Tom Monroe ’63, Richard Wagner ’61, and I started the first grade together in a small town in north central Washington, ninety miles north of Wenatchee and thirty miles south of the border with British Columbia, Canada: Okanogan. Perhaps even more remarkable is that we were all born at Elsie McDonald’s Maternity Home, probably because there was no hospital in Okanogan. Tom and I were playmates for a few years before beginning school—not very many, to be sure! —but we three boys began our life-long friendship together at Grainger Elementary School in Okanogan while America was still battling WWII.

Jim Rockey, Richard Wagner, and Tom Monroe as kids in Okanogan.
Jim Rockey, Richard Wagner, and Tom Monroe as kids in Okanogan, 1946.

We were never called “The Three Musketeers,” but we were inseparable, a situation which is easy enough when there is only one room of first-graders, etc. Mind you, Okanogan did not have even a stoplight at that time. In the third grade, however, we started a tradition—we didn’t know it would turn out to be a tradition—with a playground photo of the three of us, a photo which we have memorialized through more than seventy years—and counting—by striking the same pose and trying not to laugh until the shutter clicks.

1948, nine years old, Okanogan playground
1948, nine years old, Okanogan playground

Following our 20-year high school graduation reunion in 1977 at Okanogan, we were toying with ideas to name this photo relationship, remarkable at this transient time in America, Richard hit on “Through the Years,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Ever the nomad, I had moved to Omak my senior year and graduated there, four miles north of Okanogan, but we all became Cougars in the fall of 1957 at Washington State College, soon to be renamed Washington State University in 1959.

At first we were Independents: Tom and Richard roomed at Kruegel Hall, me at Simpson Hall. Tom and Richard became “TEKEs” (Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity) their sophomore year, but I was a hardcore loner, staying on to be elected Junior Independent Man of the WSU student body association his junior year. Tom and Richard married their respective spouses as juniors and moved into University mobile homes. Meeting and associating with influential and important people has always been part of the Cougar experience: I took a speech class with Phil Crosby, son of Bing Crosby, and roomed one year with John Rosellini, son of Washington State Governor Albert Rosellini. (Yes, I had the pleasure of being a weekend guest at the governor’s mansion in Olympia. Does that count as a bonus to the Cougar experience?)

1977, 38 years old, Okanogan
1977, 38 years old, Okanogan

Meanwhile, back on campus, Tom majored in Business Administration, Richard in Mechanical Engineering, and me in English with a minor in Speech and Theatre. Thanks to an excellent program in Readers Theatre, I toured throughout Washington performing for numerous high school assemblies and meetings of civic organizations. Among the threesome, we earned membership on several dean’s lists and in honor societies, including Richard’s selection as “Outstanding 1961 Mechanical Engineering Graduate.” I followed an academic trail, eventually earning a master’s degree at Southern Illinois University and doctorate in speech and theatre from the University of Iowa.

But it was never all work and no play: Richard and I tried out for spring football with Cougar great Keith Lincoln (He was great, we were not). Richard made the freshman track team in the triple jump and was named to the intramural basketball all-star team as a TEKE. I discovered gymnastics, toured with the team as half of a comic duo, and was selected as a gymnast on the Cougar Yell Squad, traveling throughout Washington, Oregon, and California to games.

1990, 51 years old, Auburn (Richard’s residence)
1990, 51 years old, Auburn (Richard’s residence)

Every summer it was back to the Okanogan country for us, where we all worked for the U.S. Forest Service fighting forest fires and working on other projects. Tom had the only glamorous forest service job; he was a smokejumper from 1958 to 1962, “jumping” in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico. Richard and I were known as ground pounders on forest fires, and eventually I worked as a fire lookout for ten seasons in Washington and Oregon. In the summer of 1972, I also had the unusual experience of working as helitac (helicopter attack) foreman for forest firefighting crews in Alaska.

After graduating from WSU we three Cougars went our separate professional ways, but never lost touch with each other. Richard had nineteen job offers after he graduated. He worked in engineering capacities, ultimately as research engineer on building products for Weyerhaeuser Company. Tom stayed in business management and added computer expertise, eventually working as a computer programmer for the Seattle Seahawks. I served as university professor for a few years and then went into theatre directing, professional fundraising, gambling management, and writing/photography.

2005, 66 years old, Cle Elum River (Tom’s cabin)
2005, 66 years old, Cle Elum River
(Tom’s cabin)

Collectively the three Okanogan Cougars logged serious air miles around the world: Japan, China, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, England, France, Mexico, Grenada, the Bahamas and other Caribbean Islands, and, naturally, we had been to various parts of Canada numerous times.

While I was the nomad, Tom was the adventurer. He climbed Mount Rainier several times, Mount Fuji in Japan, and Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak. He and Richard once climbed Mount Rainier together with their two sons. Later in life Tom and his wife Carol explored the Inside Passage to Alaska on their private sailboat.

And so it came to pass that our Okanogan high school graduation class of ’57 celebrated its 20-year reunion. Before the 1977 get-together, one of us unearthed the third-grade photo among our memorabilia from childhood, and that is when our photo-documentary “Through the Years” began.

2009, 70 years old, Cle Elum River trailhead
2009, 70 years old,
Cle Elum River trailhead

In sum, we three Cougars are tough old coots: not counting childhood surgeries, we have survived eighteen major surgeries among them. Furthermore, we are ensuring the future of the gene pool: collectively we have produced 28 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Now, as we approach our seventy-fifth birthdays, we can look back on a lifetime of achievements and careers catapulted from the small town of Okanogan by an outstanding education at WSU and the influence of the Cougar experience. Richard currently honors the WSU legacy by serving as a member of the WSU College of Engineering and Architecture Advisory Board, a position he has held since 1990. He is also an elected member of the Auburn City Council—1989 to present—and was deputy mayor in 2013-2014.

How many more chapters of their lifelong friendship will we put together? We ask that question every time we get together and continue this photo-documentary which began innocently enough on the playground as third-graders and then took on enduring significance beyond a mere whim. As long as possible we will continue to verify our journey “Through the Years.”

Once a Cougar, always a Cougar.

2014, 75 years old, Snoqualmie Pass
2014, 75 years old, Snoqualmie Pass