Thelma “TA” Wills, 93, lives on with the memories of
husband, Ken Wills
Editor, Sports Paper
It’s a splendid view
from her lofty perch, the mirror-like waters of Sinclair
Inlet shining back at her, Rich Passage off in the distance,
across the water, on the far shore, trees waving in the
light breeze, outside the house the lawn beautifully
landscaped, the bloom on the flowers striking in their
Yes, life is good
even if the eyes don’t function as well as they once did
when they were used to smash winning shots just inches off
the baseline, even if a visitor has to inch close and speak
loud to be heard.
Even if the legs that took her on daily walks for over 50
years across the Manette Bridge, down Washington Avenue, and
a right turn to the core of downtown Bremerton to check on
her stocks and friends don’t work as well anymore.
Yes, there is a lot to be thankful for as the days turn into
nights, the nights into weeks, the weeks into months until
August shows up and the calendar says Thelma (Dane) Wills is
now 94, nearly 43 years removed from the day that still
leaves a void and more unanswered questions than answers.
The shot rocked Bremerton on November 19, 1962, coming as it
did so soon after the heart of Phil Pesco stopped as he sat
at his home just yards away 15 days before.
Two of the best --- maybe the two best --- coaching minds in
Bremerton basketball history gone just like that. One day,
the sun is smiling, the cool November air feels good as it
sweeps down on its captive residents ..... then Ken Wills
follows Pesco onto the obit page and the world of basketball
just doesn’t seem the same.
Ken Wills and wife Thelma “Ta” Wills ---- two peas in a
single pod. Pals, lovers and partners in everything. When
Ken Wills wasn’t taping an ankle, holding open gym, teaching
his young boys at Bremerton High School the fundamentals of
basketball and life and coaching track and field, he was
with Ta, and if you wanted to really catch up with them
both, search the tennis courts.
“We did everything together,” Ta said, including being with
Ken’s teams on their bus trips, hosting the athletes at her
and Ken’s home, helping Ken help them out when they needed
Ta, a strikingly beautiful woman with a powerful athletic
built, played as many sports, participated in as many
athletic pursuits as allowed in those unenlightened days for
They stopped holding the Kitsap County Tennis Championships
at one time because the people who ran it got fed up with
the same people winning the trophies year after year. What’s
the use? they said.
Maybe if they had called it the Ta Wills Rule, you could
have gotten angry. After all, it was Ta Wills who ruled the
local tennis courts. If you wanted to win the mixed doubles
championship, call Ta.
And they did. All of them.
“She won many county championships (8 years) and city
championships in tennis,” says Louie Soriano, a name that
often gets invoked when the talk turns to basketball. “I was
fortunate enough to play with her a couple times when we won
“It was a big thing back then. This is a small community and
Thelma would pick somebody out to play mixed doubles and
they would win.”
Of course, Ta also won all the women singles titles. And
when there weren’t any fellow ladies around to beat on, she
would beat the men.
“I just loved to play since the time I was a freshman in
high school,” says Ta. “I brought a racquet for 98 cents at
the drugstore. It’s all you could afford.
“I lived out in the country and I would dribble the ball
with the racquet all the way on the old logging alley on the
way going home (from school). I just loved to play. I loved
to play everything anyway, track, basketball, tennis.”
Thelma Dane was born August 20, 1911. If it had been known
what kind of person she would become, maybe God would have
speeded up the process and given her to the community
But August 20, 1911 it was.
“I was the first white person born at Kitsap Lake,” says Ta
proudly. “It was all Indians (Native Americans) before
Ta is Bremerton through and through. Bremerton born, a
Bremerton High school graduate (1929), school secretary to
the principal, superintendent and to the principal of
evening school until 1938, married to a Bremerton High
School coach, office manager at the Schutt Clinic for 30
years in downtown Bremerton, she could never think of living
She just never thought it would be so long living in
Bremerton without her closest friend, her best pal, her
first and only love.
“I never went on dates. Ken never went with girls,” Ta said.
“He said he only (dated) one girl (at Washington State) and
he saw her kissing some guy behind the barn so he never
looked at another girl after that.”
Their first date was supposed to be to a Hi-Y (school club)
Banquet, but Ken got back late from the gym, so he said,
“How about going to the show?” Ta said. “He must have
mentioned it to the kids (his players) because when we got
to the show, two rows of kids sat behind us.”
The name of the movie?
“3 Smart Girls,” said Ta, who exchanged wedding vows with
Ken June 13, 1939.
Ta lives on with the memories, and all the stuff they
accumulated together. All the yearbooks, the clippings, the
photos. The mail box still says Ken Wills. The phone listing
is the same as it was on that terrible November day in 1962.
The memories include the death of Pesco, who died of a heart
attack on Nov. 4, 1962 at age 54, at his home next to the
Wills home in Bremerton.
“He died on a Sunday afternoon,” Ta said, “sitting on the
davenport. Just dropped dead. Mary (his wife) came over and
got us right away. But he was already gone.”
Pesco was the athletic director and basketball coach at
Olympic College when he died. Wills had recommended his
former Washington State basketball teammate and friend for
Wills and Pesco were the Odd Couple. Wills, ever the
perfectionist, and Pesco who carried gravy strains on his
shirt. But together they were the heart and soul of
basketball in this area, and in the state.
Pesco won six junior college championships in 14 years at OC
and three straight years took the Rangers to the National JC
Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. His 1949 team went 32-2 and
finished fourth at Hutchinson.
He was inducted into the Northwest Athletic Association of
Community Colleges Roll of Honor in 1989 and the MVP of the
annual men’s NWAACC Basketball Tournament is named after
But late in 1962 while Art Morken was in the process of
getting elected for the first time as Kitsap County Sheriff,
Pesco slumped over at his house to set into motion a chain
of events that 15 days later would end with the 51-year-old
Wills pulling the trigger on a gun he’d brought at Bremerton
Sport Shop just a few hours before, sending a .38 caliber
bullet into his head and sending ripples through the air
surrounding Kitsap County that still reverberate to this
Ta’s best pal was gone.
What was, was. So Ta has continued on, but there isn’t a day
that she doesn’t think of him. His presence in the house
they shared after they purchased it in 1948 is still very
large in her mind and in physical reminders.
When Pesco died, the pressure had built on Wills to replace
his friend at OC. Pesco’s players wanted assistant Roy
Critser, OC football coach Don Cooley was a conditional
candidate and Wills, Critser and Les Eathorne, then coach at
East High School in Bremerton, all submitted applications.
Poulsbo’s finest, Harland Svare was being named the Los
Angeles Rams replacement head coach for Bob Waterfield about
the time the school board in Bremerton gave the job on
November 16, 1962 to Wills, the reluctant applicant who
loved his job at Bremerton High School and dreaded coaching
at OC, which was not near the job at the time that the job
at the high school was.
Ta said there had been some pressure within the high school
administration, especially from principal Fred Graham, to
move Wills on because he had become bigger than life and
jealousy began to crack the fabric of school unity.
“Graham told Ken he’d fire him in two minutes if he had his
way,” Ta said. “The administration and school board’s way to
solve a problem was to send them to the college and make it
seem like a promotion. To Ken, it was a demotion.”
So the deed was done.
Thus began the tick-tick of the clock in the finals hours of
“He put me on a pedestal and said he would never do anything
to humiliate me,” Ta said. “He said if he ever did, he’d
shoot himself. He thought he was being humiliated by being
forced to go to the college.
“And he had this black players petition against him (at the
college). There was a rumor going around that Ken would
never use colored kids. In track and in basketball, Ken had
colored kids. But you know how rumors are.
“So Ken went down to Florrie Swan’s (Bremerton Sport Shop)
and brought this gun. He told Florrie he needed it for me so
I could protect myself when he was gone.
“He paid for it out of petty cash he had. In the note he
left he said he left the bill for the gun and I could take
the gun back and get the money back.”
Wills played for Walla Walla High School in the state
basketball tournament in 1928 and 29, played three years on
the varsity at Washington State.
While a Walla Walla student, Wills spent countless hours in
the gym. During the summer, he was out picking fruit to make
money and on the way back with the truck late at night he
couldn’t wait to get within the sight-line of the gym to see
if the light was still on so he could go play.
“His heart would just pump when he’d see that the light was
still on,” Ta said. “He just loved it. He liked the smell of
Once Wills landed in Bremerton, he started his climb into
basketball lore, earning what should have been state Hall of
Fame honors (his sudden death ended that) while building a
program that was feared from one end of the state to the
His 1941 basketball team with Eathorne a junior won the
state title. The next year and in 1946 and 48 his teams took
second at state. From 1940 to 1959, Wills had Bremerton in
the state tournament 15 times, ten times finishing in the
top eight, including a third in 1952. He had all-staters
like Eathorne, Alan Maul, Ted Tappe, Al Murphy, Howard
Thoemke. And Ron Patnoe went on to coach Seattle’s Garfield
to the state title.
During World War II when some of his former players were
scattered around the world, reports would come back that
others wondered how these Bremerton players got so good at
Wills, who just missed making the U.S. National Team in the
1500 at the 1932 Olympics (he lost by 3-tenths of a second
to Glenn Cunningham in a three-way race-off to make the
team; Cunningham went on finish fourth in the 1500 at the
Games, held in Los Angeles), built his basketball teams on
fundamentals, insisting that his players be solid or sit.
Along the way he built relationships that have endured long,
long after the shot. Those still living remember Wills as if
it was yesterday he was blowing the whistle at them in the
And Ta remembers, too.
“Ken didn’t play much tennis at first. He fiddled with it,”
Ta said. “He said that men can always beat women because
they have more muscular stature.
“It took him 13 years for him to be able to beat me
Tennis was such a part of their life, that Ken and Ta built
their own tennis court.
“We built a tennis court instead of a house, in fact, at the
end of the football field at the high school, 17th and
Ohio,” Ta said. “We bought the lot so maybe we could build a
double-story house and just watch all the games from the
“Every spare minute we had we’d run up to the tennis court.
We’d carry gunny sacks in the back of the car and if it
rained and there were puddles on the tennis court, Ken would
wipe up the puddles so we could play.”
After Ken died, Ta did well in the stock market (especially
on Telmex and Microsoft) and helped others make money as
“She’s been an inspiration to people over the years, and I’m
not just talking athletics but her optimism about life,”
says Larry Tuke, who is her stock broker at Smith Barney.
“For years, when we were Foster Marshall in downtown
Bremerton, she’d walk to our office every day. She knew more
about the stock market than myself or anybody who worked for
me down there.
“She really understands the stock market. There were people
who came to her for advice about the stock market, and she
would send them to me. Most of the time she was right. There
were people who made hundreds of thousands of dollars based
on her recommendation.”
The Bremerton gym was packed when Bob Bryan, one of
Ken’s former players, delivered the Ken Wills eulogy
that sad November day.
John K. Smith’s story in the Bremerton Sun summed up Ken
Wills, the perfectionist.
“He took the job he did not want. He believed he could not
do the job perfectly,” Smith wrote. “(But) he would do not
less. He could not refuse the job. Ken Wills, nor any Ken
Wills team, ever quit.
“The strength that makes a man great,” Smith finished, “may
be the weakness that can’t be overcome.”
The days go quietly these days for Ta Wills. Surrounded by
the city she loves, the water flowing by her in peaceful
harmony with the trees lining the shores, content in the
knowledge that the only man she loved, loved her too.
“Sure I miss him, but not much I can do about it,” says Ta.
“I just always say I’m married for ever and ever and ever.”