Bruce Farris was a sports writer for The Fresno Bee for fifty-two years, a career distinguished not only by longevity and depth, but by the respect he earned from those he covered and with whom he worked. Sports writers are often barely tolerated by coaches, avoided by athletes, and harangued by sports fans. However, Farris was mild-mannered, humble, dedicated, and impossible to dislike. He was the antithesis of many of his colleagues in the cursing, chain-smoking, two-fisted drinking world of newspaper reporters in the early days of his career. His strongest oath when he was upset or disappointed was Gee Whiz." He was, however, fond of poker as a young man, and often sat in on games with local baseball coaches, especially Pete Beiden of Fresno State. Farris enjoyed the coaches and athletes that he met and considered it a privilege to have a front-row seat to Fresno sports and wherever else The Bee dispatched him.
He was introduced to the newspaper business by his father, Ross, who was a linotype operator for fifty years at The Bee and Fresno Guide as well at print job shops in Reedley, Bakersfield, and the Bay Area. Young Farris began his career at the Fresno Guide, writing sports stories for ten cents an inch while he attended Fresno State College. When Farris was twenty-one, sports editor Ed Orman decided to give him a trial-basis job at The Bee. Farris never left, retiring from the sports department at seventy-three. Although they had contrasting personalities, Orman mentored Farris through the years, often offering more criticism than praise. Farris matured from a wide-eyed novice to a meditative, hard-working sports scribe.
He focused not only on what happened in the games, but the athletes themselves. "I believed that people were interested in the personalities," Farris said, "And what they accomplished and how they got there." Over the years, Farris covered Rose Bowl games, the World Series, NCAA basketball championships, the first United States-Russia track meet, and all levels of local sports-prep, college, amateur, and professional. But his biggest thrill, he said, was reporting the 1961 Mercy Bowl game when Fresno State upset Bowling Green in the Los Angeles Coliseum. He most enjoyed covering baseball, a sport he loved dating back to when he was secretary and public relations man for the Fresno Cardinals of the Class 'C' California League. Later Farris discovered golf and became enamored with playing and covering the game, especially at Pebble Beach. Farris’ favorite athlete was Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam, who was born in Laton, but found international fame as a world record-breaking pole vaulter.
As for putting in long hours at the typewriter, Farris once covered a Saturday afternoon USC vs. UCLA football game in the Los Angeles Coliseum, drove to Long Beach to report a Fresno State vs. Long Beach State night game, then got up Sunday morning to work a Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49er match-up that afternoon back at the Coliseum. For more than five decades, sports page readers were well-served by Farris' dedication and knowledge. He took his audience from courtside at a raucous high school basketball game to the road with the Fresno State Bulldogs to the glorious links at Pebble Beach. Farris is on the Board of Directors of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame and is one of the authors of this fiftieth anniversary commemorative book.
Fresno State All-American volleyball player Ruth Lawanson was a member of the 1992 United States Olympic bronze medal-winning team in Barcelona. She was also an outstanding professional player and coach. Fresno State Coach Leilani Overstreet recruited Lawanson from Clovis West High School, where her skills were raw, but her talent evident. Lawanson would become the most outstanding athlete that Overstreet coached in her twenty years at Fresno State. "She was so strong and could jump so well, I knew I wanted her," Overstreet said. "She was only 5'8", but she could jump out of the gym. She was such a rock-solid player, just a delight to coach. So dedicated to working hard. Ruth could have excelled in almost any sport. She was outstanding in track and basketball, in addition to volleyball in high school. I think, physically, I had a few teams that might have been better, but that 1984 group had the heart and Ruth was the leader."Lawanson, born in Nigeria, came to the United States with her family in 1965 when she was two years old.
Lawanson's earliest connection with organized sports was in the 4th grade, when she tried track. At Clovis West, she was a sprinter and a competitor in the long jump and shot put, making it to the state meet in her sophomore through senior years. But Lawanson's skills at volleyball not only vaulted her to elite levels in university athletics, but took her around the world to compete against the best from other nations.
At Fresno State, she was named Female Athlete of the Year, first-team All-American and Nor-Cal Player of the Year, while setting school records for kills and service aces in her senior season of 1984. The team finished fifth at the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament that year. Lawanson was the first Fresno State female to have her jersey retired. Lawanson played professionally for the Dallas Belles and the Minnesota Monarchs, as well as for teams in Italy and France. She also competed for the U.S. National Teamincluding stints on the World Cup team. The Olympics were a highlight of Lawanson's sports career. "It was an unbelievable experience, especially when we walked into the stadium in that opening ceremony," she said. "It's something you dream about as a young person and what made it so special was my mother and father were there to watch."
He wasn't as physical as most pro receivers, but Stephone Paige had everything else: speed, agility,athleticism, toughness and great hands. Paige's climb to gridiron greatness-ten seasons in the National Football League-began at Long Beach Poly High School and continued at Santa Ana's Saddleback Junior College and Fresno State. He spent nine years with the Kansas City Chiefs beginning in 1983 and his final pro season with the Minnesota Vikings. Paige had a record-setting career with the Chiefs, catching passes in 83 consecutive games. He is listed among the Chiefs' top receivers for twenty-plus yard receptions (15), 100-yard games (10), and yards per career with 6,341. The signature game of Paige's pro career was undoubtedly the December 22, 1985 match-up between the Chiefs and long-time rival San Diego Chargers. His receptions that day totaled a record-setting 309 yards for the Pro Bowl-bound Paige.
During his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Paige played in 125 games, caught 377 passes, scored forty-nine touchdowns and amassed a 16.8-yard average. The most catches he made in one season were 65 in 1990 and 61 in 1988. The most yards he totaled in one season were 1,021 in 1990 and 943 in 1985. His best scoring seasons were 1986 with eleven touchdowns and 1985 with ten. His longest scoring passes were for 86 yards in 1990 and 84 yards in 1985.
As a kick returner in 1985, he gained 544 yards on twenty-seven returns for a 20.1- yard average. A lean target at 6'2" and 184 pounds, Paige learned his pigskin basics playing for the Poly Jackrabbits, one of the nation's foremost prep athletic programs. Later, Paige's outstanding performances for the Bulldogs placed him in a select group of the school's all-time best receivers that included Henry Ellard, Charlie Jones, Bernard Berrian, and Rodney Wright. His accolades included selection to the California Junior College Hall of Fame.
Len Ross' vision was to teach young people to golf, no matter where they lived or how much money they had. With Ross’ gift for rallying others around his dream, the Fresno Junior Golf Learning Center opened its doors in the spring of 2006 in West Fresno. With the founding of the center, Ross left a legacy for thousands of junior golfers, the pinnacle of sixty years of working with youngsters for the ex-Marine, school teacher, and principal reverently called "Mr.Junior Golf."Ross never accepted kudos for his efforts without giving credit to his wife, Vel. His son, Randy provided invaluable help behind the scenes for the annual Len Ross Fresno City Junior Amateur tournament.
He fashioned thousands of new and used clubs into cut-down versions for youngsters at the golf learning center, taught classes, and managed the center. One of Ross' favorite expressions was “It's not a me thing; it's a we thing." His circle of supporters included thousands of junior golfers who participated in his annual Fresno tournament and volunteers who year after year did the work needed to conduct one of the finest junior tournaments in California. His network who supported his efforts for forty years included hundreds of donors who contributed money, manpower, or equipment for the golf learning center. Donations made it possible to equip children with balls, bags, shirts, shoes and caps, and use of the center's facilities at no cost. Ross made sure the program also helped special needs children.
Ross never saw race, physical ability, or social status as a barrier for youngsters to learn golf. To him, all kids needed to be loved and nurtured, taught honesty and sportsmanship, as well as compassion and work ethic-skills to benefit them for the rest of their lives. He found those qualities initially in a three-year tour of duty with the Marines during World War II that included such hot spots as Guam, Guadalcanal, Tappan and Okinawa. "I was in the First Marine Division, which meant we were the first in," Ross recalled. "[A]lot of memories I try to forget. But I learned that the men on the right and left of you are very important to you and that carries over to the people who surround you." Ross, born in Fresno, had a humble upbringing, spent mostly in Santa Cruz. His father, Tony Ross, a middleweight boxer. Ross' mother tolerated her husband's sparring, but forbade it for her son. "I did do some boxing in the Marines and at Fresno State, but I started caddying as a youngster at Pasatiempo Golf Club," Ross said. "I didn't play golf in high school because I thought it was a sissy game." After graduating from Fresno State, Ross became a teacher, then earned his Master's degree and eventually became a principal. One of his projects was the Len Ross Environment Center. "Each class had its own garden," Ross said. "I also made a deal with a store, so we sold what we raised. We had our own publication, so we did our own writing. We also had to know how much things cost. What am I talking about? Reading, writing and arithmetic and how to meet other people. That's how you teach. If they are reachable, they are teachable. Golf is the same way. When I get a big hug from a little girl who has grown up [in our tournaments], that's nice, but she is telling me she has learned what we've tried to teach."The Fresno Junior Amateurs was started in 1948.
Ross formed the Fresno-Greater San Joaquin Valley Jr. Golf Foundation, Central California as a mechanism for providing trophies, snacks, and the other amenities that made the tournament special. "The title was a mouthful, but I wanted to include everyone in our entire area," Ross said. "It was that group that set the stage for us to proceed in building the golf academy." Some questioned the site Ross selected for the golf learning center, property on the west side at Teilman Avenue,a few blocks from Chandler Airport in the midst of a crime-ridden, high-poverty area. But Ross has a simple but profound answer: "Because that's where it's needed."Ross and other organizers spent eight years securing the site, a difficult process that included fundraising. sparring with the property owner, lobbying city and state officials and wrangling over permits.
Ross also took time to encourage neighborhood support and pride in the project to help protect the facility from vandalism. He received grants from various national golf organizations and support from former players, their families and other Valley residents. Ross' accomplishments include founding the Northern California Junior Golf Association with Charley Carver of Salinas and Walt McConalogue of Alameda in 1970. He was awarded lifetime USGA Junior Golf Official status for his work in promoting his junior tournament, the annual junior national qualifying tournament and the North-South matches. Hall of Famer and golf commentator Johnny Miller played in Ross' tournaments, and later brought his sons to participate as well. He summed up what so many juniors and parents discovered. He said that he had never met anyone so dedicated to promoting junior golf as Ross. "He's been like a father to me and a father to many of the juniors," Miller said. "I love him, and really appreciate all he's done. He's a truly amazing man."
Butch Walts, one of Fresno's greatest tennis players, starred at Bullard High School and the University of Southern California. The Association of Tennis Professionals ranked him as high as #16 in singles in 1978. His decade-long career included victories over tennis greats such as John McEnros, Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas as he amassed four singles and fourteen doubles titles. Walts was immersed in tennis at an early age, growing up living next door to the Modesto Racquet Club, founded by his grandfather, Fred Earle, Jr. There was little doubt that Walts was headed for greatness when he won the United States Tennis Association National Junior Championship at age twelve, defeating Dave Sworbeck, 4-6, 9-7, 6-0. He teamed with his father, Ken, to win the National Father-Son title.
He struggled at times to control his temper when he was young and was once disqualified from a tournament after smashing two rackets. His court demeanor improved after he survived cancer and gained a new perspective on the game. Walts later established foundations to assist cancer patients. Following Bullard High, Walts played two years for USC where he was an All-American. His freshman season was wiped out when he contracted a virus, but he teamed with Bruce Manson to win the 1975 National Collegiate Athletic Association Doubles title. That year was huge for Walts, who not only won the NCAA doubles, but also went to Mexico City and took two gold medals in the Pan-American Games. It was one of the most unusual tournaments he ever played in. He defeated Mexico's Adolfo Gonzales 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 in the singles finals while the hometown crowd jeered, blared noise makers and threw objects onto the court. Walts and Manson then defeated Gonzales and Raul Contreras in the doubles final, 6-3, 6-4. "I didn't allow the yelling to distract me; in fact, I just cheered with them, but I was glad we got out of there in one piece," Walts said. "We learned later that the government told the people to harass us."
Walts completed that big year by winning the Palm Springs Collegiate Tennis Classic. He then turned pro, foregoing his last two years at USC. He defeated veteran Cliff Richey, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an open tournament for his first paycheck of $20,000. Throughout his career, a booming serve was Walts major weapon. McEnroe said after losing to Walts: "There was no defense against that serve." Walts won the Trans-America Open in 1977 in San Francisco to beat top-seeded Brian Gottfried for the $25,000 first prize. That was the same year he signed with the Phoenix Racquets in the fledgling Team Tennis League. One of his teammates was superstar Chris Evert. He defeated an older, but still powerful Australian ace Rod Laver 7-6 in a match against San Diego. He also beat Nastase 7-6. In 1978, he won probably the most prestigious single match of his career by upsetting Vilas, the defending U.S. Open champion, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 6-2 in a classic four-hour and eleven minute thriller to reach the quarter finals of the Open. He had little strength left and bowed in the quarters to McEnroe in straight sets.
Walts' professional career was interrupted in 1981 when he was diagnosed at age twenty-seven with cancer. He lost thirty pounds from his 6'4" frame, but successfully fought the cancer with three surgeries and six months of chemotherapy. The side effects of the chemotherapy were minimal and Walts said at the time he never lost hope and never doubted he would play tennis again. Walts was voted the Comeback Player of the Year by the ATP in 1983 and in 1984 was voted the Team Tennis MVP after leading the San Diego Buds to the championship. He was also honored for his fight against cancer by Ted Kennedy Jr. He retired from tennis for four weeks in 1985, but returned to Fresno to win the Arc Fresno tournament in 1985 at the Sierra Sport and Racquet Club.