Arrow-right Camera


Pullman Comfortable With Itself California Columnist Finds Town Is Long Way From Urban Reality

The city fathers of Three Forks offered to rename their village after George Pullman.

All they wanted was a little commerce in return.

But Pullman, for whom the railroad sleeper car was already named, turned up his industrialist nose. He gave them $50 and never showed up.

They call it Pullman anyway.

That’s how nice they are.

And who knows? George still might be on his way, fogged in somewhere.

After all, it was only 1881.

Those who manage to find Pullman are not just passing through. They mean to get here. This is a speck in Washington’s southeast corner, 8 miles from Idaho, much more of a neighbor to Calgary than L.A.

“I have the most frequent-flier miles in the world,” said Sam Smith, Washington State University’s president, “for somebody who can’t upgrade to first class. The planes that come in here don’t have it. Of course, I’m hoping they’ll name one of those planes after me.”

They might rename everything if Washington State beats Michigan in the first Rose Bowl it has seen since 1931.

Back then, there was no Heisman, no Final Four, and one World War. The Cougars went 10-1 this season and beat the despised Washington Huskies, in Seattle, to wrap up the Pac-10 title Nov. 22.

Honking cars tied up the two-block business district here (the students were gone), and coaches and players cried on the Husky Stadium turf.

“I always said WSU people lived for the other shoe to drop,” said Jim Walden, the Cougars’ coach for nine seasons. “The negativity was something they were addicted to. They thought they would always ‘Coug it,’ screw it up. One year, we went 7-4 and didn’t even go to a bowl.

“But I loved living there. I turned down better-paying jobs to stay there. I never figured out the loyalty. It’s almost mystic.”

Isolation often is. At first, Pullman feels like exile. It is not only 1,176 miles from Pasadena but 288 from Seattle. The 76-mile drive from Spokane is spooky enough - you can almost hear Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the background, from “Love And Death,” chanting, “Wheat, wheat, miles of wheat …” At last, you’re in Pullman. Never have 13 traffic lights seemed so cosmopolitan.

“We don’t have a jewelry store here, don’t have a shoe store,” said Ken Vogel, who sells clothes and, during Christmas, lets the Palouse Rail Society run electric trains in his storefront window.

“When school’s out, there’s only about 7,000 local yokels. About a half-day every month, I have to get out of town just to keep my sanity. Then I come over the hill and say, wow, I’m home again.”

“I had one player I had to recruit every morning, to keep him from leaving,” said Bobo Brayton, the former baseball coach. “Then I saw him a few years later. and he said he was going to raise his kids here. This place will grow on you.

“I think people are happy here. It depends on the farmers. If they have a good year, then we’re in a good mood.”

How often do they have a good year?

“Every year,” Brayton said. “They cry and moan and then spend the winter in Mazatlan.”

Is this really the Pac-10? They talk about blizzards and combines and the annual Lentil Festival. The police are busy, but only because students park illegally - Vogel has lived here 24 years and remembers two murders. “It really is like Cheers - everybody knows your name,” Walden said.

The other morning, Brayton showed up at the local coffee hangout, A Small Place (next time you have a craving for ‘Cougar Gold” cheese on top of your hash browns, check it out).

By Pullman standards, Bobo was in a rush.

“Gotta go to a funeral at 11,” he said, behind the wheel. “But I’m going to run this bread by the gym first.”

Brayton parked his Chrysler outside the equipment room. Inside, WSU football staffers were cooking meatballs. Brayton left the car unlocked. Which wasn’t that big a deal, except he left the keys in it. Which wasn’t that big a deal, except he left it running.

He barged around the halls for 10 minutes, ran into football coach Mike Price, returned to the car and dropped some more bread off at a women’s dorm. This time, Bobo emerged with chocolate chip cookies (Pullman residents are always prepared for famine - Vogel won’t let anyone shop without chocolate.)

“I’m about to get a flat tire,” Bobo said. “But that’s OK, I’ll get it fixed in time.”

But how about Nov. 22 in Seattle?

“Yeah, I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go hunt moose up in Colville,” Bobo said. “I didn’t go to the (Washington) game. The Game Commission picked three names out of 1,500, and I was one of ‘em. I was hunting for days and didn’t see a moose, then my wife came up and spotted one in 30 minutes… . But a few years ago, a moose walked out of the woods here, walked right into town.”

Bobo pulled into the tire store. No appointment necessary. He got Kyle, behind the desk, to get it patched up for him.

“Hey, you don’t have any Rose Bowl tickets, do you?” Kyle asked.

That question has cast a shadow on what Smith calls “this delightful enclave.”

The 105,000-seat Rose Bowl isn’t big enough for the Cougars, let alone Michigan. WSU got 123,000 phone calls the Monday after clinching. The average volume is 7,000.

“This is not a football game, it’s a major event in people’s lives,” said Mary Gresch, a Brea, Calif., native who works in WSU’s communications department. “You get letters from people: We’ve been waiting since 1937… . I was Butch The Cougar (mascot), does that help? … Give me some tickets so I can get on with my life.

“When we called the ticket lottery winners and asked them about their travel plans, most of them were already set. They had their hotels and planes. They were going, no matter what. We’ll have the biggest Cougar tailgate party in history, and a lot of those people won’t get into the game.”

There is no distinction between town and gown in Pullman. Cougar grad Ed Schweitzer is the town tycoon, an WSU electrical engineering grad who devised a way to fix circuit problems in hydroelectric systems, and is in the Forbes 500. Schweitzer personally has tackled Pullman’s housing problems and given the place its first industrial park.

However, the quintessential Cougar is Mike Lowry, a CPA who supposedly stifled his baby boy’s first words until the kid was ready to say, “Beat The Huskies.”

Edward R. Murrow was a Coug, as is Paul Allen, computer mogul and owner of the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers. Today’s most visible WSU man is ABC’s Keith Jackson (who will announce the Rose Bowl alongside Bob Griese, whose son quarterbacks Michigan). But the most appropriate grad is Gary Larson, whose hallucinations, born of Pullman fever, became the incomparable Far Side cartoons.

“The togetherness makes it unique,” said Connie Kravas, WSU vice president of development. “There’s one high school, one junior high, one university. Few places have that unanimity. Everyone’s a Cougar.”

“About 35 percent of our graduates give money back,” Smith said. “The national average is 16 percent. There’s a tremendous loyalty here, and I think it’s because it’s a residential campus. It’s too far for most students to go home for the weekend. They stay here and make friendships that last a long time.”

It is not unusual for WSU instructors to write their office and home phone numbers on the blackboard, on the first day of class.

It is, however, mandatory for students to maintain a writing portfolio, regardless of major, and to have written something sensible and literate before graduating. The “cross-curriculum writing” program is a favorite of Smith’s, another way to dissolve the agricultural and engineering stereotypes.

“The student is the focus of learning here, not the instructor,” Smith said. “That’s a little unusual these days.”

Smith likes football, too. He is a past president of the Presidents Commission On Athletics (which means he opposes the Division I-A playoff that the Cougars might have used to win a national title).

He supervises the use of Proposition 48 football players, who sit out their freshman seasons because of low test scores. WSU uses Prop 48s more often than its Pac-10 competitors, although nobody complained until this year.

“We feel it’s important what they learn when they leave, not how they rank when they get here,” Smith said. “There’s no education section in the paper, but there is a sports section. It’s the most visible thing a university does.”

Wide receiver Chris Jackson is part of that visibility, that tip of WSU’s iceberg. Except part of the tip is black.

In the 1990 census, Pullman had 462 African-Americans. Most were WSU students. Thirty-two of this year’s returning football lettermen were black.

“I haven’t run into much racism,” said Jackson, who followed brother Ray from Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) to Washington State. “Sometimes when you’re drinking at somebody else’s party, you’ll hear a racial slur. When they realize you’re an athlete, they change around and start praising you.

“The people are very friendly and supportive, but the problem is that you can’t do anything without somebody knowing it. They put the DUIs, the incidents in the paper, especially if you’re an athlete. And people drink a lot. I guess it’s because it’s so boring. I was studying at a guy’s house, and he was drinking six, seven beers while he’s reading. I don’t know how that enhanced his studies. I can see where there’d be alcoholics here.”

Walden said his staff “did a lot of research” on barber shops that catered to blacks, churches where blacks felt comfortable. Jackson said they entertain themselves.

“On Thursday night, there’s a hole-in-the-wall called The Zoo, where they play ‘70s funk,” he said. “The rest of the time, we take the party with us. It’s basically underground, just a phone call away. The fraternities and sororities are active, and there’s a cultural center where they emphasize the studying.”

It’s not so bad, he said with the weary smile of the Hessian.

“I cherish the experiences here, and the Rose Bowl is overwhelming,” he said. “We turned Hicksville into a frenzy.

“But when it’s over, and I want to talk to Coach Price, I’ll get him on the phone. I probably won’t come back. It’s too far.”

Which summons the original question: Why here?

Bob Smalley, at the Alumni Center, knows the real story.

Four businessmen so badly wanted the school that they donated 160 acres and put up $15,000. Since the land sat on 12 artesian wells, the board of regents agreed. Pullman got the land-grant college, and Walla Walla got the state prison.

“There were some who thought Walla Walla got the more stable population,” Connie Kravas said.

Yakima, nearer the center of the state, was outraged. It got an injunction banning the regents from meeting to approve Pullman. The deputies came to enforce the injunction, but were intercepted by Pullman’s finest - Judge Thomas Neill, Dr. H.J. Webb, E.H. Letterman and Sen. A.T. Farris. Those civic leaders took the lawmen on a Pullman tour, before the meeting.

“There were 12 buildings in town, and six were taverns,” Smalley said. “By the time they finished, the meeting was over and Pullman was approved.”

Thus began 105 years of happy hours in Pullman, all somehow building toward Jan. 1.

“And I wonder what we’ll all have to talk about on Jan. 2,” Ken Vogel wondered.

They’ll find something. Familiarity breeds conversation. By the way, Bobo Brayton got his tire fixed in 10 minutes and made the funeral with no problem. “Ain’t it great,” he asked in a tone that precluded argument, “to live in a small town?”