Lee Cave, Formidable Figure in Track & Field, Passes

Excerpted from the October 2010 TAFWA
(Track and Field Writers Association) Newsletter


By Jack Pfeifer, President


Your newsletter editor and I attended a memorial service last weekend for a man named Lee Cave. It was held on a Sunday afternoon in the cafeteria of Columbia River High School, a school building built nearly 50 years ago in northwest Vancouver, Washington. Lee had been there from the day it opened, and was the track coach – and swim coach, volleyball coach, football coach, basketball coach – almost that long as well. He died last month at 82.

 The place was packed. It was clear the people there revered Lee. They probably knew him better than I did, but I learned a lot about Lee on Sunday afternoon.

 Lee Cave was a lifelong Washingtonian, but he didn’t grow up in Vancouver – a city that is mostly a bedroom community to us here in Portland, across the Columbia – he grew up in one of the most isolated places in America, a “town” not served by a single road. It is called Stehekin, at the northern end of Lake Chelan, and the only way to get there is by boat, seaplane or by overnight hike through the Cascades. I learned that as a boy, Lee made money bringing miners across the lake to town. (It was left to our imagination why miners would pay to cross theake in a rowboat with a kid.) He came from a hardscrabble life, during the Depression, when he learned to get by, and to be inventive and determined.

He took an interest in track, and when the family moved to Twisp, in Okanaogan County, and then to Wenatchee, he joined the track team. In 1946 he ran the 880 at the state meet and finished second to his archrival, George Stimac of nearby Cle Elum. Stimac ran 2:01.2.

After time in the Navy, Lee – by then married to his high school sweetheart, Audrey, who was in attendance on Sunday along with their five children – went to Washington State College. He and Audrey lived in a trailer, which was what they could afford on the G.I. Bill. The track team was coached by Jack Mooberry, who was to coach at the school for 28 years, until he was replaced by John Chaplin.

Not longer after, in 1951, WSC went to the Drake Relays and, lo and behold, won the 2-mile relay, running 7:38.6 to become the first team to break 7:40 at Drake (no one did this at Penn until 1954). Lee Cave ran leadoff on that team. “Coach Mooberry chose Lee to lead off,” said Clem Eischen, who ran third leg that day and who was in attendance on Sunday, “because Lee was a tough guy who would not be intimidated.” Was I surprised to learn that my old friend Lee Cave had led off a championship 2-mile-relay team at Drake Relays, and that he was one of two members of the team who had not run in the Olympic Games?

The Cougars’ squad was Cave, Stimac – yes, Lee passed off to the fellow from Cle Elum who had beaten him at the ’46 state meet – Eischen and Bill Parnell. Eischen ran in the ’48 Games for the U.S. in the 1,500, and was a Washington state high school champion himself, winning the state mile for Vancouver High in 1944, and Parnell ran the 8 and 15 for Canada in ’48 and ’52.

After graduation, Lee, no stranger to small-town life – to this day, Stehekin still has a one-room schoolhouse — coached and taught in two tiny Washington communities, Nespelem and White Swan. Both were on Indian reservations, Nespelem on the Colville, White Swan the Yakima. In time, he wound up in Vancouver, where he started at Fort Vancouver (“Fort” for short), moved on to Hudson’s Bay and wound up at brand-new Columbia River (“River” for short).

The Vancouver city track championships every spring were legendary, when Johnny Eagle at Fort, Roy Burns at Hudson’s Bay and Lee Cave at River would get together and fight and scratch for every point. By this summer, only Lee was still around; members of the Eagle and Burns families were on hand on Sunday in his honor.  

So were veterans of his track squads, including the 1965 Washington state mile champion, Roscoe Divine, who ran 4:12.2 a year after Gerry Lindgren ran 4:06.0. Divine also led River to the state championship in cross country. He went on to the University of Oregon, where he ran for Bill Bowerman and won the Pac-8 mile twice. Divine spoke fondly of his old coach.

“What I remember best,” Divine said, “were the trips he and I would take to meets when it was just the two of us in the car. Lee was a historian, an amateur anthropologist, an archaeologist.

“We’d be driving up the Gorge, and he’d say this is where Celilo Falls used to be, until the dams wiped out the Indians’ fishing. This is The Dalles, on the way to one of the Japanese internment camps. That wasn’t fair,” he said, “what we did to the Japanese.

“We’d cross the Columbia, and he’d tell me the story of the electrification of Central Washington. Every trip with Coach Cave was a history lesson.”

As this quiet get-together in a school cafeteria in Vancouver was a history lesson for me as well. It reminded me that our little “niche” sport – one of those cute little non-revenue, “Olympic” sports, as they like to call us – has a personality of its own. It has a fiber and determination that make it different from the money boys and the jampacked arenas of football and basketball. It is more like a family than an industry, with its quirky personalities, its quiet strivers, its star runners from one-room schoolhouses who go on to spend a lifetime teaching, coaching, raising their own kids and other people’s kids, filling the cafeteria even when they’re gone.