I was going to be a baseball player.
Baseball became the center of my life at a very young age, and I decided then that America’s favorite pastime was going to remain as the center of my life forever. Anything “baseball” was better than anything else. I had played Little League since age eight, and I thought I was a pretty good player, so nothing would be stopping me from my baseball career. What I didn’t realize was how life has a way of challenging and changing even the best-laid plans.
Little did I know in 1956, that at age 12, life would start changing my plans. During that year of my life, my next-door neighbor who was a radio technician was moving, and he asked me if I wanted some of his equipment. He took me into his garage and showed me what he had. Well, I wasn’t too crazy about the radio stuff. Up to this point in my life, I had not enjoyed the concept of electricity too much. It was invisible, dangerous, and mysterious. It just wasn’t something that I enjoyed thinking about or being around, but along with the radio equipment, he offered me his workbench chair which was tall and wooden with armrests. It was the best chair I had ever seen; however, to get it, I had to accept the radio equipment. So, I did. The chair fit perfectly in my room, as my bed was tall and, by sitting in the chair, I could be at the height of my bed. Really, the chair was a very nice addition to my life. I loved that chair. It made me feel like a king.
My neighbor showed me a simple way to get radios working and how to care for them. He showed me how to open the cases; clean out the dust; and remove, clean, and replace the tubes before trying a radio. He also showed me how to take tubes that didn’t light up to a local store to test and replace them if needed. With his teaching, I was able to get working 90% of all broken radios I attempted to fix. At 12 years old, I was actually repairing radios and getting some money from it. It was a great supplement to my paper route. I made about $100 a month from my paper route and about $30 more repairing radios. I also fixed bicycles for $5 to $10. Little did I know that this time with the radios would actually propel me into a full career. Had you asked me then if I would have a career in electronics, I would have laughed because as far as I was concerned all of my time and energy was for the baseball career I had planned.
Almost every summer from 8th – 12th grade was playing baseball. I started in Little League, then Pony League, Babe Ruth League then some private leagues. Rick Kiel, Joe Rodriguez, John Clausi, and Paul Heller were my most frequent baseball buddies. Rick and I played almost every day. During my junior high school days (7th-8th) I often play a game called Over-The-Line. It was a new game and even to this day I think we invented it. My Over-The-Line buddies were Rick Kiel, Chuck Kanoy, Ron Forsythe, Roy Clinton, and a few more who’s names I have forgotten.
Nevertheless, I grew up, and so did my dreams. I still had not given up on becoming a professional baseball player, but I did begin to think about college and “regular” jobs too. In 1962, I was a senior at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. As part of our senior year, we had to take career and skills tests so the counselors could guide us into the right college or into some trade career. All I remember being told during that experience was that I should not go into engineering because I had a low mechanical aptitude. Mechanical engineering was the “big” engineering degree and the basis for anyone going into engineering. Some of my friends were actually accepted into great engineering colleges, like Cal Tech and UCLA, and it really disappointed me that, based on my test results, I would not be encouraged toward engineering. I felt I was just as capable as they were. Unfortunately, no one else told me so, and although many people told me what I should not do, no one told me what I should be doing. I did not know the college process. I even asked after high school graduation why I wasn’t considered for some of the scholarships and I was told: “you didn’t apply.” I was lost.
As a result, I tried different things, fumbling my way through, trying to find my path. I had a desire to be an FBI agent, attended a career day conference, and talked to FBI agents at their booth. After talking with them a few moments, I was informed that anyone who wore glasses did not qualify because everyone had to be a field agent first and field agents were not allowed to wear glasses or anything else that made them unique. This is not true today, but as for my interest then, so much for being an FBI agent. Next, my father talked me into taking the entrance test for his welding and pipe-fitting profession. If I passed, I would be offered to attend some special schooling for the trade. I did pass with flying colors, and apparently, scored very high. I am sure my father was very proud of me. However, I had no motivation or desire to do what he did since all I could think about were his long and hard days, and neither appealed to me. He was very disappointed when I told him I was not interested. It was actually very hard to disappoint him considering we didn’t get along that well anyways. My decision just made our relationship worse.
With no clear direction other than making something productive out of my life and no baseball recruiters at my door, my only choice left was to find some part-time job and attend the local community college, Compton Junior College. I found a job as an assistant leader of after-school recreation at the elementary school I had attended, Stephen Foster Elementary. It was not a difficult job, and it was actually fun. On the other hand, my first semester of college was quite difficult as I had no motivation. I took basic business classes and the normal English and history classes. Honestly, it was boring and very difficult to attend. Besides my part-time job, the only real fun I can remember having during that time was riding my new racing bicycle from home to college each day, probably a ten-mile trip each way.
In addition to my lack of direction and motivation and overall dissatisfaction with my life as it was, my home life was difficult because my father and I did not get along. I am sure he thought I was going to be some kind of failure and was just wasting my life. I would not admit it at the time, but as angry as he made me, I wasn’t so sure he was wrong. Eventually, the constant fighting with him took its toll on me. I was so discouraged that I just walked out of college and quit my job. My decision only forced me to grow up that much faster. Now, I was forced to find a real, full-time job and make some money.
A great friend of mine, Bob Thornton, told me his father was looking for someone to work at his construction site. His father was also the local and district Little League director and knew me from my Little League days. He was willing to hire me and give me a chance although I was young and inexperienced for the work. The pay was minimum wage which was $1.75 an hour at that time. The construction site turned out to be a waste dump disposal site or garbage landfill. So, my first job was to stand knee deep in the garbage all day and water all of the trash so it could be compacted by the heavy equipment. It was the type of job you could perform without thinking so I had plenty of time to let my mind wander. From this experience, I have always said, “If you want to be motivated to get back to college, then, take a job watering garbage.” All day long, among the hot, toxic fumes, I had lots of time to think about life choices and careers and cars and family and just about everything. The one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to water garbage for the rest of my life. Fortunately, after about six months, I was able to get a promotion to the gatekeeper position which was really a nice job. During the afternoon I would greet and collect money from the people entering to dump their trash and garbage, and then, after we closed, I still had about another four hours to myself, during which I usually read.
With new found motivation, to not be a career garbage man, and direction, get a job that pays better, I excitedly went back to college for the second semester of the current school year and was able to maintain my job at night. With enough time to study, getting paid, and a sense of purpose, life was actually looking pretty good. I was most excited about joining the college baseball team, and practice and tryouts began a few weeks after the college term started that school year. In the beginning, everything about my first college baseball experience was great. Many of my friends, including friends I had formerly competed against in high school, were trying out. As we got closer to the start of the college baseball season, the coach informed everyone that he would do an academic check and then decide who would stay. I did not know what all that involved, but soon I would learn the impact it would have on me and my baseball career.
My coach informed me that I was not eligible to play baseball that semester because I had all F’s on my last semester transcripts. I asked how that was possible since I did not even finish that semester. I learned that because I failed to officially drop or withdraw from my classes I received an F in every class due to lack of attendance. I begged the college office to change my grades to reflect what really happened, but they said I had to prove myself with good grades before they would do that. So, there went my first college baseball season. Though disappointed, I was not too discouraged since I felt confident, I would make the team the next year, and afterward, continue my baseball career. Besides, a career in baseball was still the thing that I was most passionate about in my life.
Once I reentered college for the second semester, I still had NOT selected a major. The reader could ask me what WAS my career plan. I could not say I had any plans but I do remember saying I was a business major as I had some interest in business organization and corporate structures. I soon became bored with these classes as there was so much reading and I was not a good reader at that time. I changed majors at least four times, maybe more business, accounting, forestry, engineering.
Having a goal of “proving myself with good grades to college officials so that I could get my transcript changed so I could play baseball” in mind, I signed up for a class in trigonometry (Trig). I wanted to take this class because I felt I had something to prove that went back to a failure in high school. I failed Trig because despite being a student leader and past class president, I was kicked out of class for my attitude. I had a really bad attitude towards the Trig teacher for two reasons. First, as was my lifelong story, the problems between my father and I caused problems at home which made me angry at school. Secondly, my Trig teacher was always comparing me to my brother Bill, who was younger by two years and already known as a math genius. Unfairly, she (like everyone else whenever they met me) expected me to be just as smart in math. All the family problems and pressure of expectation worked to prove them all wrong in the end. So, retaking Trig in college was my way of proving to myself and everyone who doubted my abilities or witnessed my failures that I actually could succeed in math. I earned an A in Trig and went on to earn an A in slide rule, which were both pre-engineering classes. Ironically, despite being told in high school that I should not major in engineering, I was doing well in my college engineering classes. I was surprised at the time by my unexpected success in this area, but every success gave me a little more encouragement to keep going academically.
Aside from school and work, I kept busy by playing on a local baseball team, the Compton Travelers. We played at Cressey Park, and I enjoyed everything about the experience. There were several talented, local players on the team with over half of the team going on to play professionally: Jim Rooker, Lynde Kurt, Rick Kiel, Reggie Smith, Roy White, Mike Paul, and Don Wilson. It was during this summer that I unknowingly took yet another step closer to my future career. My friend Joe Rodriguez was home visiting, having returned from the University of Idaho where he was playing football. He really pushed me to come with him the next year, saying we could room together, and giving me a catalog to look through. The beauty of the campus in the pictures is what made my decision. I had never seen a college with so many trees, and I was really captivated. The next day I asked my parents if I could transfer, and they said I could go if I got accepted. Well, it may have seemed like things were going well but I was in transition for sure. The thought of attending and graduating from such a big university was very exciting and, of course, the thought of leaving home and being on my own was a huge factor. No one in my family had gone to college so it was a big step for all of us.
I was concerned about the F’s on my transcript as I filled out the application, but I also thought about my recent A’s. I was concerned that the combination of me being an out-of-state student combined with the failing grades on my transcript might keep me from being accepted, but I applied anyway. The application process also forced me to do something I had not done before up to this point in my college career, select a major course of study. I did not feel that I had anything to base my selection on other than I knew, based on what I had been told throughout my high school career, engineering was not a major I should consider. After looking through the catalog of courses offered, I decided on forestry. Forestry seemed to fit right in with my desire to be outdoors and with my interest in conservation. I actually was getting a little excited, and after receiving an acceptance letter two weeks later, I finally felt like I was going in the right direction with my life.
Many decades later, somebody asked me a question about my choice: how DID you get accepted at Idaho given your academic record? That is a question I can’t answer. I did not expect to get accepted. All I can think of is that the school had a quota for out-of-state students and they wanted to give me a chance. The last semester of grades before I applied were not too bad and showed I had some ability. I think of this often and usually conclude that God just opened this door for me. Being 1,200 miles away allowed me to become the person of my own choosing and not what I thought others required of me. It took a while to happen and many events during these colleges’ days shaped my decisions …. including new friends, girls, Army ROTC, Judo classes, and the small town atmosphere.
During that next month, I saved as much money as I could and prepared myself to leave home for college. This was about to be by far the biggest change I had experienced in my life. It was 1,200 miles from home in Compton, California, in Los Angeles to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. This was not just a move to college but an actual move from home. I think my parents felt it more than I did. On one hand, I was eager to get out and prove myself so I would not fight with my father so much about me making something out of my life, on the other hand, I really had no idea what I was doing, everything was so new to me. In my preparation to go, I remember my parents buying me a travel trunk for all of my clothes. The trunk made me feel like an official college student since at the time that was the usual way college students carried their belongings to school. I still have that trunk today, and although it’s in really bad shape, it contains many college and high school memories.
My trip to the University of Idaho was by Greyhound bus. It would be my first bus trip, and I did not know or think about how long it would take. I was just excited to go. My father took me to the bus station, and as I was about to get on the bus, he extended his hand, shook mine, and told me to “do good.” That was the first time I remember him shaking hands with me or giving me any encouragement. It gave me a great feeling, but it also had the effect of making me want to stay and see if maybe things could actually get better between us. However, the bus was ready to go, and I knew I needed to leave with it. That bus trip was the longest trip I had ever taken. It took 12 hours to get to Boise, Idaho, which was in the southern part of the state. I thought I had almost reached my destination at that point, but it took another 10 hours to get to Moscow, Idaho, which was in the northern part of the state. I was exhausted by the time I arrived. I was so far from home that I felt I would never go back.
When I did finally arrive, I was pleased to see the college campus was as pretty in person as the pictures in the catalog. I felt like I was in another country. It was a great feeling to be on my own. I was finally making decisions about my future and seeing them through. I had a plan to finish college with a degree in forestry. However, there was no deep purpose or conviction behind any of my decisions. I was moving forward, and I was satisfied with that. My first year at the University of Idaho had its ups and down. I was a part of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) which taught me discipline, something I really needed at the time, and I received many awards and honors, such as carrying the American flag for the unit. I also made a lot of great friends: Bill Donnell, Bill Roper, Charlie Beyer, George Nipp, and Brian Stickney to name a few, which helped build my self-esteem. These were a few of my ups.
As for my downs, my first year was an academic disaster. I had to take English, history, American Government, botany, and forestry, and I barely passed my classes. Another disappointment was baseball. This was probably the only thing I had ever felt a strong sense of passion, purpose, or conviction about my entire life. Though I had made little progress in achieving my dream, I was still hanging on to my desire to play professional baseball. I tried out for the university team and thought I was doing quite well against the older players. Right before the season started, I was told I had to get a physical exam from a local doctor. The doctor discovered during the exam that I had a torn muscle. I had to have surgery, and it was not possible to recover and still make the team. I knew this was the end of my professional baseball career hopes. This realization was very discouraging and almost put me in a major depressed state. My surgery was scheduled during spring break. I was not able to go home, and my parents were not able to afford to come see me. I spent a week in the hospital very lonely and in a low mood. Without my professional baseball career dream, I felt lost, and I began to think the only option I had now was to get my forestry degree. With my less than acceptable academic progress, I was not even sure that would happen.
With no other or better options in sight, I returned to the University of Idaho for a second year in spite of my disastrous first year. My academic major had some potential, and it was the only thing that made sense in my life at the time. I joined the Forestry Club and met another good friend, Lyn Thaldorf. Lyn was a born, forestry-type of guy. He loved the work, eventually had a very successful career, and today is on the Board of Trustees for the Forestry College. Lyn encouraged me in many forestry activities, including the Forestry Club retreat where I won the 2nd place in an axe-throwing contest. Lyn and I worked the next summer together in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in Northern Idaho. I had the job of Recreational Director, or Ranger Ray, as the kids would call me. During the day, I would meet and greet the families, and on weekends, I would clean toilets. A very humble and yet rewarding summer. The off-days of fly fishing, hiking, and driving to the lookout towers were exhilarating. I was content although not completely happy with my life. To add to my heartbreak, it seemed baseball was destined to be a part of my life even if I could never be a part of the game.
While I was not following his progress in detail, my brother Bill had graduated from high school by this time and received a baseball scholarship to Stanford University. He actually turned down an academic scholarship in math because he thought baseball would be a better path toward graduation. As with most things he set out to do, he did quite well. He was an outfielder and pitcher when Stanford participated in their first College World Series in Omaha, NB. I was really proud of him. My sister, Elizabeth, affectionately called Betty, and later Liz, married her high school sweetheart, Jim Rooker, after high school. Jim went on to become a professional baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Liz and Jim spent their lives in professional baseball. Jim was a success on the field, and Liz became a success in her own right as a baseball player’s wife. Many have said that she was as well-known as Jim. Their career highlight was when Pittsburgh won the Baseball World Series with Jim pitching a key game. I was happy for my family, and I knew that baseball was not my future. Yet, choosing to let baseball go was not an easy choice, but it was necessary.
My second year at the University of Idaho was a year of maturing. Instead of pursuing varsity baseball, I decided to take Judo lessons from a local policeman. I progressed three belts that school year, entered my first and only competition in Portland, Oregon, and won first place over competitors from Northern California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. I came close to earning my brown belt in Judo, but I injured myself a few days before the test and never did try again, something I still regret. I also played intramural softball. The intramural softball season climaxed with a final game between my independent league team and the fraternity boys, Sigma Alpha Chi (SAC), who had not been beaten in any recent years. Two sorority girls, DJ Green and Carolyn Brown, probably the only sorority girls cheering for us, were among those pulling for our team. In the end, we did win, partially from me hitting both left and right-handed home runs. The victory seemed to be what I finally needed to release my thoughts of a professional baseball career and move forward. I guess I finally realized I was as good a player as I needed to be, and I had better start planning for another career.
Going back to my career plan, after taking the Physics of Electricity class and doing perfectly on homework, test, and exams I realized that I could really do it. Also, that same semester I received an A in Calculus just because I worked hard studying and worked every problem in the book. It was hard work but it paid off with nice grades. The best semester ever in college. I made the Dean’s list.
The physics class satisfied a physical science requirement for forestry so I did not think about it being engineering. The Calculus was required for forestry so again I did not think about it being for engineering. However, when I started looking for another major degree program, I soon realized that I was actually taking engineering classes and doing well. That was a huge motivation.
There is also a motivation that pushes one to go further. I think my motivation was “I am getting older and not accomplishing much.” I think next was the fact that I realized that I needed to take control of my life and not let others decide for me.
About this time, the turning point in my life that would firmly plant my feet onto my lifelong career path occurred. To be considered a serious forestry student, I needed to maintain an A or B in chemistry. Yet, I had a verydifficult time in chemistry since I had never taken it in high school, like so many others in my class. I could not grasp the concepts fast enough. Dean Ernest Wohletz of the Forestry Department, he was about 70 years old with a desk made out of the cross-section of a very large tree, called me in one day near the end of the semester and asked me if I liked forestry. I told him I did.
Dean Wohletz said if I wanted to continue in forestry, I would have to do better in chemistry. After a further discussion that I don’t remember too well, he said I “should be taking this class” and pointed to a particular class in the school course catalog. To this day, I do not know how he decided to recommend the class to me. It must have been academic wisdom. Whatever it was, I am forever grateful as the outcome of the class changed my college, life, career for the good.