Cougar friends and family celebrate the life of our Jackie Robinson: Duke Washington

SEATTLE — In 1997, as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut, I set out on a modest journey: to find "The Jackie Robinson of Cougar Football."

Calls to Dick Fry and Keith Lincoln led me to three names. And so began my friendship with Duke Washington, the pioneering WSU hall of famer whose life was celebrated today in Seattle at a memorial gathering of family, friends, old teammates and a contingent representing Washington State athletics and Cougar football. Duke was 84.

Bob Gary, the star Cougar sprinter who became an icon in the Seattle schools as a principal and administrator, recalled the early 50s, when the nation was far from integrated. There were only five African Americans on the Pullman campus at the time, he said, and he and Duke were two of them.

Skip Pixley, the standout center on the Cougar teams Duke starred on, sang a classic rah rah tune from those days that poked fun at the Huskies, and recounted the road trip of old teammates who drove Duke across the state for his induction into the hall of fame in 2009.

Clint Richardson, another prominent Cougar track man of the era, got straight to the point: "Duke was a good friend and man."

Russ Quackenbush, 63 years after the fact, shook his head in disgust recalling how Duke wasn't allowed to stay at the team hotel when the Cougars played at Texas in 1954.

For comprehensive coverage of the memorial service, check out this excellent article by CF.C alum Michael-Shawn Dugar, who is now the Seahawks beat writer for the SeattlePI.

My friendship with Duke began through a shared love for our alma mater. And that word, love, is no exaggeration when it came to Duke and Washington State. Among the thoughts he shared over the years:

“All my roads go back to Pullman,”

“Washington State was my true north.”

“I learned how to learn at Washington State.”

Duke told me several times that his induction into the WSU hall was one of the greatest moments in his life. He characterized his four years in Pullman as “a glorious time.”

We would have lunch a couple of times a year and sometimes attend Night with Cougar Football dinners together. What I quickly learned about Duke was this:

First, the conversation could swing widely, say, from the impact of the Hammond B3 organ in jazz music to the existential theories of German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Second, you better arrive with more than an appetite because this retired high school teacher wanted to hear original thoughts and reasoned opinions.

Duke would always ask what books I had read lately. I tried to have a new one polished off before each meeting.

One day, though, I showed up with a book in my hand — it was one I had co-written with Ryan Leaf about his four years in Pullman and the road to the 1998 Rose Bowl.

What greater thrill than to present a man of letters with a book you authored, right?

"Good for you," Duke said.

But being a man of frank honesty, he suggested the subject matter was on the lighter side of what he typically read so probably wouldn’t get to it for awhile.

That was the beauty of Duke Washington — both charming and crusty at the same time.

Of course, no talk of Duke is complete without mentioning October 2, 1954.

As CF.C has recounted over the years, that was the day Duke became the first African American athlete to see foot inside Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas. The Cougars lost the game, but Duke made a statement, turning a draw play into a 73-yard touchdown run that brought half the Texas student body to its feet in appreciation.

Duke was pretty matter of fact about his groundbreaking work in Austin that day.

But the ripple effect was immense.

Willie Morris, a white kid from Mississippi, was a student at Texas when Duke made his dash. A black man starring inside Memorial Stadium was such a momentous happening that Morris, who became a celebrated writer, chronicled the feat in his acclaimed autobiography, North Toward Home.

The University of Texas itself wouldn’t integrate until years later, but Duke helped put down the groundwork. On the West Coast, of course, his work at WSU was on the forefront of fully integrating college athletics.

Charlie Brewer, a Texas player in that 1954 team, told CF.C in a 2003 interview that thinks of one man and one moment whenever he hears the name "Washington State."

Jack Thompson, our beloved Cougar icon, has often paid homage to the trail Duke blazed for students-athletes of color at Washington State.

These are all ripple effects of Duke’s life. They're just a sampling but they illustrate the power one life can have on others.

Now when you factor in all the students Duke taught in the Seattle Public Schools over the years — and the life lessons he tried to impart — you have a picture that swells from a ripple to a wave.

As Duke himself might say, that is one hell of a legacy.

Rest in peace, Duke.

PICTURED ABOVE: Four old Cougar athletes and friends of Duke's display the Gray W blanket Clint Richardson (far right) presented today to Duke's daughter Ellen. Also pictured, left to right, are Skip Pixley (with photo of Duke), Russ Quackenbush and Bob Gary.

Between them, Duke Washington and Alex Brink won six Apple Cups ...

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