Alumni Spotlight - Bill Tsoukalas

Batting a thousand for kids

By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist

The scene reads like the opening of a Steven Spielberg movie: boy, growing up in the 1950s, sitting on a back porch on a lazy sunny afternoon. Close-up of a man's hand knocking on the front door. Cut to boy running toward the door. Cue the music.

It's not a movie, but Bill Tsoukalas' story would make a good one. He vividly recalls the summer day when, as a ten-year-old boy, his life took a turn.

"Mr. Case, a Little League coach, was going door to door, knocking. He said, 'I'm just trying to find people who might be interested in playing baseball,’" Bill said.

Bill took up Mr. Case’s offer to play Little League ball, a decision that would have far-reaching effects in his life.

The eldest of ten siblings and the grandchild of Greek immigrants, Bill grew up in Seattle's Wallingford district. Raised in a Greek-speaking household, he didn't speak English until he started school as a kindergartener.

"I tell the story 'tongue-in-cheek,' but it's true: I was the oldest of ten--with seven sisters--and grew up in a house with one bathroom and no shower," Bill chuckled.

Bill's father was a commercial fisherman who was often away from home, owing to the Alaskan fishing season.

"There was a 17-year difference between me and my youngest sibling," Bill remarked. "Put it this way: I took my mom to the hospital to deliver a baby more times than my dad," he laughed. "When I graduated from high school, my youngest sister was just born. I remember people sleeping everywhere and always in cribs."

Like most of his friends growing up in the blue-collar neighborhood, Bill had no real aspirations to attend college.

"We never had the college discussion in our home, not for any negative reasons," Bill said. "When you're raising ten kids, I'm not sure you have conversations about anything other than how to put food on the table."

Mr. Case's invitation to play Little League baseball opened up a new world to Bill in ways he never could have imagined. Through the baseball team, Bill discovered the Wallingford neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, where he spent many hours honing his athletic skills and being mentored by coaches and other adults.

By the time he graduated from Seattle's Lincoln High School in 1965, Bill was a stand-out baseball pitcher with several offers to play college baseball, along with paid college tuition. He selected Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman.

"I probably wouldn't have gone to college without baseball. I had choices where to go, but I chose WSU because, at the time, theirs was the top program and they wanted me."

Bill admits to "flying blind," as he didn't show up to the WSU campus until the first day of class.

"I didn't have the best classes because I got there late and I failed in one key respect—to have an understanding with the baseball coach which position I was going to play."

Although Bill was recruited to pitch for the WSU team, he also wanted the chance to play first base. But Coach Chuck ("Bobo") Brayton had other plans for Bill. Along with another freshman pitcher, a disgruntled Bill decided to leave WSU after only one semester.

"In hindsight, I realize I should have been more professional and told the coach I was leaving, but I didn't," he said. "I don't blame him for being upset, losing his top two pitchers."

Coach Brayton filed a complaint with the NCAA, saying that the two players had been illegally recruited away from WSU, though it wasn't the case. Bill had an option to play baseball for Seattle University, but the rules were that a player could not go from one four-year school to another within the same year. He would have to sit out a year.

Bill elected to attend Everett Junior College (now Everett Community College or "EvCC"), an option that had several benefits.

"It fit my goal in sports, my academic goals, and provided me the transition and continuity to keep my goals alive between four-year institutions," Bill recalled.

Bill's turn at EvCC paid big dividends in every area of his life.

"While I was at EvCC, I lived in the apartments right across the street from the campus and got a job long shoring on the waterfront," he said.

Bill's most distinct memory of the time was being on the bottom of a ship as the logs were loaded and tied with a chain.

"I looked up from the bottom of the ship at those logs and thought, 'Here I am,'" he said. "'If that chain breaks, we're all gone.'"

Bill soon realized there were better things to do.

"I didn't really want to do that for the rest of my life," he grinned.

What he really wanted to do was play baseball for as long as he could. After that, "I wanted to either teach or be a high school coach—that was my target," he said.

Bill's time at EvCC was memorable for one other reason: it is the only year in the college's history that the baseball team won the state championship. Bill and his fellow transferee from WSU pitched the team to the state title, securing his entry in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.

"When I think of EvCC, the word that comes to mind is 'oasis,'" Bill said thoughtfully. "It was a kind of refreshing pause for me to get realigned, a place where I could actually catch my breath and be able to continue my goals. It was peaceful."

An added benefit was that Bill's skill set had been validated for the four-year colleges who were still interested in him. After graduating EvCC in 1967, Bill moved to Seattle University, where he continued to play baseball and received his bachelor's degree in education, graduating in 1969.

By this time, professional baseball teams had taken note of Bill's pitching prowess. Within a 30-day span, Bill graduated from college, signed a teaching contract with Seattle School District, signed to play professional baseball with the Cleveland Indians, and was married.

"Basically, I went from being this college student who played baseball to the real world—the wake-up call that everybody goes through—from the frying pan into the fire," Bill said, smiling.

After a brief honeymoon, Bill said good-bye to his new wife, Judy, and joined Cleveland’s minor league team in Reno to start his professional baseball career.

He returned to Seattle after Labor Day 1969, ready to jump into the classroom for his first year as a school teacher.

"I was an elementary physical education teacher in a school that didn't have a gym," he said. Bill soon realized that he was a "fish out of water."

"I wanted to be a high school teacher and my education didn't prepare me to deal with kindergarten kids," he remarked. "But it was a job and it was in education. I figured it was my first step up the ladder. Besides," he added, "there were no high school or coaching jobs at the time."

During this time, the Vietnam War was an ever-present reality that lingered in the background of Bill's life. He had received an education deferment during college, avoiding the draft. He hoped to obtain an occupational deferment as well.

"You could get an occupational deferment based on the critical need for your job," he explained.

The school district agreed to write a letter to the draft board on Bill's behalf, saying there was a critical shortage of male elementary school teachers—luckily, true.

"Everything was fine until spring rolled around," Bill remembered. "If I was going to play baseball, I had to go to spring training in March—and school was still in session."

Bill appealed to the school district, asking for a leave of absence in order to play baseball. The district agreed to the leave, with the understanding that he needed to make a decision by the start of the next school year: choose either baseball or teaching.

In August, however, the decision was made for Bill by the Selective Service department.

"They discovered I'd left the school district to play baseball," he said. "I was reclassified and told to report for induction at the end of August."

At the time, Bill's wife was expecting their first child and due to deliver in late August. Bill planned to come home for his induction, but didn't tell Judy about it until after the birth of their son, afraid of upsetting her.

"She thought I was coming home for the birth of our baby," Bill recalled. "After John was born, I broke the news to her. A week later, Judy drove me to the induction station and we said our good-byes."

Bill described what happened next as a fluke or maybe dumb luck: after reporting to the induction station, Bill Tsoukalas—professional athlete and pitcher for the Cleveland Indians—flunked the physical.

"I have a minor back vertebrae problem when I'm on my feet too long, although it didn't bother me playing baseball," he said.

Whether the examining physician was anti-war, a baseball fan, or just the right doctor at the right time, Bill does not know. After examining Bill, the doctor said, "Go home."

"I didn't take any chances," Bill recalled. "I walked far away from there, called my wife, and said, 'Come and get me.'"

As a result, Bill never got back in the classroom. He continued to play baseball and, during the off-season, volunteered to work at the Boys & Girls Club where he grew up in Wallingford. Unfortunately, his baseball career came to an end much sooner than he would have liked.

"I was going to play baseball as long as they'd have me, but, after an injury, I just wasn't effective—I couldn't throw," he recalled.

Although disappointed, Bill realized that he couldn't play baseball forever.

"I had to grow up," he admitted. "Playing professional baseball sounds glamorous, but it was pretty nomadic for us. We literally moved three times a year. We didn't even unpack our wedding gifts for about five years."

About the time Bill left baseball, the Wallingford Boys & Girls Club in Seattle was looking for an Athletic Director.

"I was looking for work and said, 'Why not?'" Bill remembered.

A few months later, the club director left and Bill had a chance to jump into that position. It seemed that Bill had come full circle.

"I got into baseball through that club—it was the doorway for me to take a different path in life, rather than being a fisherman, like my dad, or a farmer, like my grandfather. I was fortunate to have that path," Bill said.

The job proved to be a perfect fit for Bill's talents.

"I liked that I was in a job that tested me in all these different ways: my creativity, dealing with the public, the building, people, budgets, fundraising, all that stuff," he said.

It was the start of a long and productive career with the Boys & Girls Club. Over the years, Bill worked his way up the levels of the King County club administration and obtained a Master of Education in Educational Administration from Seattle University in 1976. He eventually landed at the Snohomish County Boys & Girls Club in 1987, taking over as Executive Director in 1992.

During Bill's tenure with the Snohomish County club, the organization has grown seven times larger in the number of club locations. Despite the faltering economy, 2011 was one of the club's best years in attendance and financial support.

"Families that got stretched, laid off, or downsized in their jobs made a decision not to shortchange their kids. That's our read on it," Bill explained.
 
About 50% of the Boys & Girls Club revenue comes directly from participants and the other 50% is generated through private donations.

"Other organizations say that if you're going to have a club, it has to generate enough revenue to keep the doors open," Bill explained. "We've never taken that position. We're not going to penalize kids for the dollar that's missing."

Bill's philosophy is to find the money somewhere else and put it into the "deficit club," as long as the money comes in. This balancing act has allowed the club to operate in neighborhoods and serve kids where it might not otherwise be present.

"We are partners with a lot of different organizations, particularly with facilities we share with cities and school districts," Bill said. "I found out early on that you can't always be asking—you also have to learn to give back. If you give and you are a player in the community, then you increase the chances of getting something back."

About half of the clubs are in neighborhoods that can't generate enough dollars to match expenses, but the Boys & Girls Club is still there.

"A large part of what I do is find those extra dollars to put into places like that," Bill said.

How does that play out with an average family using the club's services?

"To be able to come into our buildings every day, have something to eat, do homework, exercise, play, be with friends, is $30 a year, so you can't beat the price," Bill enthused. "You get the facility, activity, and what we call the 'mentor.' It actually costs us about $350 a year to provide services for that child."

What does Bill find rewarding about it all?

"Opportunities," he said. "We provide for all kids, but particularly for kids that need it the most. I put myself in those shoes because I didn't have much and the club in my neighborhood opened up a world to me," he said. "I feel like I'm at least opening up a world for somebody out there."

The best example may be a young woman in a photo on Bill's office wall. As Bill tells it, the young woman grew up in north Everett in public housing, just a few blocks from EvCC.

"Her circumstances were as bad as you can get," he said. "Five siblings—all with different dads—she was the second youngest; none of her family had graduated from high school and her three older siblings had been in and out of jail."

When she was nine or ten years old, living a stone's throw from the Everett Boys & Girls Club, someone from the club knocked on her door, asking, "'Why don't you come over?'"

"It opened up a world for her," Bill continued. "Not only was she the first person in her family to graduate from high school, but she graduated from college and is today a dentist—soon to be an orthodontist—living in Yakima and raising a family."

For Bill, these are the stories that make his job worthwhile. He proudly points out that the young woman’s photo was taken in the Oval Office, alongside the President of the United States.

"There's a big world of opportunity out there and a lot of it is achievable if you're willing to pay your dues," Bill observed.

From the boy of humble beginnings whose life was changed by a knock on his door, to the CEO of an organization dedicated to working with youth, Bill Tsoukalas feels a responsibility to do something good with what he has been given.

"I know there are a lot of people that struggle in the world. For whatever reason, I've been fortunate enough to have been given opportunities," he reflected. "I owe that person who gave me the opportunity the responsibility to do it right and give something back in return."