RICHLAND — Toivo Piippo describes himself as a young 84, and there are times when he relates his remarkable adventures as a war hero, basketball star and coach that time does seem to stand still.
Piippo is recovering from his second open heart surgery, this time he had a pacemaker installed, but it seems to have barely slowed him down.
In fact, you can spot him nearly every day watering his roses on Sacramento Boulevard in Richland or see him when he takes off on one of his two-mile walks every morning.
He's not exactly the Flying Finn, as he used to be known as a star basketball player at the University of Oregon, but he remains surprisingly spry.
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"I lost some strength, but it's coming back," Piippo said. "It takes time to match the pacemaker to your activity level, and that's what I'm going through that now."
Piippo has been retired for more than 20 years, yet the principles that guided his career remain vibrant. He is one of those truly fine coaches who always cared more about the kind of excellence that goes far beyond winning and losing.
It's not that Piippo's teams ever lost very often during his coaching career - his record at Chief Joseph Middle School was once estimated to be 390-30 - it's just that other things took a higher precedence.
Piippo's principles were to play a lot of kids, to make athletics a positive experience for anyone who wanted to participate and to ensure that it truly was educational.
Mention his name in Richland and the conversation usually takes on a reverential tone. When the school district dawdled in naming the Chief Joseph gym in his honor, more than 1,000 former students signed a petition to get them moving.
Perhaps the reason that Piippo was able to concentrate on the truly important things was because he had done so much by the time he began coaching that he didn't really need it to define himself.
Piippo is one of two surviving players on the so-called Tall Firs team that won an NCAA men's basketball championship at Oregon in 1939. War ended his collegiate career in the middle of his junior year.
Piippo became a hero in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross before battle fatigue grounded him.
At the time, the nation's war policy called for "maximum effort."
That meant men continued to be sent into battle until they showed symptoms of battle fatigue. For some men, that was two or three missions. For others, a dozen. For Piippo, it was 67.
"When I came out of the war I was in bad shape," Piippo said. "You flew until you couldn't hack it anymore, until you fell apart. When all sorts of bad things started happening to you, the medical people called that 'maximum effort' and I had reached it."
Piippo spent three months in a hospital in Spokane recovering from the many symptoms of battle fatigue and then several more months as an out-patient.
Piippo had no idea where Richland was when he was invited to interview for a job that wasn't even open. He was asked to interview for the head basketball coach at Richland High in case Art Dawald took a job at Gonzaga University.
When Dawald stayed at Richland, Piippo was offered a job as at Chief Joseph to teach health, science, physical education and coach basketball.
Reluctantly, he agreed although neither he nor wife Laurel had ever been to Richland. As they drove into town and he told her that they had arrived, she cried.
"It's a miracle that he survived both World War II and me," Laurel said. "It must be that Finnish, granite-headed determination."
In fact, at first, neither was very happy to be in Richland.
"It took about six months before I really started enjoying being with those kids," Piippo said. "One of the symptoms of battle fatigue is withdrawal from authority. I think the reason I liked the kids so much as because it was a place where I felt secure, and I'm very grateful I found it."
Piippo coached kids for 30 years and the gym now bears his name and Laurel is now a retired teacher and active world traveler. They have been married for 51 years and have two sons, Steve and Robert, and seven grandchildren (Tracy, Kara, Kristi, Scott, Nick, Micah and Stevie).
Piippo considers his work with kids as his most significant accomplishment and he's especially proud of the Richland summer basketball program that still flourishes.
The program began when Piippo discovered an unused slab of cement below the high school in the early 1950s.
"When I came here there was nothing but sand and dust storms and so when summer came there wasn't much to do," Piippo said. "I had a real love for basketball so one day I decided I was going to clean that slab as a place to play basketball."
It wasn't easy work.
"I went everywhere trying to get help and everyone just kind of looked at me," Piippo said. "Finally there was a guy in the maintenance department who gave me sharp tools to work on that slab. There were no hoops, so I went around begging for hoops. Then we got some nets and some spray paint to put in free-throw lines."
At first, a few kids trickled in and Piippo had to enlist himself just to make up teams. Soon he had leagues. Lights kept the games going until 10 p.m. and it became the place for kids to gather.
"A lot of parents would come, drop off their kids, and come back and pick them up at 10," Piippo said. "It became a social place and the kids came there in numbers."
Jim Castleberry, who runs the still-thriving program today with Dave Weikum, remembers first playing in 1954 when Piippo would still join in the games.
"You learned a lot of things playing against him," Castleberry said. "He was tough and smart and had a great push shot. Just being on the same court with him was a learning experience."
Phil Neill ran the program for 15 years, moving it from the asphalt into the Richland High gymnasium where it operates today with 35 teams and more than 300 players competing in several different leagues.
It is place not only for adults who want to keep playing, but also a training ground for both players and officials.
Last March, Dick Cartmell concluded his season officiating the final game of the NCAA Championship tournament. The next game he worked was at a Richland recreation game, passing on his knowledge of the game to young officials.
Castleberry said he learned a lot of basketball from Piippo, but that was only the beginning.
"There are a lot of adults running around who are very grateful for what he did," Castleberry said. "Not only for what they learned about athletics, but what they learned about life."
Piippo expanded the program to include opening the Chief Joseph gym on Saturdays and holidays. Sometimes as many as 300 kids would show up.
"That gave a lot of kids a place to play and helped grow a base of players who had the skills to have a chance to play in high school if they wanted to," Piippo said. "Over the years that base has shrunk and so has the mystique."
Piippo also worries about the overemphasis on athletics that has grown with the value of college scholarships and the astronomical salaries of professional athletes.
"Sometimes I think it might be better to put the ball in the closet and worry more about education," Piippo said. "Coaching today is a tough business."
It always has been. It's why venerable ones like Toivo W. Piippo, who mix in large doses of compassion, stand the test of time.