June 16, 2004 in Sports

Prep sports chronicler Derrick dies

By The Spokesman-Review
 
File/ photo

Merle “Doc” Derrick, who died Tuesday at the age of 76, once said high school sports were his “third love, behind my wife and family, of course.”
(Full-size photo)

For going on two decades, the brown sweater has followed The Spokesman-Review sports department from one move to another. For a while there, it was on the back of its owner, protecting slumping shoulders from the chill of an unforgiving air conditioner.

For the last 12 years, it has hung faithfully in the sports department newsroom, the intended start to a sports staff “hall of fame” that never expanded.

But maybe that’s as it should be. Certainly few – if any – who have followed Merle Derrick in the S-R sports department have racked up hall-of-fame numbers. Derrick, age 76, died Tuesday morning after a long battle with lung disease.

The sweater is more than a tribute. It’s a reminder of the impact the man known as “Doc” left not only on his colleagues, but the Spokane sports community as well, and especially the high school beat.

Albert Merle Derrick was still in high school – North Central, Class of 1945 – when he started working for the now-defunct Spokane Chronicle, the city’s evening newspaper, as a 16-year-old in April 1944.

His first responsibilities were transcribing line scores from major league baseball box scores sent by the Associated Press. Within weeks, he found himself covering high school track and baseball, and a 48-year career spent mostly on the prep beat was born. .

But it wasn’t continuous, Derrick would point out himself. Eighteen months after picking up his first paycheck from the newspaper, he was sworn into the Army – an hour after his father, Eugene, was discharged.

Following his military hitch, spent mostly in the Aleutian Islands, Derrick returned to the Chronicle sports department and assumed an assortment of responsibilities. Though he wrote on just about everything the newspaper has covered through the years, it was on the high school beat that Derrick’s name became a synonym for integrity and professionalism.

He succeeded his boss, the late Bob Johnson, as both sports editor of the Chronicle and high school beat writer, taking over the latter duties in 1958.

His column logo was “Merle Derrick’s Footnotes,” and featured a caricature of a youthful-looking writer taking notes with his large-sized feet substituting for the o’s in Footnotes. That came from his nickname, “Feet,” given to him by childhood friends because his feet were the largest in the crowd.

But it was his other nickname, “Doc,” derived from his initials M.D., by which he became best-known.

Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Chronicle sports section featured picks of high school football and basketball games. As beat writer, Derrick made selections under the pseudonym “Doc’s Picks.” It was closely followed, but his selections were not always universally accepted. And he usually heard about it when one of his picks went astray.

On such occasions, when the next day’s mail would arrive, he would quip, “Got another one of those letters: ‘Dear Sir, you bum?’ ”

Football coach Mike McLaughlin expressed in a letter to the sports editor in 1991, following Derrick’s final season covering Greater Spokane League football, the sentiments echoed by many who followed high school sports just what Derrick meant to the community.

“I can still vividly recall eagerly awaiting to read ‘Doc’s Picks’ as a high school athlete,” wrote McLaughlin, now head coach at Mt. Spokane, “and reading the follow-up stories after the games. Merle has a great talent for capturing the feel of a game, the emotional swings and the effect of victory or defeat on both teams. He greatly enhanced my high school experience.”

Former Chronicle and Spokesman-Review columnist Dan Weaver wrote in a column on the occasion of Derrick’s retirement in 1992, “The man was never shy about showing his human side. He laughs at your jokes. He’s good to his wife. He loves to argue. He’s proud of his work, justifiably so.

“Doc made it in a young person’s game. Writers move on, reporters move over, editors move up. Derrick stayed put, from 16 to 64.”

Actually he stayed longer. After a short break following his “official” June 1, 1992 retirement, Derrick was back in September making the long climb up the Albi Stadium steps to the press box to help his prep beat replacement, Dave Trimmer, keep statistics for GSL games. It was a responsibility Derrick would fulfill for five more years. “It was my good fortune to work with Doc in three different capacities: reporting rivals, as my boss and as his boss,” said former S-R Sports Editor Jeff Jordan. “In our years together he was always the same good man, who loved the games he covered and marveled at the athletes who played them.”

Derrick was, Weaver pointed out, “a marvel of reliability.”

In his own retirement column on April 30, 1992, Derrick wrote that the high school sports world was his “third love, behind my wife and family, of course.”

His wife of 45 years, Vonzaa, died in June 1993. They had six children – sons Mike, Scott and Chris, and daughters Kerri Day, Staci Schipanski and Shelli Schindler. He had 14 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

If prep sports came behind his family, other affections high on his list were statistics, newspaper comic pages and the horses, especially those that ran at Playfair Race Course.

He was a prolific statistician. In fact, it was his long hours spent poring through newspaper archives, state programs and school yearbooks that produced what are now the official GSL record books.

He researched and kept meticulous records of Spokane’s early years of senior hockey. He was on that beat for 10 years, including the transition from the old Elm Street Ice Arena to the Spokane Coliseum. He covered the first hockey game and the first high school basketball games in the building in 1954.

By his own count, he covered more than 2,800 high school basketball games. He was also an avid baseball fan, from the minor league Spokane Indians – yes, he covered them, too, but not as the beat writer – on up. It was because of that interest he was playing fantasy baseball before fantasy baseball was popular.

He would put together teams, intermingling some of the game’s greats with its present-day players. Using statistics he compiled and a deck of cards, he spent hours playing nine-inning games. And, yes, he kept statistics of those games – and standings – too.

When he would pull himself away from statistics, he would cull the comics pages of newspapers nationwide and clip and save comics he found especially funny or insightful, or which could be considered classics. Most he started following as a boy.

Through the years he was a member of the Washington State Sports Writers Association, serving on its board, and was given many honors for his contribution to high school sports.

In 1978 he received a commendation award from the Washington Secondary School Administrators. In 1981 it was a 25-Year Award from the Inland Empire Sports Writers and Broadcasters. In 1989 he was elected to the Washington State High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, receiving the group’s Silver Helmet. And after his last days on the job, he was honored as an outstanding contributor by the Inland Northwest Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

“For nearly 50 years he gave his best every day to this newspaper,” said Jordan. “All of us – colleagues and readers – were lucky to have him.”

In his letter to the sports editor in 1991, McLaughlin added:

“I found Merle to be highly professional, moral, unbiased, and doggedly enthusiastic in his pursuit of a story. In the era of ‘media ego,’ it is a joy to work with a professional whose main focus is to report an event of interest and to share an insight into those who provide the thrill and drama of high school athletics. Merle simply enjoyed the experience and attempted to share it with the reading public.”

“It’s only a game,” Derrick often said.

Weaver concluded his column on Doc’s retirement by saying, “Derrick was a veteran, not a dinosaur. He adapted… .

“He filled news holes and scrapbooks like none of us ever have.

“Or ever will.”

Funeral services will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Heritage Funeral Home, 508 N. Government Way.


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