WENATCHEE — The Apple Capital of the World is a long way from New Orleans.
Buddies Jim Singleton and Otis Campbell discovered that in a hurry in the late 1960s, when they left their home town for studies and football at Wenatchee Valley College.
Transformed into sudden curiosities by the color of their skin, the friends endured the stares in the supermarkets and homesickness, racism and the pressure to succeed — and say it was worth every minute.
“It was a good experience, but we encountered a lot of ignorance about race. You’ve got to remember, it was 1969,” Campbell, 65, recalled this week after meeting Singleton in Wenatchee to visit the college.
The ignorance wasn’t only on the Wenatchee side of things. Both friends came from different backgrounds, but had little experience outside of their home surroundings.
“We thought blacks were all over the country, but the farther north we traveled, the thinner the population became,” Campbell said. “It was an experiment in being able to interact with people of different races. I didn’t talk to whites (before Wenatchee). I had never had to deal with whites. Holistically, it helped us.”
Singleton, 64, agrees. “We were light years away,” he said. It was impossible to just blend in.
“Taking classes, there were guys who would only show up when there was a test,” he said. “But if I didn’t show up, they were going to miss me!”
Singleton is looking for a publisher for a book he’s written about the friends’ experience here. It’s called “418 Methow,” after the home they rented as broke, struggling students.
He was the ground breaker.
Singleton got a scholarship to play football at what is today Weber State University in Utah. But the school didn’t allow freshmen to play.
The coach there told him to get into a junior college in the meantime. Singleton said he wanted to go to a smaller community with fewer big-city distractions. He literally took a stab at a map and his finger landed on Wenatchee.
“My mom said, ‘Why do you want to go to a school so close to the president?” Singleton recalled. “I said, ‘No, mom, it’s not that Washington.”
WVC had a football program. He made the team and got a scholarship, but despite a handful of other black athletes on campus who were recruited from Texas, he missed New Orleans and his friend Otis, who he’d known since the seventh grade. He told the coach he could bring friends back with him who were also “blue chip” athletes.
When he went home for a visit, he returned to Wenatchee with Campbell and their good friend Harold “Ducky” Bradford. Neither had any idea they’d make the team. They did.
The pressure to perform both athletically and academically was immense. Failure to achieve on the field or in the classroom would end their scholarships and send them home in disgrace, with nothing for their efforts, they joked, but “a road map and an apple.”
Dating was also a challenge, since blacks and whites didn’t often go out together in those days, they said.
When the buddies headed over to Moses Lake to a meeting of the Job Corps — a program to get inner-city youth involved in community projects in small towns — it wasn’t that they didn’t have community spirit, but they just wanted to meet some women.
Gradually, they fit in. All received invitations to speak on racial relations at local schools and churches. Their willingness to do it paid off. People noticed.
Singleton said a contact in the community helped him get a part-time job as an orderly at the old Deaconess Hospital.
And one quarter, when money was especially tight, he went into the college to see how he could get some help paying his tuition only to discover that an anonymous benefactor had paid if for him.
All three friends went on to succeed.
After his good experience at Wenatchee Valley College, Singleton said he lost interest in the football scholarship offer in Utah. He and Campbell both went on to the University of Washington. Singleton graduated with a degree in political science and Campbell in education and sociology.
Only Singleton played football at UW and only for a year. He discovered more and better financial aid was available through the academically-focused “Equal Opportunity Program.” Football became a thing of the past.
Campbell went on to earn a master’s from the University of Idaho, where he met his wife, Patricia Lara. He retired in June from a career teaching elementary school in the Seattle area. He lives in Stanwood.
Singleton began graduate studies in Idaho but left school for a maintenance job at the University of Washington, where he worked his way up from custodian to area leader, then supervisor then assistant facilities manager. He retired about a year ago. He and his wife, Jessie, recently moved from the Seattle area to Idaho to care for her aging parents.
Ducky graduated from Washington State University and then earned a master’s in art. He lives and works as an artist in Las Vegas. He couldn’t make the reunion in Wenatchee this week.
“We have a thing in our hearts for Wenatchee, because Wenatchee gave us something,” Singleton said. “The reunion will come together, because this bonds us together for life.”