BELLINGHAM, Wash. --- -
His life spanned the terms of 18 U.S. Presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, and two World Wars. He was born just seven weeks before the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and lived to see exploration into deep space.
Howard “Dutch” Wilder was the longest living student-athlete in the history of Western Washington University. Born on Nov. 6, 1903, in Blaine, Wash., Wilder reached 104 years before passing on Apr. 17, 2008, in Shelton, Wash.
Wilder attended Bellingham State Normal School (BSNS), the forerunner of WWU, from 1923 to 1925, earning a two-year teaching certificate, then returned in 1930-31 to complete his three-year certificate.
When Wilder arrived at BSNS in 1923, the Old Main Administration Building housed nearly the entire school except for industrial arts. That same year, the school’s first dormitory, Edens Hall, was completed.
A 5-foot-10, 165-pound fullback/halfback, Wilder played a key role on the 1923 BSNS football team that went undefeated at 3-0-2 and won the Tri-Normal League title.
Wilder had 36 of the team’s 75 points that season. He scored two touchdowns in a victory over Ellensburg Normal (now Central Washington) and three in a triumph over Cheney Normal (now Eastern Washington).
Wilder said that he didn’t fumble much, but he didn’t break many long runs either.
“If a hole was there, I’d go for it. If it wasn’t, well, I just kept pushing as hard as I could go,” he explained in an interview a few weeks before his 100th birthday.
Vikings, Waldo Field and the Peace Arch
There were a number of firsts that season for the school located on Sehome Hill. Prior to the academic year, the Board of Control selected Vikings from 65 names submitted as the mascot for all the BSNS athletic teams; and the team played for the first time on D.B. Waldo Field (where Red Square and Miller Hall are now located on campus), which was dedicated on Nov. 16, 1923. The league crown also was a first in program history.
Coaching the football squad was Sam Carver, known as the “Father of Viking Athletics,” who directed every sport (also basketball, baseball and tennis) at that time.
Wilder was a three-sport athlete at Blaine High School, competing on the Borderites’ state championship football team as a senior.
As a teenager in the border town in 1921, Wilder helped in the construction of the Peace Arch, a monument near the westernmost point of the Canada-United State border in the contiguous United States between the communities of Blaine and Surrey, British Columbia.
“My brother (Vince) had a contract for doing grading work,” said Wilder. “He hired me. I worked in the gravel pit with a pick and shovel. We’d load a wagon with gravel ... The team (of horses) would come up and hook onto that wagon and leave an empty one. By the time they’d get back from making a round trip, we’d have another wagon loaded. I worked there for a week or 10 days until they finished that particular job.”
Originally, Wilder wasn’t sure if he could attend Bellingham Normal.
“Fairly close to school opening, I hadn’t saved enough money,” recalled Wilder. “I wrote to him (Carver) and told him I would wait a year. But there was a group that was down there for two weeks before school started for football practice … One of the fellows that I knew got me on a Saturday night and talked me into it. Sam wanted me to come down and they had a job for me.”
BSNS tied two games, Saint Martin’s, 3-3, and the College of Puget Sound 7-7, and defeated the University of Washington Frosh, 19-6; Ellensburg, 19-0, and Cheney, 27-13.”
The Vikings’ offensive formations came from what Carver had picked up after watching Penn State play at the University of Washington the year before.
Football teams had considerably less numbers in those years and members played on both offense and defense. Only 15 players received letters that season for playing enough minutes. Most of them competed the full 60 minutes of each game. In the vernacular of the times, 60-minute players were known as “Ironmen.”
Under the rules of the day, if a player was injured or benched in the first half, he could not return until the second half. And if that happened in the second half, he was out for the rest of the contest. There were no free substitutions, a certain amount of movement was allowed on the line of scrimmage, and there was no penalty for clipping.
“And there was no rule against grabbing face masks,” Wilder laughingly pointed out, “because we didn’t have face masks.”
And a substitute reporting in couldn’t talk to anybody on the field until after one play had been run. That was so the coach couldn’t send a substitute in to tell the quarterback what play to run.
Wilder didn’t consider the play-on-with-pain policy particularly unusual.
“I don’t believe there were limits on timeouts,” he said. “They’d take timeouts to keep a person in the game. I’ve seen guys with a nose broken, and they’d take time out to get the bleeding stopped and then they’d go on playing.”
In 1924, Wilder had one of his biggest individual moments on the gridiron.
“I forget who we were playing,” he said, “but they had to punt and it was partially blocked and at that time I was kind of like a wingback on defense, and the ball went out there, and I ran out and caught it and went about, oh I don’t know, 40, 50 yards for a touchdown … That’s the only time I had a real long run.”
Hardships were plenty when Wilder played, but despite it all he said that it was a great time in his life. “I had a lot of fun, and have lots and lots of memories.”
In leisure times, Wilder said students would go to movies or dances. He was a football and baseball fan, New York Yankees Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig being his favorite athlete.
Wilder returned to Bellingham in 1930 to get his three-year teaching certificate and once again turned out for football.
“But that was a mistake,” he said. “After the first or second day, I realized that I had no business out there, but it was during the Depression, enrollment was way down, and they had a very small squad. And Carver was a very good friend of mine, so I stuck it out.”
“Sometime after the season, I mentioned that to Sam. He said he realized after the first practice I had no business out there but he was afraid it would break my heart if he suggested that I retire.”
Wilder was very much into hiking and climbed Mount Baker seven times.
Life following Bellingham Normal
After getting his two-year degree at BSNS in 1925, Wilder taught and coached at Anacortes, then went to Orting, and from there to Lynden for two years and then to Centralia.
Following his second stint at BSNS, during which he was an assistant in the physical education department the summer before and after, Wilder went to Grandview in Yakima County where he was the principal of an elementary school.
Wilder worked at an athletic supply company in Seattle for two years before becoming the Assistant Director of Education at the state reformatory at Monroe. After teaching at a high school in Ellensburg, he was an industrial arts instructor at Highline High when World War II broke out. To help out with the war effort, Wilder went to work part-time at the Army Quartermaster’s Depot in Seattle.
But as the war progressed, Wilder resigned his teaching post and went to work full-time for the Army. After the war, he managed a lumberyard for 16 years and then owned a neighborhood grocery store for seven years, both in Mount Vernon, before retiring in 1968.
Wilder was the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce president in 1953-54.
Retirement and reaching 100
Eventually, Wilder retired to waterfront property he had purchased in 1937 on the Hood Canal near Lilliwaup. He stayed fit by playing numerous rounds of golf.
“Golf keeps me going,” he said at 99. “If I just sat around, I wouldn’t last long. I have always been active. I only play nine holes at a time now. Five or six years ago, I was still playing 18 and got out 212 times. I’ve only played 88 times this year.”
On Nov. 15, 2003, less than a month before turning 100, Wilder, performed the coin flip prior to Western’s Homecoming game with Western Oregon at Civic Stadium. He drove most of the way from Olympia to Bellingham to be there.
Wilder had a sharp recollection of his playing days, even though they were three-quarters of a century ago. He was witness to a changing world over his 100-plus years.
“There are so many things that are taken for granted now that wasn’t even thought of back then, he said.
“When I was born, there was less than 200 miles of paved roads. A phone call from Denver to New York for three minutes cost $11. In the entire United States, there were about 150 murders. The automobile was very new.”
Wilder could not pinpoint a reason for his longevity.
“I feel it’s an accomplishment,” he said. “But nothing I have done has allowed me to live this long. I am just very fortunate. I’ve walked away from four auto accidents where the car was totaled. I’ve had some serious illnesses.”
“God is looking after me.”
As one sportswriter put it, “Maybe the guy upstairs just has a soft spot for old Vikings.”
Many of Howard Wilder’s quotes came from a transcript of an oral history/media conference on Nov. 14, 2003, in the Cascade Room of the Best Western Lakeway Inn at Bellingham, Wash., as put together by Tamara Belts of the WWU Libraries Special Collections.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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