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Bob Lobdell, known as "Mr. LC," was a student, teacher and coach at the school for more than three decades. (Dan Pelle)

LC celebrates century of athletic success

The alumni list at Lewis and Clark High is a jaw-dropper: politicians, military heroes, opera stars, actors, even a Nobel Prize winner. And athletes, dozens of them from every decade and every sport, their character built, Bob Lobdell believes, on the bricks laid 100 years ago and the wisdom of its teachers and staff.

“At LC, we walk in the halls of history like no other school, the same halls as the great scientists and athletes,” said Lobdell, a former student, teacher and coach at LC who this weekend will preside over a reunion like no other.

More than 1,000 are expected Saturday, including sports stars who took their first steps toward fame in a tiny downtown gym or on the mud of Hart Field. Decades after graduation, they still look back fondly.

“You never had a bad day there,” football star Gail Cogdill recalled. “Later in life, maybe you didn’t want to go to work, but you never wanted to miss a day at LC.”

Out of the ashes

The tale of the Tigers began in 1911, on the ashes of the fire that engulfed the old South Central High School. Voters approved a $500,000 bond measure, Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone, and a year later, Lewis and Clark High School was born.

The concrete had barely cured when tradition was born. Track star Carl Johnson, class of 1915, won 16 conference titles at Michigan, then took a solo voyage to Belgium in 1920 and came home with a silver medal in the long jump.

Four years later, the school hired basketball coach E.L. “Squinty” Hunter, who along with principal Abraham Parker would dominate the scene for the next 40 years, through the Depression, World War II and the prosperity that followed. Players came and went, but an enduring, no-nonsense team approach carried them to success, on the court and off.

In 1975, a decade after his retirement, Hunter was honored at the Davenport by scores of former players. Lobdell, captain of his last team, sat with Ed Buck, the captain of his first back in 1924. They compared notes and found them identical.

“There were 40 years between Eddie and myself,” Lobdell said, “and yet we had everything in common when it came to basketball.”

Including a nickname – “Bird Dog” – that would last as long as Hunter. As the coach explained it, a bird dog was “intelligent, loyal and does what he’s told.”

In other words, he didn’t want anyone to think they were special.

Even when they were. While winning three state championships and 12 consecutive league titles, Hunter cared for a bedridden wife and bought tennis shoes for needy students, anonymously stuffing them into the kids’ locker.

One big family

After World War II, attendance grew to 3,000, yet never lost its family atmosphere.

“I’d been at other schools where you didn’t get to know kids,” said Cogdill, who moved to Spokane from Wyoming in 1953 and went on to break receiving records at Washington State and in the National Football League. “But then at LC, it was a family. I never got into an argument, and the teachers and coaches were there to help you.”

Success built on itself.

“The faculty was invested in kids, and that radiated to the kids,” said Floyd Damon, who along with his brother Dwight played basketball for Hunter and later played baseball at Washington State.

“I learned all about loyalty and commitment from coach Hunter,” Damon said. “Every night after work he would get on the phone to his wife, call her “Sweet Pea,” and ask her, ‘What should I bring home for dinner tonight?’”

Even as a teen, Damon realized that Hunter “didn’t have to do that. He could have bought food for the week, but he called her every night.

“It left a great impression on me.”

Later, Damon, an orthodontist, established his practice in Spokane and made sure to move into the LC attendance area.

That made for some “great memories” for his son, Clay.

“I’d go to the Coliseum with my father and watch the tripleheaders,” Clay Damon said. “There were only three TV channels, and not all the distractions we have today. We had five, seven thousand people. It was amazing.”

Meanwhile, the school’s tiny gym with its 12-inch sidelines was torn down and replaced with the Hunter Fieldhouse. Soon it was Clay’s time in the spotlight, and he had to ask his father, “So, where did you play?”

Floyd pointed to the southeast corner of campus as Clay stared in disbelief.

Clay Damon later played for the University of Washington, but still cherishes the big nights in the Coliseum and the first “Rubber Chicken” rivalry game with Ferris. He followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one, professionally and personally. Austin, his oldest son, just graduated from LC and will play basketball this year at Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, Idaho.

Challenge and response

Hunter and Parker retired in the mid-1960s, ending one era at LC even as another was beginning around the nation. Even as the football team won the mythical state title in 1967, the measuring stick was changing.

As racial tensions flared elsewhere, the school took a proactive approach, Lobdell said. Officials reached out to the African-American community in churches and elsewhere.

By the time Ray Cattage moved to Spokane from Alabama as a sophomore in the late 1970s, the change was palpable.

“In Alabama,” Cattage said, “the guys were carrying shotguns in their cars, and when you went to a pep rally, the whites sat on one side of the gym and the blacks on the other side. That’s just how it was.”

Not at LC.

“The color of your skin didn’t make a difference, and the teachers were like parents for me,” said Cattage, a defensive lineman who went on to play in two Rose Bowls for the Washington Huskies and later played in the USFL.

“It was probably the most memorable experience of my life,” Cattage said. “It was such a family atmosphere by coach (Jerry) Connors.”

At almost the same time, the school took girls sports out of the dark ages, thanks in part to the tireless Virginia Danke, “one of those legends I knew about even when I was a student,” Lobdell said.

“Until that latter part of the 1960s it was all in-school for girls,” said Danke, who at first coached golf and tennis, then the only interscholastic sports offered to girls. Danke founded the gymnastics program even as Parker told her that, “‘If someone gets hurt on the trampoline, don’t call me.’”

Despite that, Parker “was the best principal I’ve ever had, and very supportive,” added Danke, who before she retired in 1977 coached basketball and volleyball, winning a city title in the latter with the “same fundamentals they have now,” said Danke, now 87.

All along she coached the cheerleaders for 29 years, which sometimes meant 16-hour work days.

“You just did it,” Danke said. “You had to be organized, but you just did it, and you didn’t ask how much you got paid for it.”

The payoff came later.

“We fought very hard, and look at it today.”

The Tigers won the big-school football title in 2007, and four of the last six state championships in girls basketball. More will come.

Built to last

On Saturday, more than a thousand LC alumni will walk the halls again. Some will return for the first time since the celebrated renovation in 2001. Lobdell will be more than happy to give them a tour.

“I do it five times a summer, because I love the school, the tradition,” he said.

The athletes will be there too.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” said Cogdill, who attended an LC class reunion a few years ago and recalled that “I never hugged so many people in my life.”

But as any athlete knows, records are made to be broken.