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  • Ednold

McCulloch Stadium 11/18/22

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

This weekend, right before Thanksgiving, the 6-man football classification would be crowning its champion. The team from Mitchell/Spray/Wheeler are back to defend their title against the challengers from Triangle Lake at Caldera High School in Bend. For all of the other classifications it was semi-finals weekend. That’s great, except all of the semi-final games are played at neutral sites, meaning we couldn’t go anywhere to watch any team play on their home field. So, we did the next best thing: We went to Salem to watch the semi-final game between Summit and Thurston at Willamette University’s McCulloch Stadium. Willamette frequently makes its stadium available for use by high schools, and no catalog of Oregon High School football grounds would be complete without a visit to McCulloch Stadium, so we took the opportunity this weekend to watch what promised to be a riveting showdown between the two 5A heavyweights.

Willamette University is the oldest college in the west. It was founded in 1842 as an offshoot of the Methodist Mission, and the city of Salem has grown up around it, including the state capitol building right across State Street from the campus. For over 100 years athletic activities took place on campus, but in 1950 McCulloch Stadium opened a few blocks to the south, and over the past 72 years has hosted the university’s football and track teams.

The stadium is named for Charles McCulloch, who was president of the university’s board of trustees in 1947 when he donated $50,000 to build it. McCulloch must have felt pretty important giving away $50,000, but the real big shot had been dead for 34 years by that time. Asahel Bush had come to Oregon as a young man in 1850 and started the Oregon Statesman newspaper in Oregon City. Three years later when the capital was moved to Salem, Bush and his paper moved too. As well as running his newspaper business, he also did pretty well for himself as the official printer for the State of Oregon before selling out and going into the banking business. By 1868 he and his buddy William Ladd had opened the Ladd and Bush bank in Salem and Bush became extremely wealthy, and ten years later he was ready to build his dream home on the southern fringes of town just south of Mission Street.

Though it was on the edge of town when it was built, its location at the corner of High and Mission streets is practically downtown today. The house is modest by today’s standards, but at the time it was extravagant and sat on a 100 acre parcel of land. Asahel Bush died in 1913, and four years later his children donated over half of the land to the City of Salem as a park. In 1944 Asahel’s son, Asahel III, arranged to have the city buy the rest of the land, and the house, when he died. That bond measure failed, so he sold 10 acres to Willamette University and later the city came up with money to buy the remaining 33 acres which eventually became Bush’s Pasture Park.

The land set aside for the stadium isn’t adjacent to the university, but was just two blocks south, with a hospital and the School for the Blind between them, so it’s within walking distance of campus. With money to build a stadium as well as a place to build it, construction of McCulloch Stadium began in March of 1950 and was ready for its dedication ceremony just 7 months later. The stadium itself is wonderful but, curiously, they forgot to build a place for people to park when they come to a game. There is one little strip of parking off of Mission Street to the north, but it’s not nearly big enough and parking is always a hassle. I don’t know if Asahel Bush III was a football fan, but he lived in the old Bush House until his death in 1953 at the age of 95 so presumably he was able to watch several football games before he passed away. If he did, he didn’t need to worry about parking, and I hope he got in for free.

My grandmother grew up in Salem in the 1920’s and she remembered when Bush’s Pasture Park was just Bush’s pasture, with animals grazing in it and no giant oak trees anywhere. In her later life it must have been as hard for her to understand what it had become as it is for me to imagine it had ever been any different than it is now. She claimed to have played with the Bush children in their pasture as a child, but I don’t know if those were Asahel’s grandchildren or more distant relatives, or just other neighborhood kids. My own dad grew up in the neighborhood when the Bushes still owned a lot of the land and occupied the house; before the pasture was a park and before the stadium had been built, so I’m expecting something big in the comments section below.

On this night I was early enough to grab a parking spot in the tiny lot, but I don’t know where most of the crowd ended up parking. I walked to the eerily unlit entrance at the north end of the field to find a sign telling me that this was a 100% digital ticket event. Once again there was an app to download where I could purchase my ticket and show the code to the guy at the gate with his little scanner. I believe I’ve complained enough about this trend in previous posts, so I’ll give it a rest, but you know how I feel about being made to buy digital tickets. It’s all just a plot to make me feel old.

The capacity of the covered grandstand on the west side of the field is 2,500. The far north and south sections are wooden bleachers, but about ⅔ of the seating in the middle is plastic bucket seats with backs on them. It was definitely an upgrade to what I’d become accustomed to. Under the seating are locker rooms for two teams, offices and athletic training facilities, public restrooms and a large concession stand.

Though I didn’t get to see it, during renovations in 1992 a second story was added above the locker rooms, where there are more offices, conference rooms, and even a few apartments. They’re used as short-term transitional housing for new athletic department employees who help in the upkeep of the stadium in exchange for a place to stay until they find permanent accommodations. There’s a huge press box attached to the roof of the stadium and I don’t know who the PA announcer was but he had a perfect voice for calling a football game and obviously had a lot of experience. If he wasn’t getting paid, he should have been.

The field itself is named for Ted Ogdahl, a former player and coach at Willamette. Artificial turf was installed in 2003, replacing the natural grass, and three years before that the surface of Charles Bowles track, named for a former track coach, was renovated. That’s when the crew installing the new surface realized the original track had been six meters too long! They made the necessary adjustments, but for some people the damage had already been done.

There is no visitors seating on the far side of the field, so both sets of fans sat under the same roof in the big grandstand. As the higher ranked team, Summit were designated the home team and their fans took the north end with Thurston on the south. It was a late-arriving crowd, probably due to the parking situation, but by halftime there must have been 1,500 people in the stands. As a one-night resident of whatever community we visit each week, I always sit with the home fans and root for the home team, but this game presented me with a small conundrum. I decided a seat in the middle would be most appropriate, but I couldn’t think of a reason to root for one team over the other so I just hoped for a close, exciting game and was ready to cheer for anyone who made a good play. The people on either side of me probably thought I was schizophrenic, but I find that keeps people from invading my personal space, so it was all good. It was a clear, cold, dry night, so Summit must have felt right at home in that weather. Otherwise, it felt more like a Thurston home game. If Summit has a band and cheerleading squad they didn’t bring them on the trip with them, but Thurston brought both, and I’m glad they did. Neither did anything exceptional, but it’s just nice to have some music playing and people yelling.

This story isn’t about either of these teams, so I won’t go into detail, but I will tell you they’ve both won state championships before and have been powerhouses at the 5A level for years. On this night, however, it was an uneven matchup. Luckily, there’s a hospital right across the street, because the entire Thurston secondary will need to spend a few days in the burn unit. About halfway through the first quarter Summit realized that their receivers were taller, faster and stronger than any of the opposing defensive backs, and from that point on they exploited that advantage relentlessly and the game was over almost as soon as it started. By halftime the Summit Storm led 41-0.

After the midway point of the second quarter, when the outcome was no longer in doubt, I spent most of my time remembering things I’d seen at the stadium on other occasions, or imagining some of the things I hadn’t been around to see. As with any stadium 72 years old, there have been some memorable moments in the history of McCulloch Stadium. At the first game held at the stadium on October 14, 1950, the team hosted Hawaii and held a ceremony honoring the 1941 football team that had been stranded on the island of Oahu. That Willamette team had lost to the University of Hawaii in Honolulu on the evening of December 6, and after the Japanese attack the following morning coach Spec Keene volunteered his team for 10 days of guard duty to help the island recover. They were given rifles and spread miles of barbed wire on Waikiki beach, among other duties.

This was the same coach Keene who, as coach of the football, basketball and baseball teams in 1929-30 went undefeated in all three sports. Not too shabby. Of course, as a student, he had been a pitcher on the baseball team at Oregon State. The Willamette baseball field, which is right next to McCulloch Stadium and includes a memorial to my brother in-law who pitched for the Bearcats (with a 3.45 career ERA!), is named for Keene. Spec left Willamette in 1947 to return to Corvallis as their athletic director and oversaw the construction of both Parker Stadium and Gill coliseum.

The Giants at McCulloch Stadium

But, back to McCulloch stadium. In 1954, 1955 and 1958 the stadium served as the preseason training camp for the New York Giants football team for six weeks each summer. The players lived in the dorms on campus and practiced at the stadium twice a day. My dad went to see them and get autographs. These were the Giants of Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall, and Kyle Rote. Jim Lee Howell was the coach, but his assistants, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, would eventually become better known. While they were in town, the players and coaches made frequent appearances at community events such as Salem Senators baseball games at old Waters Field, and they put on clinics for local coaches. They even attended the Soap Box Derby races which took place on the track right behind the stadium. That track is still there and you can still watch them race down that hill each summer.

McCulloch was also the site of the first points ever scored in a college football game by a female. In 1997, during a 27-0 beatdown of Linfield (ouch!!) Liz Heaston kicked two extra points for the Willamette Bearcats and went into the history books.

Speaking of the Bearcats, what in the world is that? Is it a bear that’s like a cat? A cat that’s like a bear? Or something else entirely? It’s comforting to know that even Willamette University doesn’t seem to know for sure. My google tells me a bearcat could be a red panda or another animal called a binturong. But I found three pictures of the bearcat mascot from three different eras, and they all look completely different and none of them really look like either of those things. There’s the early bearcat, who looks quite a bit like a rat. Then there’s a newer version who looked more like a Teletubbie. That mascot, Barney, went to the national championship football game in 1997, which is weird because Willamette wasn’t even in the playoffs that season, and Barney never returned from that trip! It’s all very suspicious.

Barney’s whereabouts remain unknown. The possibilities are virtually endless and I wish I knew that whole story, but the result was the university had to get a new mascot. With Barney AWOL, Blitz was unveiled in 2001, and he’s a modern looking bearcat who looks to be mostly just cat. I like him, though. He’s all spiffy and clean, designed to look happy or threatening at the same time depending on your perspective. Other than that, I’m afraid I still have more questions than answers when it comes to bearcats, and the fate of Barney.

Somewhere in the middle of my daydreams I got up and went to the concession stand on the north end of the grandstand and got some nachos and coffee. There was a food truck parked there too, but I was there to check out the stadium food and was a little disappointed. Choices were few, service was slow, and the food was lackluster. My nachos and coffee filled me up and kept me warm, but I see why they called in the food truck to cater to those who wanted some real food.

Due to the size of Thurston’s deficit, the clock ran continuously throughout the second half and by the time I’d finished those nachos the third quarter was almost over and the Colts were on the scoreboard. Summit, to their credit, had pulled their starters and replaced them with players Thurston could deal with, allowing the Colts to score again in the fourth quarter to make the final 41-14.

As the Storm fans celebrated and Colts fans licked their wounds, I congratulated myself for arriving early and finding that parking spot just outside the gate. On my walk out to The Bucket I could see the Soap Box Derby track just to the west, and right behind it the lights from Asahel’s old house and couldn't help wondering why the old man hadn't designated some more of his land for parking.

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19 nov. 2022

I was one of those who grew up among the poison oak and wild berries of Bush's Pasture....before it was a park. And I remember the Giants visits.....especialy Emlen Tunnell. He was a defensive back, the team's first black player, who ended up across the street in the hospital for a couple days. He was their star girl friend's mom was a nurse, and I got to poke my head into his room and say "Hi." First time I ever talked to a real celeb.

Thanks for the history lesson. Mc Stadium has been part of our town for a long time.

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