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An Interview with Dr. Bill Hutchinson

Dr. Bill Hutchinson was a superb surgeon at Swedish Hospital for 40 years.  He was touched by the cancer patients he treated, so he started the Pacific Northwest Research Center in 1955 and it is still in operation.  Then in 1975 he did it again, only this time on a grander scale, when he founded the world- renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as a memorial to his brother Fred, a Major League baseball pitcher and manager who died of lung cancer in 1964.

Dr. Hutchinson served as the cancer center’s first director through 1981 and its first president through 1985.  The center is known worldwide for its pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation for leukemia, basic cancer research and cancer-prevention research.

I became acquainted with Charlotte and Bill Hutchinson in the ‘40s when I was a teenager delivering merchandise to their home on Lake Washington from my Dad’s business, Grayson & Brown Hardware and Furniture Co. in Columbia City. They were long time members of our predecessor organization, the Pioneers of Columbia City and became Life Members in the Rainier Valley Historical Society when we changed the name in 1993. 

Shortly after Dr. Bill retired in 1996, he and Charlotte agreed to an oral history interview with me regarding some of their experiences here in the Valley where he resided during most of his lifetime.   It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever had and ironically he passed away almost a year to the day after that interview. There isn’t room here to print the entire interview but I would like to relate some of the highlights from that tape.

Rather than an interview, I prefer to think of that conversation between Charlotte, Dr.Bill and myself, as a couple hours of reminiscing about Rainier Valley’s past, some events that we were both involved in and the tremendous influence Bill’s life had on so many people. 

It was in 1951, when I was managing the sporting goods department at the store, that I decided Rainier Valley should have a Little League Baseball organization. The National Little League had been started in the east the year before. The first thing we needed were sponsors so I placed a phone call to Dr. Bill.  Of course he jumped at the chance and became our first sponsor and was involved for years as sponsor and coach. Within three years we had 36 teams. 

RVHS Photo: 1993.001.0022

Bill named his team the Tigers after the Detroit Tigers where brother Fred made a name for himself as a pitcher. Later when Fred was manager of the Seattle Rainiers in 1955, his sons of course played on Doc’s team, along with Bill’s boys and when Fred was in town he would come out to the games to help. 

Dr. Bill talked a lot about his dad in the interview. The family home was at the top of the hill south of Rainier Beach Station on Waters Avenue, next to the church. He always had a horse that he used when he made house calls in the Rainier Beach area. He also made calls as far away as Kennydale, Black Diamond and South Mercer Island. He would take the launch, skippered by Mr Patterson, that traversed the lake between Rainier Beach, Mercer Island and Kennydale.  Taylor’s Lumber Mill on Lake Washington, just around the bend south of Rainier Beach, was a frequent stop for the doctor because of the many mill accidents.

Bill’s dad didn’t agree with the streetcar line’s fare policy. When riding out from downtown Seattle on the Seattle, Renton and Southern Ry line, the conductor would stop the car at a certain point and collect an additional fare of five cents. On one of Dr. Hutchinson’s trips from town, when the conductor stopped for the extra fare, he had had enough. He refused to pay the extra fare, left the car and started to walk home, between the tracks, in front of the streetcar.

He proceeded toward Rainier Beach with the conductor clanging the bell for him to get out of the way which he refused to do. By the time he reached Rainier Beach the word of the incident had spread and he was accompanied by a crowd of sympathetic friends and neighbors.  It was some time, however, before the line’s management changed to a single fare policy.

Another incident Dr. Bill described in the interview illustrated his dad’s philosophy on raising kids. His dad came upon three young boys involved in a fight on the street at Rainier Beach, obviously two against one. He intervened and grabbed and held one of the youths and then told the other two to continue their fight to settle their differences. It was now a fair fight.

Bill and Fred grew up in Rainier Beach and didn’t take any guff from anyone.  He admitted to getting into occasional fights with some of the local kids.  Fights were not allowed on the playgrounds around Emerson Grade School so any fighting would be carried out on an adjacent farm. The word would be spread, and everyone would turn out to watch. On one occasion the town bully, who was much bigger than Bill, and about 6 years older, make the mistake of kicking Bill’s Airedale dog in the stomach. That was a mistake. A big crowd turned out in the farmers field the next day and after Bill, having received a few good blows that really made him mad, turned the fight around and really cleaned his clock causing the town bully to go into seclusion.  Most of their time, however, was spent playing baseball on the Rainier Beach play field.

Bill, like Fred, was an excellent ball player.  They played baseball in those days not softball, in a city wide league at Emerson grade school. Brighten, Dunlap and Van Asselt schools had students only through the 5th or 6th grades and then the students went to Emerson.  This gave the Emerson team a huge advantage with more kids to select from and as a result they went on to win several city championships.  

Bill related an incident when he was playing ball for Franklin High. It seems the boys from the Rainier Beach area spent most of their game time sitting on the bench. For some reason, maybe because the coach lived in the Mt Baker district, the only boys who got to play in the city league games were the Mt. Baker boys.  

Bill suggested to the coach that an intra-squad game be arranged between the Mt. Baker boys and the Rainier Beach group, stressing the benefits for the team of such a game.  Of course, Bill’s motive was to show the coach how good they were. The coach thought it would be a waste of time but finally, after Bill’s repeated nagging, consented to play the game just to shut them up.

It seems that among the Rainier Beach boys there was a big Swede that could really throw the ball hard.  As it turned out, the Mt. Baker boys could not get a hit off of him.  After six innings, way behind and no chance of winning, the coach called the game saying it was a waste of time.  Bill said he was delighted at the outcome, however the Beach boys continued to sit on the bench. Fred, however, went on to set records as a pitcher at Franklin. On graduation he signed with the Seattle Rainiers, but that is another story. 

Bill played ball for the University of Washington and made quite a name for himself. The baseball coach at the UW made the statement that Bill was the best ballplayer he had ever coached.

Bill was also playing semi-pro ball while at the UW.  As soon as he graduated he began playing for the San Francisco Missions in the Pacific Coast League.

He had been accepted at McGill Medical School in Montreal and scheduled to start in the fall.  Bill told me that during the summer he had called the admissions director at McGill and inquired about continuing to play ball while he was going to school so he could earn some money to help out his dad.  The director told Bill there was a waiting list to get into the school and he better decide if he was going to play ball or go to medical school.  Bill’s reply was quick and to the point.  He asked the admissions director to please forget the phone call he had made and he would be there on the first day of school.

When Bill told me this story, my very first thought was about the terrific impact that decision would have on so many people over the years. His decision to go to medical school resulted in saving many lives with his skill as a surgeon and countless more lives have been saved as a result of the research organizations he started and directed during his lifetime.

I feel very fortunate to have known him.

Days Gone By 

South District Journal 10/10/2001

By Buzz Anderson


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