1. The Man at the Window
A tap on the window. Bob Tisdale glared into the 1968 Dodge Dart, parked on a gravel street near his house. For a moment, Tisdale blocked the rising sun and woke the kid whose sleeping bag dangled out the window. It was the summer of 1977.
A football coach, a track coach, a teacher and an administrator at Mount Baker High School, 15 miles northeast of Bellingham, Tisdale glared like a prison warden. His favorite saying, when someone used improper English, was, “Turkeys get done; people get finished.”
“The last of his era,” one of his coaching buddies called him.
By presence alone, Tisdale could inspire intimidation in the halls of Mount Baker. But the kid in the car, Chris Villani, had seen glimpses of a sentimental side. Four years earlier, Tisdale had given specially minted medals to the school’s state championship cross-country team, including one to a runty 14-year-old named Chris Villani.
“He thought it was important we each got recognition,” Villani recalled. “So he went out of his way to have these medals made up and engraved for each one of us.”
Throughout his life, Tisdale had found personal validation and deeper meaning from sports. In trying moments, or in times of great hardship growing up, Tisdale lifted himself through sports and the confidence they gave him.
In particular, he cherished one of his oldest teams, the 1936 Valley High School basketball team from a tiny and obscure logging town in southwest Washington. That team captured the state championship, as well as the imagination of Depression-era Seattle, and changed Tisdale forever. He spent the rest of his life funneling the lessons of that team to his students.
Like all of Tisdale’s students, however, Chris Villani knew none of this. All he knew was that he’d recently left the volatility of his parents’ house, and his run of couch crashing after graduating high school had gone cold. As Tisdale glared into the Dodge Dart, Villani wondered only if he was about to get a private lecture in Tisdale’s Ass Chewing 101.
Every few years, before Tisdale died in 1990, some reporter would ask about the 1936 basketball season, when all schools of all sizes played for one trophy at the state tournament in Seattle. Tisdale, the only Valley player voted all-state, would deflect.
“Heck,” he once said, “they only gave that to me because we won it, and they had to pick somebody on our team.”
Tisdale played forward for 96-student Valley High, located in 200-person Menlo, an unincorporated town 45 miles west of Chehalis. But to most people at the tournament Valley might as well have come from nowhere. Few people had heard of Menlo and fewer still could point to it on a map. Before the 16-team tournament, Valley was never seriously mentioned in Seattle’s three newspapers, and most of Valley’s players were simply happy to visit the city for the first time.
“We never thought of winning state at all,” said Andrew “Bud” Alexander, the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-3.
By the end of the three-day event, Valley had drawn the biggest crowds the tournament had ever seen. Hundreds of congratulatory telegrams arrived from around the state. A former Olympian praised Valley as “the biggest thrill of the tournament,” and the governor of Washington called Valley’s achievement a symbol of the American spirit. More recently, in 2000, the state senate remembered Valley’s legacy with a resolution.
That Valley’s players had accomplished something remarkable was undeniable. Many of their children even mentioned that team in their father’s obituaries. But over time, a darker and unspoken loss shaded the memory of that season. In just a few years, the boys on that team were shipped to Italy and Saipan, to Alaska and the Philippines, where they were captains, privates and interpreters.
Many told tales of the service. Best anyone can tell, none talked about what happened to their former teammates.
2. The Boy in the Woods
By the winter of 1936, Bob Tisdale had established himself as the best athlete at Valley.
One observer said Tisdale “could put your eye out at twenty paces with a football.” He finished second at the state track meet in the high hurdles and started on the basketball team that won the league title the previous year.
When he was 12, his mother left Tisdale and his two younger sisters. He never forgave her. Refused, even, to speak of her. Like many of his teammates, Tisdale’s father, Clyde, found work in the woods around Menlo. With his father gone at logging camps, Tisdale often cared for his sisters, who adored him. He carved doll furniture for Christmas gifts and milked the family cow.
The stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, didn’t spare Menlo. Mills closed. Logging camps shut down. Workers launched huge strikes up and down the West Coast. For most of Valley’s players, whose families logged or farmed, the effects were devastating.
Tisdale never forgot those years.
By his senior year, Tisdale had grown to be just over 6-feet tall. His name filled the papers year round, although he still couldn’t find the money to buy a letterman’s jacket to wear around school.
Valley High consisted of six rooms and a shop; two other rooms in the steepled building were the grade school. Menlo had a cheese factory, a hamburger stand, a general store and, according to one newspaper, “the largest barn in Pacific County.”
At a time when Valley had fewer than 45 boys in the entire school, 31 of them showed up for the basketball team. Tisdale’s status was secure. As a senior, he was a lock to start again. So were two other returning starters from a team that just missed the state tournament: Russell Eyer, a 5-11 forward and the team’s fastest player, and Bud Alexander, a dominant sophomore center.
“There’s no heat in the school,” Alexander once explained. “That’s why we play so fast.”
But Valley had to break in two new starting guards, including a small senior with a strange shot named Ray Kraus. No one knew what to expect from Kraus, but by the end of the season, he would become one of the team’s most important players.
As the 1936 season began, Valley also had to contend with history: No Valley team had ever qualified for the state tournament.
3. The First Test
Tom Brim, Valley’s coach, knew Tisdale and his players. Not only had he coached them the previous season, he had also coached them in grade school. When Tisdale and Valley’s seniors reached high school, in 1932, Brim joined them.
Brim was 32 and an unassuming wheat farmer who taught algebra and U.S. history. He had a round face, a balding head and coached every sport at the school except football. At the state tournament, one reporter marveled at how calmly Brim chewed gum.
There’s no heat in the school. That’s why we play so fast.” — Valley High player, Bud Alexander
It was obvious early that Brim’s boys were better than every team in their league. No one could keep up with Tisdale and Eyer. Nor could anyone stop Alexander, who led the team in scoring. Valley’s second string played at the end of many blowouts.
In fact, Brim viewed that dominance as a problem. “They’ve lacked the experience of meeting the tough ones,” the Raymond Herald wrote, “of finding out the weaknesses that show up under pressure.”
On Jan. 21, 1936, Valley even swamped its rival, Raymond High, the bigger school six miles away. With 15 points from Tisdale, Valley stunned Raymond 44-21 in front of “the biggest crowd to see a hoop game in a long time.” The Menlo Improvement Club postponed its regular meeting to attend.
Valley received it first test on Feb. 7, 1936, in the rematch against rival Raymond. As always, the game was played inside Raymond’s gym.
“Ours is too small,” said Brim, who celebrated his 33rd birthday that day.
One writer called Valley’s gymnasium the “poorest in the county” and said “training in that narrow little band box kept other good Valley teams from ever getting to the state meet.” Tisdale viewed the gym with mock pride. “We had more floorburns on our arms than our knees,” Tisdale said, “because we’d scrape along the wall.”
Raymond was everything Valley and Menlo were not: a big school in a town of a few thousand with a theater and two newspapers. Raymond was a “Class A” school because it had more than 200 students. Valley, with 96 students, was considered “Class B.”
The Raymond gym was packed. Cheerleaders sang the fan-favorite song, “The Ball Goes Around and Around.” The local papers had promoted the rematch as the game of the year, alongside headlines announcing a ban on roller-skating at night and an obituary for one of the area’s pioneers.
In the final period of a close game, Raymond scored twice to take a two-point lead. Brim called timeout. The intensity foamed.
Raymond’s center, who missed the first game because of measles, was called for a personal foul. Bud Alexander sank the free throw. As Alexander stood at the line, however, the crowd “rode” him. Not amused, the referee handed Alexander the ball and instructed him to shoot once more.
Both teams scrambled for possession in the final minute. With five seconds left and the score tied, Valley’s Russell Eyer fouled Raymond’s Ted Hunter. All Hunter had to do was make the free throw, but he barely missed.
In overtime Valley didn’t score until Tisdale made a free throw with five seconds left. “The Valley crew,” the Raymond Herald wrote, “looked stale.” The gun sounded, and Valley had its first loss, 23-21.
Calm as always, Brim viewed the loss cheerfully. Valley had experienced pressure in a close, low-scoring game — the exact circumstances Brim’s team would face at the state tournament, where schools might have eight times as many students as Valley.
“Both teams will be better for it,” Brim said.
4. The Final Hurdle
Valley needed to win three games in two days at the Class B district tournament to receive one of the 16 invitations to the state tournament in Seattle.
On March 6, Valley crushed its first opponent, La Center, 39-19. That same day, it would later be learned, Hitler had called a surprise meeting of the Reichstag for the next afternoon. Rumors swirled about his intentions.
The next day more than 250 Valley fans bussed to Chehalis, the site of the district tournament. Valley easily handled White Salmon, 35-25, in the semifinals. As was their custom, however, Valley fell behind against Castle Rock in the final that evening.
All season Brim’s team had demonstrated a knack for trailing early only to wear teams down late. It was easy to see why. In pictures Valley’s players are remarkably toned, their biceps rippling from hours spent in the woods or on farms.
In the district final Tisdale scored 15 points as Valley pulled off its most important comeback yet: a 29-25 win. Tisdale was going to the state tournament in Seattle, but one of his teammates was not.
Tournament rules allowed teams to have only nine players on the roster. Brim had started the same five players and called on the same four reserves all season.
The only player who rarely played was junior guard Stanley Domin.
Domin lived on a farm with his three older siblings and mother, Louisa, who emigrated from Poland in 1905. His principal called him a leader and a “constructive force” in school. Ray Kraus lived nearby.
As a result of Brim’s decision, Domin would not appear in any of the team pictures after the state tournament.
5. “Quiet as a Dove”
Valley rode to Seattle with rival Raymond High. Eddie Brigham, the team’s popular manager, helped Valley check in. Later, another trip to Seattle would end tragically for Brigham. But on March 11, the day before the tournament, Valley arrived at a UW fraternity house in good spirits.
One Valley player set down a small bag. Someone asked where the rest of his luggage was.
“What luggage?” he said. “We’re only gonna be here three days.”
No Class B team had ever won the state tournament, and Valley didn’t expect to win, either. The gap between A schools and B schools had grown troublesome. “The result has been, almost without exception, that the teams from the smaller districts were defeated,” the Seattle Times wrote in 1930. To remedy the problem, Washington created two classifications and two state tournaments in 1931.
The change lasted only two seasons. In 1933, as the Depression dragged on, the state tournament was cancelled. When the tournament returned a year later, it was under a more economical format: 16 teams playing for just one trophy.
Inside the Washington Athletic Pavilion, the eight-year old facility later named after Hec Edmundson, sheets of plywood separated teams. Before Valley’s first game, against heavyweight Lewis and Clark, Valley’s players heard their opponent “whooping it up,” recalled Valley sophomore Joe Drazil to the P-I. Valley’s players, by contrast, “were quiet as a dove.”
Valley led comfortably at halftime. More noise came from Lewis and Clark’s side. “Their coach really lit into them,” Drazil said. “Our coach had us praying.”
Tisdale scored 17 points, and Valley won 43-39.
6. “Where’s Valley?”
Awaiting Valley on the second day was one of the state’s true powerhouses. Walla Walla was the tournament favorite, the winner of 29 straight games and the only three-time champion in state history.
Walla Walla also had the state’s most imposing player, Dale Gentry, who led Washington State to the Final Four a few years later and played pro football.
With three minutes left and Valley trailing by three, Ray Kraus caught fire. He hit two one-handed deep shots in a row to give Valley a one-point lead. Twenty seconds remained. All Valley had to do was run the clock. But Gentry, the future defensive end, stole the ball. In his path stood Kraus, five inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter.
Strong and tan, Kraus had a unique way of shooting a basketball, and at times his shot had failed him. But in the season’s most dramatic moment, with Gentry barreling his way, Kraus did exactly what was needed.
Later, he confided to Brim: “I knew we were all done if he got past me, Coach. So I just jumped on him.”
Brim prayed as Gentry stepped to the free-throw line. One of Valley’s forwards, possibly Tisdale, walked by Gentry just before he shot and whispered, “I don’t think you can hit either one of them, big fella.” Gentry missed and Valley survived 34-33.
A reporter after Valley’s win asked Brim, “Where’s Valley?” Politely, the coach responded, “In the semifinals, mister.”
Word of the upset reached Menlo by phone. Students rushed to grab the rope of the school’s bell and took turns ringing it for 30 minutes. Classes resumed only to choreograph travel plans to Seattle.
7. Giant Killers
Their coach really lit into them. “Our coach had us praying.” — Valley High player Joe Drazil
Menlo residents left their homes at 5 a.m. on March 14, the final day of the tournament. Every bus in the area was called into service. “Even the farmers who had milk cows came,” recalled Bud Alexander, the team’s 6-3 center.
Valley’s opponent at 9 a.m. in the semifinals was Everett, who started a 6-foot-8 center the Seattle Times nicknamed “Tarzan.” In the third period Everett led 26-17. Valley’s problem was simple but frustrating. Since every basket required a jump ball, Valley couldn’t gain possession.
Brim called timeout.
“Steal the ball after the tip,” he told his players. “Press ‘em and double-team ‘em. Give ‘em everything.”
Tisdale channeled Brim’s message. He scored the final two points of the third period to cut Everett’s lead to 28-23. Then, he scored nine straight points to give Valley the lead.
Tisdale hated to lose. Later, his football players would buy him a new hat because he’d thrown his old one on the ground so often. But that intensity and fear of losing served him well against Everett. He scored again late in the fourth period to win the game.
Ray Kraus, once again, didn’t score.
A reporter for the Seattle Times called the office after Valley’s 32-31 win panting. “They’re being mobbed!” he yelled. “Two thousand people out here, and they’re swarming all over the floor! You never saw anything like it.”
At 8 p.m. that night, more than 4,500 people arrived at the Washington Pavilion, the largest crowd in the tournament’s 13-year history. Valley played Hoquiam, a Class A school also from southwest Washington. Hoquiam had won 15 games in a row and, as one paper wrote, “could stash all of Menlo in a city park and forget about it.”
With just four minutes left, Valley trailed by four, the largest deficit of the game. Then Ray Kraus couldn’t miss.
Kraus had an unorthodox shooting form that intrigued reporters covering the game: a one-handed shot pushed from his right shoulder. But on this day, one reporter wrote, Kraus had “the shooting eye of a Western bad man.” He made a one-handed shot from the side, then buzzed around the floor like a “veritable phantom” and made another.
At 5-8 and 120 pounds, Kraus was the smallest player on the court. He was not Valley’s best player, nor its most athletic, but a local reporter said he was the scrappiest.
One minute remained in a tie game. A Valley student crossed her fingers. Kraus launched a deep one-handed shot from his right shoulder to give Valley a two-point lead. Hoquiam, however, swished a shot with 30 seconds left to force overtime.
Kraus hit one more shot to start the three-minute overtime. Tisdale caught two jump balls and raced down the court. He ran so hard he crashed to the floor after both layups, the last effort needed for Valley to win, 32-28.
After the game, Hoquiam’s coach said: “We were terribly disappointed at not winning the title ourselves, but if we couldn’t we’re glad that Valley did. You rarely see a team with as much scrap as they have.”
Valley’s stay in Seattle was extended an extra day after the team bus broke down. When they returned to Menlo, hundreds of telegrams greeted them.
“While you may be small in enrollment,” wrote one politician, “you are big in courage and accomplishment.”
Valley’s players were treated to dinners and assemblies, free tickets to shows, gold watches and even a new gym. On March 21, 1936, Governor Clarence Martin spoke at a banquet near Menlo. He said Valley was “an expression of the hardy spirit of true Americans” and hinted that he would fund construction for a new high school and gym.
A year later, Valley (now called Willapa Valley) opened a new school complete with a new gymnasium. They stood for 70 years.
9. The End of the Run
It’s possible Valley’s players and coaches were never together again once the celebration ended. After that season, Tom Brim, the gum-chewing coach, took a job at Kennewick High. He coached basketball, grew wheat and served on the state education board before his death in 1980.
You rarely see a team with as much scrap as they have.” — Former Hoquiam coach on losing to Valley High
He saved many of the telegrams Valley received that March.
Bud Alexander, the team’s sophomore center, returned to Valley the next season and set a league scoring record. He averaged 20 points per game but came up just short of another trip to Seattle.
Nine months before Oregon won the first NCAA basketball tournament in 1939, Oregon’s coach, Howard Hobson, sent Alexander a letter. “I have been wondering if you finished high school and are planning to enter college this fall,” Hobson wrote in June 1938. “If so I would like very much to come up and see you.” Alexander followed Hobson to Oregon, but by January 1939, three months before Oregon won the championship, Alexander was academically ineligible.
He joined the army, drove logging trucks and loved talking about the 1936 Valley team until he died in 1990.
Stanley Domin, the last man left off the roster, didn’t play basketball the next season. He joined the peacetime army in 1939 and, while stationed at the Albuquerque Air Base in 1941, fell in love. He and Jacqueline Walter became engaged but decided to postpone their wedding until after he completed his service.
Domin was in the Philippines with the 30th bomber squadron when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The next day the Japanese attacked Manila. After the raid, future war hero Frank Kurtz rode his bike searching for his B-17 bomber. He found it burned, smoldering, its engines on the ground.
Then he looked down and saw bodies.
Stanley Domin was killed on Dec. 8, 1941. His name is still on the fragile trophy at Valley High.
Five days later, Eddie Brigham, Valley’s popular manager, was returning to the UW after visiting his parents. The driver lost control, smashed through a guardrail and slammed into a ditch. Passersby found the crash when they noticed a lone headlight pointing up like a spotlight. Coroners on the scene called it the worst wreck they’d ever seen.
Brigham was an only child.
Ray Kraus studied forestry at Washington State and graduated in June 1941. A year later he entered the service, was promoted to captain in 1943 and married his college girlfriend shortly thereafter.
In 1944 he was sent to Saipan along with his brother, who served in the same division. On June 27, 1944, Kraus volunteered to lead a patrol in search of enemy artillery. On the way back to his unit, he came under fire and was killed.
He was awarded the Silver Star for his “courageous devotion to duty.”
Bob Tisdale became an educator. After a football career that landed him in Western Washington’s sports hall of fame, Tisdale returned to Menlo in 1940 to teach grade school.
Twelve days after Pearl Harbor, however, he informed Andrew Kraus, a member of the school board and the father of teammate Ray Kraus, that he was resigning. Kraus accepted the resignation, and Tisdale enlisted in the Navy, the same branch as his older brother. He came home with eagles and American flags covering his arms from his wrists to his elbows. His brother never returned home.
Bob Tisdale always hated those tattoos.
In May 1948 Tisdale was hired by Mount Baker High School to coach football, track and basketball. The football field at the school is named in his honor.
10. The Secret of Bob Tisdale
In the front seat of the Dodge Dart, in the summer of 1977, Chris Villani had no idea what was about to happen. Tisdale looked stern, as always, but also a little bemused.
Unknown to Villani at the time, Tisdale had quietly monitored his turbulent home life.
“Want some breakfast?” Tisdale said, more demand than offer.
Villani followed Tisdale inside and lived with Tisdale until he went to college that fall. As intimidating as Tisdale could be, he was drawn to students from troubled or poor backgrounds. He bought them new shoes and washed their dirty clothes. “He didn’t want any recognition for it, either,” recalled one of his fellow coaches. But to his daughter, Kathy, he could still be a stoic mystery.
Once, while in high school, Kathy bought an expensive pair of jeans with the money she earned picking berries. Excited to show them off, she started crying when her father disapprovingly tossed them aside. “I can’t believe you spent that,” he grumbled. Kathy thought her father was a jerk. Why did he care how she spent her hard-earned money? Only later did he explain the reason.
A long time ago, he had only one pair of pants: filthy and pocked with holes. Smelly, embarrassed and tired of the teasing, he dropped out of high school, an unbelievable decision for someone who treasured education. When he returned, he found validation through sports and the opportunities they provided.
He spent the rest of his life sharing that lesson the only way he knew how.