WALLA WALLA — Dean Derby is a great storyteller, and Bill Till is one of his favorite subjects.
He’s got a lot of them, and he loves to tell them. Like the one about when Till and Derby were football teammates at the University of Washington back in the fall of 1954.
According to Derby, Till was an undersized defensive lineman who was tougher than nails. And in those days, the Huskies coaches put their defensive lineman through a practice drill that Derby described as the blood pit.
“Bill was about 6-foot-2 or 6-3, and he played at maybe 220 pounds in college,” Derby remembered. “John Baker was our line coach, and he always made sure that Bill was pitted against George Strugar in the blood pits. Strugar was 6-8 and went on to play for the Rams, but Bill would beat him every single time.
“Bill’s abilities were his willingness to work hard. He was the epitome of the person who worked hard.”
In a way, it was that hard-work ethic that limited Till’s playing career at UW, Derby believes. But it was also the driving force behind his success as a high-school football coach, an educator and later in life as an independent insurance and annuity agent.
“Bill’s football ability was tremendous,” Derby said of his good friend, who died March 17 at his home in Pasco after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. “The only problem was he didn’t take care of himself, and you’ve got to take care of yourself to survive. If you go all-out every time, you’re going to get hurt, and that’s what happened to Bill.
“In Bill’s sophomore year he was a starting tackle, and in the first or second game he dislocated his shoulder. He comes back and is on the kickoff team, goes down the field on a kickoff and breaks his leg. His college career was OK, but he was hurt all of the time.
“But in high school,” Derby remembers, “he was a killer.”
Till and Derby became fast friends in the fall of 1949 during their freshman year at Wa-Hi. They were senior teammates on Wa-Hi’s undefeated 1952 football team, and they were rewarded with full-ride scholarships to the University of Washington, along with fellow Blue Devils Bobby Cox and Don Hartwig.
“Bill played tackle for us both ways,” Derby recalls of that great Felix Fletcher-coached Wa-Hi team. “Bobby Cox was quarterback and our safety, Don Hartwig played offensive and defensive end, and I was running back and defensive back.
“All four of us were recruited throughout the Northwest — UW, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, and a few others.”
Derby and Cox achieved the greatest success.
Derby topped his college career — he still holds the Husky record for the longest run from scrimmage, 92 yards against Illinois in 1956 — by playing six seasons as a defensive back in the National Football League with the Steelers and Vikings. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1959 and was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection that year.
Cox transferred to the University of Minnesota, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up following his junior year quarterbacking the Gophers and was a preseason All-American as a senior. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview edition that fall, but injuries ruined his senior season and a professional career never developed.
Now, looking back after all of these years, Derby views Till’s legacy with the greatest of admiration. Till coached football and taught science/biology at Pasco High School from 1961 to 1977 before going into the insurance business in Pasco.
“He was just a great guy,” Derby said of Till. “One of the most generous guys I have ever known and honest to a fault. You would have just loved him.
“And he was a very successful football coach. He won some conference championships, and he beat Felix’s teams a couple of times. That was something to beat Felix.
“But the most important thing he cared about was that he treated his kids in school right, even to the detriment of himself.”
According to Derby, Till’s coaching era at Pasco ended over a dispute with certain Bulldogs boosters who objected to Till’s policy on playing time.
“Those boosters wanted him to win all the time,” Derby said. “Bill wanted to win, but he was going to play those kids who turned out and worked hard no matter what. He stuck to his principles.”
Another of Derby’s favorite Bill Till stories concerns Till’s two former wives and dates back to the 1980s when Till was injured in a car accident somewhere between Yakima and Seattle and was hospitalized in Yakima.
“As the story goes, Corky Miller, another former UW player, was a doctor in Yakima,” Derby recollected. “I called Corky to check on Bill, and the report back was that Bill was hurt real bad and they were not sure he was gong to make it.”
What Derby also learned was that although Till’s hospital room was restricted to close family members only, Bill was currently surrounded by two former Mrs. Tills, Alice and Phyllis, as well as his current wife Margaret.
“When they heard of the accident, (Alice and Phyllis) both show up at the hospital and identify themselves as Mrs. Bill Till,” Derby said. “All three of them are there in that hospital room loving the same guy.”
And the same was true, Derby said, last month during the final days of Till’s life.
“They were there at the end,” Derby said, “taking care of him and giving Margaret a break.”
Football wasn’t Till’s only diversion, Derby said. He was also an avid hunter and fisher, and the two spent many happy hours angling Northwest streams and rivers before and after Derby’s professional football career.
“Bill was maybe as great a fisherman as you would ever see,” Derby said. “We would go fishing and Bill would have the same pole he used as a kid, and he called me Orville Orvis (as in the Orvis outdoor company) because I had all of the newest fishing equipment. And he caught so many more fish than me that it was ridiculous.
“If I ever caught the first fish, he wouldn’t say anything,” Derby added. “But if he caught the first fish, he would say, ‘Do this ... do that ... change this lure ... try this fly.’ He was always trying to help you, the great teacher always teaching.”
One of Derby’s Till stories is actually a story Till told on himself. It took place not so long ago on the Touchet River where Till went fishing with only his dog Sadie as a companion.
“His lungs were only half useful at the time, and he was exhausted,” Derby said. “He came to a barbed wire fence, couldn’t get over the top and tried to crawl between the wires. But he fell down and got stuck.
“He told me, ‘Here I am, laying on the ground, on my back with the barbed wire under my knees and my dog on the other side of the fence just looking at me.’ Bill loved to tell stories on himself, but that was the last time he ever went fishing, and he probably shouldn’t have been fishing alone.”
Wa-Hi’s Class of 1953 was a close-knit group, Derby said.
“We had so much fun,” he said. “There were no cliques, everybody was inclusive. Nobody drank, nobody smoked, all we cared about was our sports, hunting and fishing, and our girlfriends.”
There were 10 senior starters on that 1952 Wa-Hi football team, and all 10 went on to play college football somewhere, Derby said. Many of those same athletes, including Till, had played on the Blue Devils’ state championship basketball team the previous winter.
Come spring, Derby gravitated to track and field, where he was a star sprinter, while Till was a left-handed pitcher on the Wa-Hi baseball team.
“Bill probably should have played baseball rather than football,” Derby said.
“One of the old stories is that he was pretty wild and everybody was afraid of him. They would bat with one foot in the batter’s box and the other in the dugout. And one of his most outstanding times was when he pitched both games of a doubleheader and struck out 48 batters.
“The pro scouts were looking at Bill and wanting him to play baseball and quit everything else, but Bill wanted to play football.”
In more recent years, many of these same former Blue Devils have made it a point to meet once a month in Walla Walla for breakfast. Till was a regular until about six months ago when he became too ill to make the trip, so some of his old high-school pals would visit him in Pasco.
“Johnny Knowles and I and Del Klicker, Dave Klicker’s older brother, would go over there every 10 days or so,” Derby said. “Bill was on oxygen and bed ridden, but he had unbelievable spirt right up until the last time we saw him the Thursday before he died.
“He was so heavy on morphine that day that he couldn’t talk, but he did recognize that we were there. And the three of us would talk to him and hold his hand.
“He would squeeze our hands and flip his eyes open occasionally. He was trying to tell us, ‘I hear what you are saying.’
“And we would tell stories, the same old stuff we did, the same old stories over and over again.”