Whitman’s Thomsen turns 100 Saturday at Cordiner

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WALLA WALLA — There was a lot happening in 1914.

Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, serving the second year of his first term as the 28th president of the United States. Henry Ford introduced the first assembly line for manufacturing his Model T automobile. And the Greyhound Bus Company opened for business.

WH Carrier patented the first air conditioner that year, the first successful blood transfusion took place in Brussels, France, and Charlie Chaplin introduced his “Tramp” role on the silent motion picture screen.

Babe Ruth played in his first professional baseball game in 1914 by pitching the Baltimore Orioles to a 6-0 victory, and he would be sold to the Boston Red Sox later in the year. The Boston Braves, meanwhile, overcame a 15-game deficit in the second half of the season to win the National League pennant and then the World Series. And Jack Johnson defeated Frank Moran in a 20-round bout for boxing’s world heavyweight championship.

World War I commenced in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

And in Wahpeton, N.D., in the southeast corner of the state just across the Red River from Breckenridge, Minn., Bob Thomsen was born.

Saturday afternoon at Cordiner Hall on the Whitman College campus, Thomsen, who came to Walla Walla in 1952 and held athletic and administrative posts at Whitman for the next 27 years, will celebrate his 100th birthday.

“I know it’s going to be very emotional,” Thomsen said of the celebration, which will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and is by invitation. “I’m going to be seeing a bunch of guys I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years. I’m hoping some of them can make it.”

Thomsen will be accompanied by his wife Juanita, whom he married in 2010, and his son Tom and his family. Thomsen’s first wife, Ruth, died in 2006. They had been married 65 years.

“This is all about Bob, and we are helping in the process of honoring him,” Whitman athletic director Dean Snider said on behalf of the college. “He has given an amazing amount to Whitman College over the years and he was always outstanding in what he did.

“It has been a real privilege for me these last eight years as athletic director to get to know Bob,” Snider added. “He is remarkably healthy and mobile, and he is at our offices quite regularly, always asking how the recruiting is going and who do we need him to talk to. He’s really interested and engaged and it has been fun to get to know him these last several years.”

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at his trademark cowboy hat in our Hall of Fame cabinets. He was famed for wearing it on the sidelines when he was coaching football.”

The cowboy hat was no doubt a product of Thomsen’s time in Laramie, Wyo., where he earned his Master of Arts degree in 1950 and his doctorate in 1952 at the University of Wyoming. They are the Cowboys, after all.

Prior to that, Thomsen earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in 1934. He then taught and coached at a number of high schools in North Dakota and Minnesota until 1943.

“And then Uncle Sam tapped me,” Thomsen said. “I picked up my mail and found out I was in the navy. I had 30 days to report.”

Thomsen spent his first two years as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant teaching air navigation in Pensacola, Fla., and the final six months as an air traffic controller in Hawaii. He returned to teaching and coaching in 1946 and then went back to school in 1950.

Laramie was Thomsen’s final stop before finding a home in Walla Walla.

“After graduating in 1952, I broadcast all over the west coast that I was available,” Thomsen remembered. “Whitman had an unexpected opening and asked if I was interested. I was married, had a child and no job, so, yes, I was available.

“I had never heard of Whitman College, but it didn’t make any difference. I also had never heard of Walla Walla. I was a babe in the woods.”

Thomsen began his Whitman career as an assistant football coach and a physical education instructor. He was promoted to Dean of Men in his second year and replaced Joe Beidler as the Missionaries head football coach in 1955, his fourth year at the college.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the beginning, Thomsen said.

“I was wondering, ‘How did I get myself into this mess,’” he said. “They didn’t have two dimes to rub together and we had 17 kids out for football that first year.”

Eventually, though, Thomsen managed to turn the program around.

The Missionaries posted winning records in five of his seven seasons as head football coach. Thomsen’s 1959 team won its first four games, including a victory over Pacific in the Northwest Conference opener that drew 2,500 fans to Borleske Stadium.

“I think that Bob Burgess and I developed a program from practically zero to a pretty darn solid program,” Thomsen said. The late Burgess, who came to Whitman in 1949, was best known for his success as the Missionaries’ tennis coach but wore many other hats, including athletic director, men’s basketball coach and assistant football coach.

And Thomsen, as it turned out, became best known at Whitman not as a football coach but as the school’s men’s golf coach, a position he held for 17 seasons after being replaced as football coach. The Missionaries finished no worse than second in the NWC during 12 of those seasons, and they won five consecutive conference titles beginning in 1966.

Thomsen’s 1969 squad posted a 20-2 record in dual matches and his 1970 team won the conference tournament by 65 strokes.

Whitman won its last NWC men’s golf title under Thomsen in 1978. And it was a memorable one.

“That was the year Whitman dropped its football program,” Thomsen remembered. “We were back on top, but Lewis & Clark insisted we be penalized since we had dropped football.

“We played the conference tournament up in Spokane. We won and they (NWC officials) didn’t know what to do, so they decided that Whitman was the tournament champion and Lewis and Clark was the conference champion. We sat outside the awards banquet and chanted, ‘We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!’”

Thomsen said he got greater pleasure coaching golf than he did football.

“You have closer communication with players in golf,” he said. “We had just one car to go to all of the matches, so we scrummed together and got to know each other. And we had some really good kids in those days. We won that first championship in 1966 and shook everybody up.”

Thomsen was also the school’s cross country coach for nine seasons in addition to serving as the Dean of Men and the chairman of the physical education department. And when he retired in 1979, he rounded out his long coaching career by helping the late Dave Klicker coach football at Pioneer Junior High School for five seasons.

One of the players he helped coach during that period was Drew Bledsoe, who went on to become a star collegiate quarterback at Washington State University and a successful career in the National Football League.

There was never an inclination, Thomsen said, to leave Walla Walla during his retirement years.

“As you know, North Dakota and Minnesota are not good places to retire,” he said. “My folks had moved to Arizona and that wasn’t in our plans either. So we decided to stay right here.

“We enjoyed the weather, liked the people and had lots going for us. I think I was one of the few faculty members who kind of spread out a little bit. I belonged to various organizations, like the Shriners and the Elks and the Masons and Rotary.

“I really felt like I helped Whitman get acquainted with Walla Walla.”

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