In just over a 24-hour period earlier this week, the Tri-Cities sports community took a serious shot to the gut.
Former Pasco High football coach Bill Till died early Sunday morning.
Hec Hancock, a long-time sports editor and columnist at the Tri-City Herald, passed away Sunday afternoon.
And Ray Whitlow — a respected attorney in the community, a big Washington State University athletics booster, and the athletic director and wrestling coach at Tri-Cities Prep — died in a car accident Monday morning.
In my 27 years here at the Herald, I have never seen so many sad things happen in such a short amount of time.
I never met Till, but I knew of him.
He coached football at Pasco High School from 1961 to 1977, and he had an influence on numerous former students and athletes.
“He was the kind of guy who we wanted to be like when we grew up,” said John Morgan, who was a student in the 1960s at Pasco High, is a former football coach himself, and is now a district administrator. “He had this belief that you always do the right thing, even when nobody is looking. He always kept in contact with us after we moved on.”
A birth notice, a birthday, a graduation — name it — Till loved his former students and athletes and would keep in touch with them.
John Crawford, who for years ran the Washington State High School Cross Country Championships at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco, and still runs the Pasco Invitational track and field meet, worked with Till for years.
“Bill was a good mentor,” Crawford said. “He took a lot of young teachers under his belt and helped them along the way. We called him True Grit, because he had this picture of John Wayne.”
Crawford said Till loved his Mountain Dew sodas, and he drank them up until his time of death.
Till, who just a few months ago was inducted into the Walla Walla High School athletic hall of fame, was the kind of coach who knew how to motivate his athletes, which one might need a kick in the rear and which one might need a quiet pep talk.
His classes in science and biology were always fun.
Crawford had his classroom across the hall and would check out what was going on because there “would be a commotion out there,” he said. “He was always having some activity going on in there.”
After Till’s retirement from teaching, he moved on to the insurance industry.
But he still volunteered at the Pasco Invite.
“He always helped out with the shot put and discus,” said Crawford. “He loved the discus. He and Russ Wiseman, they were both leftys, and they would actually try throwing the discus.”
Another good guy, gone.
“He wasn’t one of the good ones,” corrected Crawford. “He was one of the great ones.”
As for Whitlow, I knew him from being on the Tri-Cities Sports Council together.
I knew he was a tremendously supportive booster of WSU athletics. And I knew how involved he was at Tri-Cities Prep with his A.D. and coaching activities.
I just didn’t know how much until talking with Dan Whitsett, Prep’s football coach and assistant athletic director.
“Ray had 26 hours in his days, while the rest of us had only 24,” said Whitsett.
“How can a top-notch lawyer like him donate so much time to the Cougars and Tri-Cities Prep?” he asked incredulously.
It was simple for his Prep duties, said Whitsett.
“He’s always been Catholic,” he said. “Ray’s the only athletic director we’ve ever had. He never had any kids. People always said the Tri-Cities Prep kids were his kids. We have about 80 percent of our kids who participate in a sport. So everybody interacted with him.”
Whitlow stayed busy. Whitsett said he’d come to school on Friday mornings during football season and Whitlow had already been there and had painted the football yardline stripes.
“He had been there since 5 a.m.,” Whitsett said. “His car was always in the parking lot. He’d be there at the school Sunday afternoons doing work.”
Whitlow also doubled as the president of the District 9 2B and 1B schools, and he was planning on retiring from the A.D. job after this school year. Whitsett has been training under him for the past three school years.
One of Whitlow’s proudest accomplishments was starting a wrestling program at Prep.
“He wrestled in high school at Ephrata, then at WSU, then the Marines,” said Whitsett. “He told me he was going to start a wrestling program at Prep.”Whitsett was skeptical, because there really wasn’t enough money in the athletic budget back in 2007 for starting another sport.
“So Ray forced the issue,” said Whitsett. “He went out and foot the bill for the wrestling mats. They arrived one day at school. He paid for it all.”
Whitlow got 12 wrestlers out for this last season — pretty good for a 2B school.
And when John Hyldon finished second at 170 pounds in the 2B state tournament in February, Whitlow had his first wrestler reach the finals.
“Ray was on Cloud 9,” said Whitsett. “He was so proud of that wrestling team.”
But he was proud of all his kids at Prep. They were family.
And as for Hancock, I knew him quite well. I considered him a friend.
When I was a fifth grader, I’d get home from school each day and grab the Herald (it was an afternoon paper back then). In between devouring the sports section and reading Jack Briggs’ latest column, I would find out what Hec was writing about.
He was the guy who recorded our sports history for years here, and he did it with a sense of humor.
When I became a part-timer here in 1985, I worked with Hec a lot. When he decided to step down as a full-timer in late 1986 (but still planning on writing a column), I was hired in his place.
There were some people out there who didn’t like what he wrote. All columnists get that.
But if you knew him, you couldn’t help but love the guy.
Those three-hour drives between the Tri-Cities and Pullman together were the best. He told great stories, like when he and a pal had dates in San Francisco and had front row seats to see Sinatra sing with his band.
Many stories usually came with some self-deprecating humor.
Like the time he said he was at Eastern Washington University during August, covering one of the Seattle Seahawks’ first training camps. The writers stayed in the dorms, and Hec was in Pierce, an older dorm that looks like an oversized garbage can.
Since it was summer, EWU classes weren’t in session and the air-conditioning wasn’t on.
Hec got too hot that night and decided sleeping in the buff might help his cause. But he had to go to the bathroom about 4 a.m., walked out of his room to the floor bathroom ... and the room door behind him closed and locked.
He spent the next few hours hiding until the janitor showed up at daylight.
“I’ll bet you’ve never had this happen before,” Hec said.
“You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen this happen,” said the janitor.
Hec was loved in Pullman. I didn’t know how much until the first time I drove him there. We got into the press box, and every WSU official sought him out to greet him with a smile and friendly handshake.
We got to our seats, and then I watched as every writer from the Seattle Times and P.I., Spokesman-Review and Tacoma News Tribune took turns coming over to greet him.
Over the last few years, it’s been harder to get free to go to those games in Pullman. But when we were able to go together, we did.
By then, I had learned to appreciate the time we had together, and those late-night stories.
I’m going to miss him.
All three of these men will be missed by this community.
If you have a story about any of these men, I’d like to hear it. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been a tough week. It’s taught me to appreciate those people we care about as much as we can, before it’s too late.