SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF DALE 'THE WHALE' FORD

IT'S A SPORTS-legend mystery, perhaps the biggest ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest. Dale "The Whale" Ford, one of the greatest athletes in Washington State Cougar history, disappeared 25 years ago, seemingly without a trace.

He was beyond rare, a three-sport standout so talented he was drafted professionally in two of them.

In the 1960s, Ford was a star outfielder for the WSU baseball team, known for monster home runs. He also was a quarterback on the football team and a forward in basketball. Widely thought to be the last three-sport athlete at WSU, he set records that still stand.

He is well-remembered by aging coaches and teammates, and his photograph still shines in the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame on the Pullman campus.

But the man himself?

Not seen or heard from by family or friends since the late 1980s.

Whatever happened to Dale Ford?

Theories vary. But it is clear from talking with those who knew him best that life leapt the intended track well before his disappearance, and the veering may have started when his legs said no more to his sporting feats.

Ford's athletic accomplishments at WSU launched a two-year professional baseball career -- one unfortunately cut short by knee problems. Suddenly, Ford no longer was living under the heat lamp of sports celebrity that he'd known his whole life.


FORD'S NICKNAME FOLLOWED A 'WHALE' OF A FOOTBALL GAME HE HAD RUSHING AND PASSING WSU TO AN UPSET WIN OVER STANFORD in '63.

Still, he married a woman he'd met at WSU. They had two daughters and lived in the Seattle area. Without athletics, Ford dreamed of becoming a rich man in the world of real estate before things soured and his wife divorced him.

Then, for reasons no one still fully understands, William Dale Ford simply vanished.

His disappearance causes sports junkies and fellow athletes to sometimes ponder the fate of the one-time star. Is he dead? Living homeless somewhere?

No one knew for sure. Even a private investigation firm hired to find Ford couldn't positively determine his current whereabouts as part of a year-long investigation by Cougfan.com.

His two daughters, brother, sister, ex-wife and 90-year-old mother were left without clues.

Ford's mother hasn't heard from her oldest son since he attended a nephew's funeral in 1987. Worried and heartsick, she and her other son, Tim Ford, finally went to the Seattle Police Department in 1991 and filled out a missing person report. They even turned over Dale's dental records in case, as Tim explains, "he ended up as an unidentified ‘John Doe' in the morgue."

That hasn't happened and the family lived without answers -- until a few days ago.

Copies of Ford's missing person report, obtained from the Seattle Police Department earlier this year after three public records requests, finally turned up a hint to his whereabouts.

But the Seattle Police Department, honoring a request from the reclusive Ford, didn't tell his family that he was arrested in Santa Barbara, Calif., 16 years after they filed the missing person report.

Those public records, including a copy of the citation, show Ford was arrested on Sept. 22, 2007, in Santa Barbara for drinking a beer on school property, near the athletic field, just outside an outdoor concert and lying about his true identity to the arresting officer.

As he was booked in jail and fingerprinted, Ford admitted his true identity, and gave the arresting officer an address in Santa Barbara. That location at the time housed an upscale restaurant and office suites, and no residences. The property manager for that location and other tenants said they don't know a William or Dale Ford, nor did they recognize his 2007 jail booking photo.


FORD CAME TO WSU AFTER EARNING ALL-STATE HONORS IN TWO SPORTS AT OLYMPIA HIGH.

When contacted a few weeks ago, the arresting officer, Mark Suarez, now retired from the Santa Barbara Police Department, said he believes Ford likely was homeless, staying in various shelters in southern California.

Other addresses used by Ford obtained from various data bases led to empty strip mall offices. One even listed a Teamsters Local office in San Diego where the office manager checked and said Ford was not a current or former Teamster.

After being arrested outside the Grateful Dead concert five years ago, Ford appeared to vanish again, his life taking Shakespearian twists.

Records suggest he remembers his daughters he hasn't seen in a quarter century in an odd way -- using their first names of Samantha and Danielle to create the alias of "Sam Dan Holding" while living in the homeless shadows of southern California.

Then, he befriended and got some financial support from a conductor who swings an orchestra baton far from the Palouse.

Even police can't find Dale Ford to serve a bench warrant for his arrest issued when he failed to show up in court in October 2007 on the two misdemeanor charges. His Social Security number hasn't been entered in the agency's death index and there's nothing to suggest he's deceased.

"I'm afraid it's just a tragic story with an unhappy ending," said Ford's ex-wife, Pam Spoo, herself a WSU graduate.

Little did she, or Cougfan.com, know at the time, but clues were starting to build – to the point the mystery was finally solved a week ago. Ironically, this trail of tears came to an unexpected conclusion on an idyllic, tree-lined street framed by impeccable landscaping and red brick sidewalks.

WSU LEGACY STILL SHINES

At Washington State, Ford played varsity football, basketball and baseball – an accomplishment unheard of today at large universities.

Before college, Ford was a standout athlete at North Thurston High School near Olympia, earning All-State honors in football and basketball. He was recruited by Washington State, Washington, Notre Dame and others, his brother recalls.

"He was comfortable with the environment over there in Pullman and he was comfortable with the coaches," Tim Ford said of his brother.


IN AN ERA WHEN FRESHMEN COULDN'T PLAY VARSITY SPORTS, FORD STILL EARNED A REMARKABLE EIGHT LETTERS IN HIS WSU CAREER.

In the fall of 1961, Dale enrolled at WSU and started to dazzle on the freshman football team, running and passing the CouBabes to an undefeated season. "That's where people really started sitting up and taking notice of him,'' Tim Ford said.

A year later as a sophomore, Ford was on the varsity as a quarterback for the Cougs under coach Jim Sutherland. In September of 1962, when Sports Illustrated scoured the United States for four standout sophomore football players to highlight for the coming season, Ford was selected best in the West, his brother remembers with pride.

Wrote SI: "… Dale Ford, a rangy, 6-foot-3, 200-pounder who peers at the world through contact lenses, fits the (Sutherland) system like a pair of stretch ski pants. A homebred product of Olympia High School … he has good instincts as a play-caller and an uncanny knack for inspiring leadership."

He couldn't unseat junior Dave Mathieson for the starting job, but did see action as a defensive back, halfback, and backup QB, completing 14 of 34 passes for 172 yards. Legendary receiver Hugh Campbell was one of his teammates.

Mathieson remained the starter in 1963, but Ford was ever present. In the Cougars' 32-15 upset of Stanford that November, he got the start behind center, rushing 12 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns and completing 7 of 12 passes for 117 yards.

The late Harry Missildine, who was sports editor and columnist for The Spokesman-Review, loved the size and athleticism of Ford and dubbed him "The Whale." The nickname stuck, at least for a time, recalls Dick Fry, the sports information director at WSU from 1957 to 1970.

"Dale might have been one of the last athletes to letter in three sports at WSU," Fry said. "In my time, Ford was really one of the finest, all-around athletes at WSU. He was very pleasant, very intelligent, but never a talkative person." Fry said he has often wondered about Ford's disappearance.

"I've thought about it for years," Fry said. "It's something that has really been a mystery for many of us. It's so unlike ‘the Coug' to just disappear,'' Fry said. "It breaks my heart. It sure does.

"Dale was a special kid, very mature, a sharp young guy. I liked him very much – his troubles later in life really surprised me."

When the 1962 football season ended for the Cougars, Ford headed to the basketball court and easily made Marv Harshman's varsity team as a sophomore forward. He played basketball for WSU for three seasons – a total of 66 games, averaging 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

But playing baseball for WSU was what "The Whale" liked most, his family and former teammates say. He didn't turn out for the sport at WSU initially, but stepped right into the starting lineup as an outfielder and first baseman in 1964 and again in 1965. With an extra year of baseball eligibility remaining, he was back in uniform in the spring of 1966 as the starting left fielder.

And what a year it would be.


FORD WAS FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICAN IN 1966.

Even though he originally came to Washington State to play football and basketball, it was baseball where Ford truly excelled, WSU's retired, legendary baseball coach Chuck "Bobo" Brayton recalled.

"He could hit the ball a mile," said Brayton, who picked Ford as one of the very best he coached in 33 seasons at WSU.

In the spring of '66, Ford blasted 17 home runs – setting an NCAA record at the time and a WSU record for the wood-bat era that stands today.

In a game that season against Washington, he became one of only two players to ever hit a baseball out of WSU's old Bailey Field, the former ball field where Mooberry Track is now located.

Ford ranks second all-time at WSU with a .365 career batting average and is the school record holder for career slugging percentage at .670. His career home runs (27), RBI (110) and total bases (270) all established school records for the wood-bat era.

In 1965, Ford was part of the WSU squad that advanced to the College World Series. "I still remember ‘The Whale' hitting a triple in that College World Series," Brayton said. "Dale was an outstanding athlete on an outstanding team." That same spring, the NFL's San Francisco 49ers drafted him as a running back.

In 1966, he was tabbed first-team All-American in baseball alongside Arizona State outfielder Reggie Jackson. And 17 years later, on Nov. 12, 1983, he was inducted into WSU's Athletic Hall of Fame at the age of 41. His 16-by-20 inch photo hung in Beasley Coliseum.

Four years later, he was gone without a trace.

THE KNEES OF A 65-YEAR-OLD

William Dale Ford was born on Nov. 9, 1942, in Ellensburg, to William and Dorothy Ford. The couple later had another son, Tim, born in 1945, and a daughter, Susan, born in 1947.

The family lived a couple of years in Spokane before moving to Ephrata in 1945, and to Ellensburg a decade later. His father was a supervisor of game farms for the state of Washington and ended his career at the state wildlife office headquarters in Olympia, while the family lived in nearby Lacey.

The elder Ford, himself a high school track standout in Yakima and Ellensburg, was keenly interested in his sons' involvement in sports and regularly attended their high school games, Tim Ford recalls.


FORD PLAYED IN 66 GAMES FOR MARV HARSHMAN.

"In all honesty, we always had two sets of coaches,'' Tim Ford said. "We had the coach on the field, but then when we got home, we went through this process all over again with my father. Dale took criticism and direction much better than I did."

"The one thing that Dale and I could always count on is knowing that our parents were sitting in the bleachers,'' Tim Ford said

. Once Dale became a Cougar, his father and mother would regularly visit Pullman and drive to WSU road games in Oregon, California and Seattle.

At WSU, Dale initially lived in Kreugel Hall before moving into off-campus housing with fellow jocks John Olerud, Danny Frisella, Jim Hannah, Roger Merritt and Dale Scilley, Tim Ford said.

As Tim joined the military in 1966, his brother signed to play pro baseball. He got a signing bonus and played with the Cubs' minor league farm team in Lodi, Calif., before getting traded to the Angels and going to their San Jose affiliate in 1967.

"He had a very good year with San Jose and went to the Angels camp for spring training" in early 1968, Tim Ford said. "But over the course of that winter, Dale's legs gave out on him. Football, basketball and baseball are what happened. He had numerous operations on his knees in college."

"The doctors told him at the time he had the legs of a 65-year-old man, and Dale couldn't have been 25, 26 years of age. So, basically, he was washed up because of physical injuries."

Tim Ford said his brother didn't take the news well that his sports career was over. "He took it real hard for a while, but then he came down and lived with me for a while in Monterey, Calif., where I was stationed with the military."

In Monterey, Dale Ford got a job as an agent with New York Life Insurance, but, after a year and a half, decided he didn't like that work and wanted to move back to the Pacific Northwest.

OLERUD: THOUGHT HE'D COME WALKING OUT ONE DAY

Pamela Spoo first laid eyes on the handsome, 6-foot-3 athlete as he played baseball on Bailey Field within sight of her Streit-Perham dorm room window on the WSU campus.

Her girlfriend, dating another baseball player, helped with introductions at a party for players, Spoo recalled, and the relationship flourished. The couple married Feb. 19, 1969, in a wedding attended by 700 at Sandpoint Community Church in Seattle.

Two years later, Dale and Pamela Ford and Tim and Gail Ford jointly bought a summer home on Whidbey Island, just south of Mukilteo. The beauty of Puget Sound was the backdrop for good times. The two couples would relax, fish and golf, sometimes as a foursome.

"Those were some of our good times together," Tim Ford reflected.

During that time, Dale Ford worked as an independent real estate broker, eager to become wealthy, buying and selling commercial properties in the Seattle area, his brother said. "Once it starts to get there, his life becomes, uh, then we kind of drifted apart ..."

On Jan. 1, 1977, Ford received word that his close friend and college buddy, major league relief pitcher Danny Frisella had been killed in a dune buggy accident near Phoenix.

"That news hit Dale real hard,'' Tim Ford recalled. "If Dale had two real close friends, I think it would have been Danny and John Olerud."


BROTHER TIM FORD. AUDIO CLIPS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH HIM ARE LINKED AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE.

Dr. John "Ole" Olerud, Ford's college-era friend, roommate and WSU baseball team captain, went on to play pro ball in California with "The Whale." Olerud later become a physician, faculty member at the University of Washington Dermatology Center and father of the famous first baseman, John G. Olerud.

"We were great friends and did things together," Olerud said, recalling that while attending medical school in Seattle he played squash with Ford. Later, Ford helped Olerud coach his son, John Jr.'s, basketball team in Bellevue.

During John Olerud Jr.'s great baseball career at WSU and later with the Toronto Blue Jays, "I kept thinking Dale would come walking out of the stands somewhere, some day, but that never happened," Ole Olerud said.

The Seattle physician said he, too, frequently wonders what ever happened to the man who once was one of his closest friends. "I've even wondered if he ran afoul of some Mafia guys and ended up with one of those cement overcoats,'' Olerud said.

In 1980, Dale and Pamela Ford had their first daughter, Danielle. Two years later, their second daughter, Samantha, was born.

"On the face of it, from what we saw, Dale was a doting father,'' Tim Ford said.

But by 1987 the marriage was in trouble and the couple briefly separated. "I initiated the separation in hopes that things would repair themselves, but that didn't happen," Spoo said.

"Dale had trouble establishing himself outside of athletics,'' she said. "He wasn't able to hold onto any job very long and create success for himself and his family."

"We separated for a year or two, but he was not able to care for his children and financially support them, so, eventually, it was very difficult to see him, and I filed for divorce."

Ford's daughters, then 7 and 4 years old, would be raised by their mother and never see their father again.

"To the best of my knowledge, not one person I know has had any contact with Dale for about the last 25 years,'' Spoo said.

"The last I heard, it was back in about 1988, was that he'd taken a job in California. It seemed to be a fresh start for him. He was enthusiastic about it. He called to talk to the girls one time, and then we didn't hear from him again."

"I know nothing about his life, literally, after that last phone call," Spoo said. "So you can see my life with Dale was over a long time ago," she said.

Tim Ford said since the divorce, his brother has had no contact with his daughters. "They're both beautiful, well-adjusted young women, and that's a credit to Pam."

The girls' mother has been "extremely good" about keeping their aunts, uncles and grandmother involved in their lives,'' he said. "We took them camping for years when they were kids and we still maintain that contact. Just last week, I was with them."

One of Dale Ford's daughters is a school teacher and the other is an interior designer. In exchange for agreeing to talk about his brother, Tim Ford insisted that neither of his nieces nor his elderly mother be contacted.

"We've done our best over the years to shield them from any problems, and we will continue down that road,'' Tim Ford said. "As they get older, if they want to pursue it, that's their option."

The last time he recalled seeing his brother was in December 1987 at a memorial service in Olympia for their sister's 17-year-old son, tragically killed in a winter car accident near Leavenworth, Wash. "We've all talked about it, and that's the last date any of us can remember seeing Dale."

"No, I don't think that death sent him over the edge,'' Tim Ford said of his brother. "I think Dale had already gone over the edge. His whole life was starting to crumble around him. From this point on, I get real evasive, but I will say his professional life and his personal life had gone to hell, and Dale was not Dale."

"None of us ever believed alcohol or drugs were any part of it, and beyond that I don't wish to comment,'' Tim Ford said. He knows his brother was wrapped up in lawsuits related to business activities.

"I know of no criminal activity, but let's say he lost his moral and ethical compass along the way, in my opinion, and he wasn't taught that by our Mom and Dad," Tim Ford said.

Choked up as he continued with the story, Tim Ford explained he and other family members "couldn't reach out to him because we didn't know where in the hell he was. He divorced himself from all his friends and, at that point, he divorced himself from (his) family as well. I guess that would be the right way to say that."

"I went to a certain point and then I asked myself, ‘Do we really want him found?''' Tim Ford said. "I have since asked Pam that question and I have asked my sister that question. I will not ask that question of my Mom."

A FRIEND WITH A BATON

In 2007, six years after retiring as an enforcement officer and field supervisor with the Washington State Game Department, Tim Ford decided to conduct his own search for his missing brother. His search went nowhere, with only hints that Dale might be living in California, perhaps occasionally working as a telemarketer.

In a new search for Ford begun last June by Cougfan.com, it was the missing person file from the Seattle Police Department that Tim Ford had not seen that eventually pointed to his brother's whereabouts.

The Santa Barbara police citation now included in that Seattle police file listed an address on State Street in Santa Barbara. A search showed it was an office was leased by the Cielo Foundation for the Performing Arts, founded 46 years ago by insurance executive-turned-conductor Christopher Story. He wouldn't return voice messages left at two telephone numbers.


FORD'S 2007 BOOKING PHOTO

But the non-profit group's annual 990 tax form provided the name of its accountant, Gary Gray, who recognized Dale Ford's jail booking photo.

"Oh, he's around the office all the time, very reclusive,'' Gray said of Ford. "He has been working for Chris, kind of a dialing-for-dollars fund-raiser guy for the foundation for years. I sort of have the sense he sleeps in the office."

Others who recognized Dale Ford's jail booking photo confirmed he's an occasional visitor at Casa Esperanza – one of Santa Barbara's largest homeless shelters. At the so-called "House of Hope," homeless people with a thousand stories to tell can take a shower and get a warm meal, no questions asked.

When a third number was obtained for 86-year-old Christopher Story, he confirmed last week in a phone interview that Dale Ford has worked for the Cielo Foundation in Santa Barbara for at least a decade. Ford sells ads and raises money for the non-profit performing arts group which sponsors West Coast Symphony and Chamber Orchestra concerts in Santa Barbara, Story said.

Story said he had no clue about Ford's illustrious sports background or personal history. "I didn't hire him because of his athletic abilities. All I know about him is he likes to play the ponies and is a (horse racing) handicapper. He goes down to Ventura to play the horses."

Story then provided his foundation's office phone – a phone that was answered May 15 by a man who confirmed he was, indeed, Dale Ford of Cougar fame.

"How did you find me?" Ford said repeatedly, sounding stunned, flabbergasted. When told it was public records that ultimately led to his doorstep, Ford said, "Oh, no, I'm not in any public records."

It was explained to Ford that, while he certainly was under no obligation to answer questions about his mysterious life, a lot of people remember his tremendous legacy at WSU and wonder what became of him.

"I choose not to talk to you,'' Ford said in a calm voice, before saying good-bye.

The word of his confirmed whereabouts came as a shock to Tim Ford, leaving him with raw emotions, uncertain what to do now, if anything.

He previously had "toyed with the idea" of traveling to California to search for his brother, but dismissed that idea and didn't tell his mother, who lives near Olympia.

"She went through all this crap, and then lost a son, in essence,'' he said. "I will not put her through that again. Now, if he walks back into her life, then I guess that's his decision and that's her choice."

Tim Ford said his 90-year-old mother is still very active, and doesn't frequently ask about her missing son. "I don't talk to her unless she brings it up. It does come up but we don't dwell on it."

"Let's just say she's heartbroken. Wouldn't you be?"

Tim Ford said he isn't sure what his reaction would be if his long-lost brother showed up tomorrow, but doesn't think there's a likelihood of that happening.

"I guess how I look at it is, before I die, I don't want any answers from him, because he probably couldn't give me any answers. And, he may very well no longer consider us his family."

"I'm not going to sit down and dwell on the past. I guess I'd be more interested to know if Dale has gotten on with his life and is happy. If he is and he's happy without us, then let's leave it that way. We had good times and we'll just kick the bad times out the door and not dwell on them."

Bill Morlin has been a journalist for more than 40 years in the Pacific Northwest, including five years with The Associated Press and 37 years as an investigative reporter with The Spokesman-Review. He currently does freelance investigative research and writing. His favorite sport: snow skiing. He can be reached at bmorlin@gmail.com or (509) 981-0096.

AUDIO CLIPS FROM BILL MORLIN'S INTERVIEW WITH TIM FORD:


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