed every opponent in that ad hoc 4th grade league.

One day, Mr. McGreen invited me to stay after school.  He pulled out a deck of cards and taught me to play cribbage.  It was a great game for improving arithmetic skills and understanding odds.  For weeks we’d play most days after school.  Soon I was good enough to play with my grandpa who also loved the game.  Decades later I taught my own children just as he’d taught me.

The annual 4th grade field trip in spring took us to the Museum of History & Industry, Ballard locks, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. What a delight to see a real hydroplane up close and personal.  Or seeing huge gates open and close watching boats magically rise and fall.  Mr. McGreen was our guide.  While eating sack lunches, he sat next to me.  Our last stop was the waterfront where we examined curios in a store with a real mummy of a Wild West origin.  What a thrill for a young boy from Enumclaw, but more important was the affection I felt from my teacher.

Near the last days of school, Mr. McGreen announced a class auction with currency from credits students had earned. We each brought in our trinkets and collectibles for all to admire until the big day, when we bid in a real auction for the items we’d lately grown to cherish.  The excitement and anticipation were no doubt better than the real thing.  I don’t recall what I bought, but my best friend Jeff purchased comic books based on classic tales like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  They seemed so sophisticated compared to the Archie and Superboy comics I read.

4th Grade, J.J. Smith (1962-63) – Mr. McGreen’s Class.                                             Row 1 (L-R): Mark Myers, Joe Sharp, Billy Kombol, Tom R., Curtis Barber.
Row 2 (L-R): JoAnne Barret, Denise Alcorn, Gail Gardner, Loralyn Walden, Linda Ralston, Naomi Langsea, Sharlene Johnson. Row 3 (L-R): Danny Stanford, ??, Jack Person, Steve Rex, Sharon Peterson, Laurie Mitchell, Don Krueger, Ken Kurfurst, Karl Uhde. Row 4 (L-R): Cindy Nordyke, Tim Thomasson, Marsha Millarich, Pam Ziltner, Janie Whitbeck, Jeff Eldridge, Diane Jones, Tom DeBolt.

The 9th year of my life was not without its challenges.  On more than one occasion I disrupted class and was banished to the hall for Mr. McGreen’s classic discipline, a primitive form of yoga––sitting with your back against the wall in the shape of a chair, but without one.  This was punishment with a purpose: to improve one’s posture, develop muscle strength, and test your ability to sit uncomfortably for long periods, all the time remembering what had brought you there. My behavior improved decidedly after a few trips to the hall.

I did well in most subjects earning A’s in social studies, spelling, and arithmetic; B’s in most others, and a C in reading.  But Mr. McGreen delivered the only ‘D’ of my school career––in penmanship!  Still, he cared.  Mr. McGreen sent home writing lessons administered by Mom where I spent hour after boring hour practicing better handwriting.  The exercise books contained pages of blank lines to be filled by copying and recopying illustrated samples.  I carefully inscribed print and cursive characters within tight parallel lines over and over––diligently trying to make my penmanship legible, or at least less awful.  Their dedication toward my self-improvement paid dividends a decade later during college finals when scripting readable answers in blue books.

The dreaded D in writing (penmanship), the only one received during my school career.

That school year ended and another began.  Again I was blessed with the only male teacher, Mr. Thornburg in 5th grade.  He too was fresh from college and lived a few blocks away in a garage apartment. It was another wonder-filled year pierced by tragedy that November.  The assassination news came over the intercom that Friday morning with students immediately sent home.

During the 1960 election, Mom supported Nixon while Dad voted for Kennedy.  Thinking the thoughts of a 10-year-old, I asked her, “Are you glad Kennedy was shot?”  She sat me down and gently explained, “Of course not.  Kennedy is our president and after an election, he became my president too.”  I still had a lot to learn.  A few months later the Beatles hit America.  I had a crush on a girl who showed me her Beatle cards and told me everything about four guys from Liverpool.  My affection for that girl never blossomed yet never faded.

She had dozens of Beatles cards, which were almost as she was.

A year and a half later I entered 7th grade at an imposing, three-story brick building on Porter Street.  The first day brought good news, Mr. McGreen now taught junior high and would be my homeroom and social studies teacher.  Life with Mr. McGreen in junior high was a transforming experience.  He entertained us with stories of growing up in West Seattle, his college years, sorority panty raids––all of it filling me with dreams of one day attending college.  Each Saint Patrick’s Day, the very Irish Mr. McGreen came to school decked out in a bright green suit.  In my 7th grade yearbook, he affectionately wrote, “To the little general – from Mr. Wallace McGreen.”  The next year he scrawled, “To little Billy Kombol.”

Mr. McGreen’s signed my 1967 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook in Junior High.

In 7th grade, Coach McGreen guided us through flag football.  It was the last year many of us turned out for that fall sport.  It was also when I first realized my youthful sports prowess would soon be eclipsed by small size.  As I look back at the photo, all my friends were there, in one place. That winter he coached our 7th grade basketball team through drills and inter-squad games played in the girls’ gym. After practice, we took long showers under hot water that lasted forever, then walked home in winter air as steam rose from our still-damp hair.  Could life get any better than this?

7th Grade Football Enumclaw Junior High (Fall 1965) – Mr. McGreen, coach.
Front Row (L-R): unknown, Dale Troy, Gary Varney, Jeff Krull, Kevin Shannon, Billy Kombol, Bill Waldock, Kris Galvin, Bill Fawcett, Tryge Pohlman.
Inset: Lester Hall. Back Row (L-R) Scott Davies, Richard Babic, Rick Barry, Jim Partin, Tim Thomasson, Jim Ewalt, Jim Clem – Captain; Wayne Podolak, Del Sonneson, Jeff Eldridge, Steve McCarty.

The cleverest assignments he ever gave, but only to select students was to create countries of our own imaginations complete with maps, history, and customs.  No extra credit was given.  We worked on our projects for weeks. I regularly compared notes with Les Hall and Wayne Podolak, who were also in on the game.  What a brilliant and inspiring activity for cultivating fantasies.  It was a remarkable way for a teacher to challenge pet pupils.

One of our biggest thrills were the State “A” Basketball Tournaments.  Mr. McGreen invited a few of us (Jim Clem, Gary Varney, Les, and Wayne) to pack into his fastback Mustang, pure status for 12-year-old boys in Enumclaw.  After driving us to the UPS Field House we experienced a menagerie of teams and colors competing for the state title.  Later we stopped at Cubby’s on Auburn Way South for burgers and fries.  Back home I swam in the glory of the evening just spent.  You can’t make this stuff up––an engaged and enthusiastic school teacher expanding his students’ horizons by offering new experiences.  It was an amazing way to grow up!

Mr. McGreen from my 1966 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook.

Time marched on.  I said goodbye to junior high and left Mr. McGreen behind.  New teachers, coaches, friends, and interests arose. High school beckoned and so did a driver’s license, after-game dances, chess team, Boy’s State, Hornet newspaper, Courier-Herald sports writer, summers selling popsicles, Saturdays working at the mine office, water-skiing, movies, malls, graduation, then off to college.  Upon graduating in 1975, I received an unexpected congratulatory card from my 4th and 7th grade mentor.  Mr. McGreen remembered me after all those years.  Being a foolish young man of long hair and little regard, I hadn’t the presence of mind to write a proper thank-you note.  Decades passed and still, I hadn’t.

Many years later, I attended his retirement party where we exchanged pleasantries.  The next time I saw him was at my Mother’s funeral.  His kindly face had aged but it touched me all the same.  I began to consider that I was but one of thousands of students he taught.  Yet he made me feel so important.  Did he know how profoundly he’d impacted my life?  A thank you message was long overdue.  A year later, I sat down and finally wrote my rambling letter much of which is replicated here.

Mr. McGreen was one of the best people in my life.  The seeds he sowed took root and my life became richer for it.  Though eons ago, his mentorship was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.  

So I’ll end where I began.  Perhaps there’s a Mr. McGreen in your life who never knew the extent of your gratitude.  Maybe this could be the day your letter is written and that gratefulness acknowledged.

* Adapted from a letter written to Mr. McGreen on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2012, from his former student, Bill Kombol.

 

 

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Musings

‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’

Some say it was ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played.’  I was there but have no memory of its magnitude. All I can remember is a box of Cracker Jack and a burning desire to own a bobblehead. Allow me to explain.

On July 2, 1963, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal faced down Warren Spahn’s Milwaukee Braves over 16 innings before a walk-off home run secured the 1-0 win for the Giants. Seven Hall of Famers played in the game: Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Spahn, and Marichal.

“On this day in sports” – the Facebook post by Bob Sims that inspired my story.

Marichal pitched 16 scoreless innings. Earlier that evening, Marichal was scheduled to bat in the 13th inning when Manager Alvin Dark asked if he still had enough gas. The fiery right-hander shot back at his manager, “A 42-year-old man is still pitching. I can’t come out!” Spahn managed only 15-1/3, until a still hitless Willie Mays blasted the first pitch to left field ending the duel. By the game’s end, the 25-year-old Marichal threw 227 pitches, while the 42-year-old Spahn tossed 201.  Today, pitchers are considered exceptional if they even make it to 100.

Until several years ago, I’d never heard of the greatest game ever played. A Facebook friend* I’d never met posted a vintage baseball article highlighting this 1963 showdown. Reading the story got me thinking. So I drifted downstairs to the keepsake chest Dad built for me as a boy and retrieved the San Francisco Giants official program I’d kept for 59 years. The scorecard inside was for the Milwaukee Braves series. Might that have been the game we attended?

The box score sheet inside the program proving we saw a  Braves game.

During each of my tween years (1962-1965), Grandpa Morris took my brother, Barry and me to San Francisco to experience city life and catch a Giants baseball game. I was 9-years-old the first time, and 12 the last. One year, Grandma and Mom joined us; on another Dad accompanied; and for the final two years, it was just Grandpa, Barry, and I.

Each trek was much like the others. We always flew Western Airlines where well-coiffed stewardesses pinned Jr. Wings to our sports jackets. When traveling back then, you dressed in a suit and tie – even kids like us from Enumclaw.

The Western Airlines wings the stewardess pinned on my sports jacket.
All dressed up with somewhere to go: Bill, Grandpa, and Barry, 1964.

We always stayed at the Maurice Hotel, a businessman’s favorite in downtown San Francisco.  It’s where our grandfather, John H. Morris lodged a decade earlier when negotiating a deal to acquire an asset-rich company on the downhill slide. During the early 1960s, the Maurice still employed uniformed bellhops who doubled as elevator operators guiding the lifts to just the right level, or within an inch or so. They manually opened the inner and outer doors allowing guests to step in and out. The building still stands on Post Street, though is now operated as Courtyard by Marriott.

The Maurice Hotel on Post Street in downtown San Francisco.

Each morning, Grandpa gave us money to buy breakfast. We walked around the block to Manning’s on Geary Street – my first exposure to a cafeteria-style restaurant. There we had the freedom to glide through the line choosing which dishes to place on our trays. With limited funds in our pockets, we carefully selected whatever juice, toast, pudding, or cereal to eat that morning.

The Maurice Hotel was four blocks from Union Square. After breakfast, we’d stroll to an alley store where paper bags of birdseed were sold. With feed in hand, we easily surrounded ourselves with dozens of pigeons and posed for the camera. Grandpa often had his shoes shined and on one occasion, so did I.

Getting our shoes shined in Union Square.  That’s Grandma and Grandpa to my right.

From Union Square, we’d catch a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. Grandpa sat comfortably inside while Barry and I held tight to the vertical bars leaning out as far as we dared, especially when passing other cable cars.

By afternoon, Grandpa was ready for a highball at Lefty O’Doul’s, just off Union Square. It was an early prototype of a sports bar with baseball memorabilia hung from every wall. This was long before televisions littered bars and restaurants broadcasting every sporting event known to man, beast, woman, or child. After his cocktail, Gramps might head back to the hotel for a nap, leaving Barry and me to explore the city on our own.

Our trips were always in late June or early July, so we wandered through Chinatown in hopes of finding firecrackers. The state of Washington had lately gone safe-and-sane, taking much of the fun out of the Fourth of July. It was a time when boys could carelessly roam the West Coast’s biggest metropolis. Today, self-respecting suburban parents wouldn’t dream of it. Perhaps there weren’t as many perverts or criminals back then, or maybe the police kept undesirables in check, particularly downtown. There weren’t yet hippies – just beatniks who by 1964, Grandpa took to calling “Beatles.”

Dinner was usually at a nice restaurant of Grandpa’s choosing, sometimes the Top of the Mark or the Golden Hind at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.  By evening we were back at the Maurice to enjoy games of cribbage and pinochle.  On my first trip to S.F., Mom and Grandma taught me how to play – first three-handed, then four. Among the generations of my parents and grandparents, playing a game of pinochle was a common evening activity. Few play it anymore and that’s a shame – it’s a fun and strategic game with just the right balance of luck and skill.

On game day, we assembled at Lefty O’Doul’s for the bus trip to Candlestick Park. The Giants outfitted special buses to carry fans for the 15-minute ride to the coldest stadium on earth. The wind blew in from left field as crisp and frigid as the waters of San Francisco Bay. And if the wind wasn’t blowing, a chilly fog might settle in. We typically sat between first base and home plate, where the sun never shone.

I still remember the thrill of walking into that big-league stadium – barkers hawking game-day programs while the smell of hot dogs permeated the air.  Grandpa always bought a program, most of which I kept. The scorecard inside listed the lineup for whichever National League team the Giants played that series. That’s how I know we saw the Braves that trip – the center page featured the full Milwaukee lineup.

In 1963, the Braves visited the Giants three times, each a three-game series: one in April, then early July, and late August. The trips we took with Grandpa were always late June or early July, just before Independence Day. Both Barry and I remember a night game; and having seen Juan Marichal pitch, his left leg extending high above his head was memorable in and of itself. This was the first game of the series with the last on the 4th of July.  We were always home for the 4th of July at Lake Retreat with the extended Kombol family. So given a day for travel, we had to have been there for ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played.’

Juan Marichal’s high leg kick.

But how would I know? I certainly don’t remember it. My focus was on the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box and trying to con Grandpa into buying me a bobblehead.  Plus, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” during the 7th inning stretch. But, most of the time I wondered if it could possibly get any colder.

I’m sure we only saw part of the game. Knowing how impatient Grandpa was, there’s no chance we stayed past nine innings. The next day’s papers carried the news, but it was just another dramatic Giants victory. It took decades for sports historians to make their ‘greatest’ claim. Willie McCovey later recalled, “I don’t think any of us realized at the time how special it was. It was just a game we were trying to win.”

Meanwhile, the next morning we were at the airport, dressed up for our flight on Western Airlines back home. Our suitcases, filled with firecrackers we’d bought in Chinatown.

Grandpa and me at San Francisco airport on my first trip, July 1962.

After the ‘63 season, Warren Spahn pitched two more years in the majors, ironically finishing his career with the Giants in the last half of 1965. He retired at age 44. Like many of his greatest generation, Spahn’s early career was interrupted to join the Army, seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned to baseball at age 25, with experience and maturity future generations can only imagine. In Boston, before the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, Spahn and teammate John Sain were the most feared starting duo in baseball.  Sports reporters condensed their pitching prowess to, “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain.”

In this greatest game, Juan Marichal retired famed home run king, Hank Aaron six straight times. During the 1960s, Juan had seven seasons with 20 or more victories, winning more games than any other pitcher that decade. Marichal’s career didn’t match the longevity of Spahn. He retired at age 37, having thrown for the Giants all but two of his major league seasons. Ironically, his last two games were with the L.A. Dodgers, the team who taunted him in his glory years. It was also the Dodgers against whom he committed his greatest sin: clubbing catcher John Roseboro over the head with a bat, an action never seen before or again on a major league field.  Sadly, Marichal’s final season lasted just two games comprised of six ugly innings.

I wish there were a story by which my nine-year-old self recognized the significance of the game he witnessed. There isn’t. That night we rode the bus back to Union Square, or maybe Grandpa hailed a cab.  To me it didn’t matter – I clutched the bobblehead Grandpa bought me, with little regard for the game I just saw.

As for the bobblehead, it recently came out of my keepsake chest for a picture with one of my baseball icons – a close friend of six decades, Jim Clem. Now here’s a fresh new memory to cherish.

My Giant bobblehead trades notes with Jim Clem, a giant of Washington state baseball.

* Sadly, the Facebook friend I’d never met, Bob Sims (1950-2019) passed away six months after I wrote the first version of this story. Had he not posted this news item, it’s doubtful this story would have come to light.  Thank you Bob Sims, in memoriam.