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Wee Coyle: A memoir of my grandfather, Chapter I
by Will Lomen

Editor's note:

Will Lomen, a grandson of legendary Washington quarterback "Wee" Coyle (1908-1911), writes about his grandfather in Chapter I ("Growing up in Seattle"), as the first part of a memoir devoted to him. Coyle was the first quarterback -- if not the only quarterback in college football -- to go unbeaten in four seasons of leadership. Note that he also lettered in baseball and track, and is now honored in the University of Washington Hall of Fame in all three sports. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on July 9, 1918, for "extraordinary heroism" in action near Cheppy, France, served as Lieutenant Governor of Washington State from 1921-1925, and managed the Seattle Civic Auditorium for 25 years.

Chapter I, Growing up in Seattle

On April 25 1889, William John Coyle and his wife Mary Kate Jennings Coyle arrived in Seattle, Washington from Sutter Creek, California, with their two sons Frank, age three, and my grandfather, William Jennings ("Wee") Coyle, who was just fifteen weeks old. They settled into a house on Broadway and Terrace on  Seattle’s First Hill. Six weeks later on June 6, 1889, a fire ignited in a cabinet-making shop near Front Street (now 1st Avenue) and Madison Street.  The Coyle’s had a “ringside seat” as they ate lunch and watched the Great Fire destroy thirty blocks of downtown Seattle.                         

My grandfather always told my brother Terry and me that he watched the fire from “Profanity Hill”, so-called because of the language lawyers would use as they made the long hike up the hill from their downtown legal offices to the King County Courthouse on 7th Ave, between Terrace and Alder Streets. Then he would smile and say, “Actually I don’t remember it because I was too young but my brother Frank remembers it.”

Midst a setting of boomtown energy, William Coyle set up shop as a mining-equipment machinist, and helped rebuild the city. Meanwhile young Frank and his little brother Willie ran the streets of “Profanity Hill” while attending Pacific School on 12th and Jefferson, the current site of the Seattle University Women’s softball team.

As little Willie honed his speed, which would serve him well in his future athletic endeavors at Seattle High School and the University of Washington, the neighborhood bully, a girl named Maureen, gave him a nickname that he would carry, in abbreviated form, for the rest of his life. As with most bullies, their first prey is the neighborhood’s smallest -- but, in Willie’s case, he was also the fastest. As the days passed and little Willie ran rings around the very large but very slow Maureen, she became increasingly mad and frustrated. This left her with only one way to save face, another weapon in a bully’s arsenal: name-calling. One day Maureen screamed at the elusive Willie, “You’re a little wee wee! You’re a little wee wee!” I don’t know whether my grandfather had a clever retort but the name stuck, and he carried the shortened version “Wee,” with pride, for the next eighty-plus years. As he grew in stature (to 5’10” and 150 pounds), he kept his speed and translated his elusiveness into skills that were ideal for a running quarterback, a ground-covering centerfielder, a swift track runner and a quick and crafty basketball guard.

One day as Wee and his brother Frank left a confectionary shop on Madison Street, they were suddenly confronted by Maureen. She was flanked by two shorter boys, one wearing overalls and the other with a large nose and a bulging Adams apple. They sensed blood. Maureen smiled devilishly, thinking she had Wee trapped.

Immediately he extended his paper bag of sweets. “Hi, Maureen, want some candy?” her quick-thinking nemesis said.

Being no different than any other kid, she peered down at Wee and his brown bag, probably thinking she could pound him into the ground after she took his candy. “What do you have in there?” she asked.

“Peppermint sticks,” said Wee, “help yourself.”

Maureen reached into Wee’s bag and took out a white peppermint stick colored in a red spiral design. She stuck it in her mouth and licked it.

“Good, huh,” said Wee as he inspected his large adversary.

“Mmm,” she uttered, sizing him up carefully.

He noted her large floral dress and the single yellow ribbon tied in a bow just above her forehead. “You look real nice today,” said young Willie. “That’s a pretty ribbon.” Next to him Frank shifted uneasily, most likely staring at him in disbelief.

Maureen’s eyes narrowed, then her demeanor relaxed as Wee continued staring at her earnestly. “My mother told me it would look pretty,” she said.

Young Willie nodded. “Your mother was right,” he said flatteringly.

Her two partners hadn’t considered that anything could make their large leader look pretty but they knew better than to contradict whatever mush Wee Coyle was serving. As if they were going to say, “He’s lying Maureen, the ribbon makes you look ridiculous!”

Maureen dipped her head demurely, never before having received a compliment on her appearance from those not close around her, like family members and the like.

Realizing that his younger brother’s line of baloney would be short-lived, Frank took Wee’s elbow and moved around the threesome. “Yah, you look great Maureen,” he said. “But we’ve got to get home in a hurry or we’ll get in trouble. Nice seeing you.”

Still paralyzed from Wee’s compliments, Maureen and her pals let the Coyle brothers pass by. Immediately, they began to sprint up Madison Street. “Thanks for the candy,” Maureen yelled after them.

Wee raised the brown bag over his head and called back. “You’re welcome, Maureen, see you later.”

In 1897 Seattle’s population had grown to 65,000, with movers and shakers like Joshua Green (Mosquito Fleet);  bank owner, Jacob Furth, president of Seattle National Bank; James Lowman, the owner of the city’s leading stationery store; Eugene Semple, former territorial governor; and John McDougall of the department store McDougall and Southwick, located on First Hill. However, unaware of their neighbors' financial standing,  Wee and Frank would run past the impressive mansions each day with barely a blink. With nickels clutched in their fists, earned from a day of doing chores for their neighbor Mrs. Hamill or weeding Mrs. Langdon’s garden or running errands for Mrs. Ullman, the boys headed for a streetcar that would take them to the adventurous parts of the city. Taking the cable car down James Street, they could transfer to the First Avenue Line for a trip to the end of Pike Street where vendors gathered daily, forming the basis for the future Public Market. Here vendors sold exotic toys and knick knacks, and the boys could have lunch for 2 Cents at the fish monger’s shop. If they felt like taking a longer trip, they could continue part way up Queen Anne Hill and climb trees in Kinnear Park.

On other days they took The Broadway Line that went north from Mill Street (Yesler St.) and meandered through Capitol Hill to the west side of City Park (to be named Volunteer Park) and Lake View Cemetery. Sneaking under the fence and looking at all the tombstones could be as spooky as either of the boys wanted to play it. One day Frank snuck behind a large stone tombstone that read: MAYNARD and said in a long drawn out moan, “Willie, I think this place is haunted; I sure hope we don’t get stuck in here tonight.” Crouching low he continued crawling across the freshly cut grass. Glancing around the cemetery in the fading sun light, Willie suddenly realized his brother was nowhere around and, in spite of himself, he felt a shiver run down his back, his eyes widening. “Frank, stop it,” he said. “I know you’re around here. Come on, stop hiding.” Then gradually the moaning increased into a howl and Willie called, “Frank stop it; you’re scaring me!” Knowing it was time to end the charade, Frank popped up from behind another tombstone which read; HORTON and exclaimed. “Boo!” Willie jumped a foot, then stared at his older brother in relief. Smiling, he exclaimed, “You rat, I’m going to get you!” Frank laughed then took off running for the opening in the fence. Willie followed in hot pursuit but couldn’t catch him, for his brother was also swift on his feet.

On special days the Coyle family would dress up and take the Yesler Line to Leschi Park, where they would listen to the band or look at the animals at the small menagerie that the cable car company had developed. Frank and Willie looked at the enormous Taylor sawmill to the south and told their father it looked like a fun place to work. William Coyle took a long look at the ramshackle structure then turned to his sons. “You don’t want to work there boys. I know a man who worked there and got his hand cut off.” The two brothers stared at each other and grimaced, immediately revising their career desires and expectant opportunities.           

One day after school, when Wee was ten years old, he took the East Madison Line cable car to Madison Park and Lake Washington with his Pacific Elementary School mate Ralph “Penny” Westover. Frank was off playing with his older friends, and Wee and Penny looked forward to exploring the Amusement Park and the surrounding woods, without a lot of the grownups around who visited on the weekends. A mile from Madison Park the cable car reached the bottom of Madison Street, and the boys leaned out of the street car anticipating the thrill of passing over the trestle that spanned Madison Valley and the salmon stream down below. On both sides of the tracks were thick forests that stretched north to Union Bay and south and over the top of Madrona Hill. “I wonder if we could shoot a bear down there,”  Penny called over the clickety-clack of the street car wheels. Wee hustled over to the open window and stared into the thick, green woods. “Yah,” he said with a smile, “Or maybe we could track down some wolves.” As they crossed the wooden bridge, Wee pointed down at the river that flowed towards Union Bay. “My father caught a fish down there once and we ate it for dinner.” Penny stared down at the flowing river, then looked at his pal. “You never told me about that. What kind of fish?” “It was a salmon,” said Wee. “And my mother cleaned it and she cooked it in her oven at home.” Finally, Penny knit his brow and pursed his lips. “Hey, the next time your father goes fishing we should go with him.” Wee nodded immediately and said, “OK and maybe we could camp out too.”

The boys reached the end of the line at Judge J.J. McGilvra’s 21-acre site, which was bisected into north and south sections by Madison Street all the way to Lake Washington. On the north side was a football field and the “Madison Street Ball Park”, Seattle’s first baseball field, a crude diamond built in 1890. Willie glanced over his shoulder and could see a group of boys playing football on the crisp fall day. However, Penny and he were headed for the south side and the “Amusement Park” where a large Victorian structure on the Lake, known as the Madison Street Park Pavilion, was located. Also occupying the site was an ornate boathouse, piers jutting out into the lake, a lake side wooden promenade, a beer hall and twin bandstands with seating for a thousand people . The boys each purchased a bottle of sarsaparilla and wandered south toward the woods surrounding Judge McGilvra’s mansion at Laurel Shade.

Hustling back to the cable car an hour later, Wee and Penny could see that the boys were still playing football. Wee and Penny noted that the boys were bigger than them but it didn’t stop Wee from calling out. “Can we play football with you?” The older boys stopped their scrimmaging for a moment and looked at the short ten-year old with his dungarees flapping around his ankles. “Come back when you get bigger “short pants,” one of them said with a laugh.

Wee and Penny stared at the older boys for a moment then trudged away toward the street car stop. After a few moments, Wee stopped and turned back toward the field and yelled. “My name’s not short pants; it’s Wee Coyle!” Penny stared at his friend briefly then followed up with, “And my name’s Penny Westover!” The bigger boys continued playing, not having heard the boys or even caring. The two friends fell in next to each other with a little more spring in their step. “Wee sounds better than shorty anyway,” said Penny. Wee put his arm around his friend’s shoulder and grinned. Then his eyes narrowed and he said, “Someday I’m going to play football on that field.”

Eight years later, on January 1, 1907, junior quarterback William Jennings "Wee" Coyle stepped confidently into the huddle on that same muddy Madison Park field, grinned slightly and stared at his Seattle High School teammates. “This is it boys. There’s less than a minute left and we’re not going to get any second chances. Those fellows from Chicago think they’ve won the National Championship but I know they haven’t. Are you ready?” His focused gaze took in each of his teammates and unanimously they muttered and grumbled with agreement and belief at what their captain had just said. “All right,” he said with conviction, “thirty-four cross buck on two.”  As the Seattle eleven broke the huddle eight thousand hometown fans, who surrounded the field and packed into the overflowing stands, rose as one and let out a booming roar for their local boys. Wee slapped his fullback Penny Westover on the shoulder and the Seattle High School eleven marched resolutely toward the scrimmage line, dug in and prepared their march for the North Division Wolves’ goal line seventy-four yards away.

Click here to read Chapter II.

Will Lomen can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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