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Sports >  WSU football

Remembering Bill Gaskins, Washington State’s ‘Ambassador’

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 24, 2020

By Chuck Stewart The Spokesman-Review

“The Ambassador.”

That’s the nickname his college football official colleagues gave Washington State University football and track hall of famer Bill Gaskins.

“You could get onto an airplane with him and by the time you got off, he knew everything about you; wife’s name, kids’ names, birthdate, your favorite food … ” Jim Northcott said.

“Same on an elevator; he’d strike up a conversation with the first person he saw,” the president of the Spokane Collegiate Football Officials Association added. “He was quite a guy; so friendly, so outgoing.”

Gaskins, who wound up working his final college game with Northcott in the 2002 Orange Bowl to end a 17-year career as a Pac-10 football official, died Thursday at his Pullman home with his wife of 56 years, Felicia, two children and five grandchildren by his side.

He was 76, 11 days short of his 77th birthday. He had fought cancer for 3½ years, Felicia said.

The outpouring from WSU supporters and former associates echoed Northcott’s sentiments.

“Bill was as fine a person as ever walked the planet. Sad day for Cougar Nation,” tweeted Cougfan.com.

“So sad to hear the passing of another Cougar great, Bill Gaskins. Met him my Fr year and was one of the nicest Cougs I ever met. He was an amazing man. #GoCougs,” tweeted WSU football legend and Hall of Famer Jack Thompson.

Former WSU volleyball coach Cindy Fredrick tweeted, “Bill was truly one of the best people! This is so heartbreaking.”

Gaskins arrived at WSU with a dual scholarship for football and track and field, which didn’t set well with Bert Clark, his second football coach.

Clark, who arrived in 1964 to replace Jim Sutherland, thought all his players should participate in spring practice. But Gaskins, a sprinter/hurdler on the Cougars’ track team, felt he had an obligation to the track team, too, and needed to honor that commitment. He held his ground.

He was a star on the renowned 1965 Cardiac Kids team, celebrated for its heart-stopping comebacks and narrow victories during a 7-3 record his senior year. He kicked two extra points in a 14-13 come-from-behind victory over Minnesota and had two of his season-high five interceptions in late-game situations that turned potential losses to Villanova and Oregon State into wins.

Mike Price, who would become a Hall of Fame coach for the Cougars, was a quarterback on the ’65 team.

“I was on that team,” he later recalled. “We came out here (to the Midwest) and beat Iowa 7-0 and 14-13 over Minnesota. Bill Gaskins kicked both extra points because our kicker (former Gonzaga Prep star Ted Gerela) was hurt and he’d never kicked since high school.”

Following that season, Gaskins, a safety who occasionally saw time as a running back and was a kick return specialist, was named to the United Press International and Newspaper Enterprise Association All-America second teams, along with gaining All-West Coast and All-Pac-8 honors. He also received the team’s inspirational award, given in the name of former athletic director J. Fred Bohler.

In 1990, Gaskins was inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to hear the applause. He was in Arizona, honoring a commitment to officiate a football game. Felicia and son William III accepted the award.

“It was a special evening for our son,” Felicia said. “The kids really didn’t know that much about what their dad did. Bill had said we’re not turning the house into a shrine to Bill Gaskins. So (son Bill) went with me and I think he was pretty impressed.”

After leaving the playing field, Gaskins kept his hand in athletics. He was a Division I track and football official, who worked several major college bowl games during his 17 years working the highest level. He also donated his time as a starter for high school track meets.

“I remember when he started (in the Pac-10) in 1986,” said Northcott, who is now a Pac-12 instant replay official. “We would have (rules) study meetings in Spokane, 10 in the spring, 4-5 in the fall, and he drove to Spokane for all of them. That’s quite a dedication.”

It wasn’t just on the athletic field that the 1962 Lewis and Clark High School graduate left his mark, though. He had been a clinical pharmacy instructor at WSU for 42 years, finishing his career as adjunct clinical assistant professor pharmacotherapy, and director of pharmacy at Pullman Regional Hospital for 43 years, retiring from both positions in 2013.

Felicia said Gaskins wanted to keep his pharmacy license in effect for 50 years, so even after “retiring,” he accepted fill-in shifts, finally stepping aside last year after 50 years and three months.

“Bill Gaskins was a great Cougar,” WSU director of athletics Pat Chun said in a school release. “An All-American and Cougar Hall of Famer for his accomplishments on the playing field,” Chun added. “(But) those paled in comparison to his work after, where he impacted countless lives as an instructor, mentor and friend at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pullman Regional Hospital.”

Felicia was not surprised by the nickname his football official friends hung on him.

“Everywhere he went,” she said, “he’d always ask someone, ‘Where you from?’ and people would start talking. He was making friends all over the place.

“We’d be shopping and in the checkout line and one of the kids would look around and ask, ‘Where’s dad?’ and one of us would answer, ‘He’s off making friends.’ ”

Gaskins was, you could say, an ambassador-in-residence in Pullman.

After arriving there in 1962 to start his highly successful athletic career, Gaskins made the city his adopted home. The family never left the Palouse except for two years (1966 and 1967) he spent in Calgary, Alberta, playing for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League and a pharmacy internship in Puyallup, Washington.

They returned from that brief side trip and he finished up his degree, graduating from the WSU College of Pharmacy in 1969.

“This is the perfect place for us,” said Felicia, who described herself as “a Tacoma girl” who met Gaskins in 1962, fell in love, and married two years later. “We came for four years and ended up staying for life.”

She, daughter Helen, son Bill and granddaughter Hilary all graduated from WSU. Felicia earned a B.A. in music education and later an M.A. in intercultural relations.

In an interview with Cougfan.com in 2018, Gaskins said, “It’s a great place to raise children. The people here are caring and genuine.”

Felicia said part of the reason Bill fell in love with Pullman was his affection for the hospital.

“He was practicing pharmacy in the hospital, working with patients and students. He was able to do all his teaching in a hands-on way in the hospital.”

In 2013 when he retired, a pharmacy scholarship program was established by Pullman Regional Hospital in Gaskins’ name to provide pharmacy students with a rural pharmacy practice experience. Recipients, named Gaskins Scholars, receive $2,500.

“Our students are the best and the brightest,” Gaskins was quoted in 2019. “It has always amazed me that these young men and women keep us fresh by exploring new ways to look at the future.”

“Bill is one of the most generous men I know,” Dr. R. Keith Campbell, a long-time colleague and distinguished professor, was quoted in an article announcing the scholarship.

“His leadership and donation of his time has played a vital role in the development of WSU’s College of Pharmacy, Pullman Hospital and the community. He has also promoted diversity in health care that is so needed.”

Six years later, in 2019, Gaskins was the first recipient of the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences R. Keith Campbell Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Any accomplishments which can be attributed to me are because of the individuals with whom I interacted,” Gaskins was quoted at the time. “I am a perfect example of the prodigious words, ‘It takes a village.’ ”

During the later stages of his battle with cancer, when “the treatments were pretty drastic,” and speaking was difficult, Felicia said Bill and the grandchildren devised a set of hand signals to communicate similar to the system he used officiating.

“A thumbs-up, things like that,” she said. “They knew what they meant.”

Gaskins is survived by his wife, daughter Helen and son-in-law Carl Washington, son Bill and daughter-in-law Carmen Gaskins and five grandchildren – Carlen Washington, Courtney Washington (Adam Ebberbach), Caleb Washington, Hilary Zuniga Camacho and Jorge Zuniga Camacho.

Felicia said because of the pandemic the family will wait to hold services at a later time “when we can all be together.”

“We’ve had a blessed life,” she said.

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