LAKEWOOD — They were teachers and coaches in a tight-knit, rural community that largely revolves around the schools.
Over just a few weeks in late December and early January, the Lakewood School District lost a recently retired English teacher known for his patience and wit, a middle school instructor who ate lunch in his classroom to give students a friendly refuge to hang out, and a 93-year-old retired teacher and coach for whom the football stadium is named.
Ron Thorvilson, Dan Hutchinson and Dick Cardinal left their own legacies in the 106-year-old district of 2,500 students northwest of Marysville.
School board president Sandy Gotts said the deaths of Thorvilson and Hutchinson were particularly difficult given their recent contributions to the district. They were “beyond gracious” in giving their time to students, she said.
“The loss is unique in that these two teachers were astronomically popular, but the timing and closeness of the loss makes it even more palpable,” she said. “Students, teachers and families are trying to figure out how to mourn and grieve the trifecta of loss during trying times.”
‘Let’s get better’
Ron Thorvilson was an three-sport athlete when he graduated in 1970 from Edmonds High School, where he excelled in football and basketball. He earned a scholarship to Central Washington University, then spent 45 years as a teacher, including the last 36 in the Lakewood School District. He was the last teacher on the staff that in 1983 opened the original Lakewood High School, a seventh-through-12th-grade campus at the time. He retired in June of 2019.
His colleagues called him Thor, a nickname that was much more than the first four letters of his last name. They say he was big and strong like a Norse god and seemingly as immortal. He was an English teacher who loved literature, trivia and crosswords.
He also was extraordinarily upbeat and patient, his co-workers said.
Thorvilson coached boys and girls basketball as well as tennis over more than three decades. Many of the teams, particularly at the junior varsity girls level, lacked the talent of many schools they would compete against.
His team could be down by 50 at halftime — and once was — and he could be found in the locker room calmly talking to his players about what they were doing well and how they could improve, never raising his voice, just exuding his love of the game.
Chris Walster, who knew Thorvilson as a teaching and coaching colleague for more than 35 years, remembers post-practice huddles with Thorvilson and the girls. His message was as sincere as it was predictable: “Let’s get better.”
Walster always looked forward to Thorvilson’s 6:30 a.m. visits to his classroom before school, an iced caramel macchiato with extra cream, and the conversations that would entertain and inform. His knowledge was broad.
“He just brought the energy in the classroom and on the basketball or tennis courts,” said Bob Walker, a retired Lakewood teacher who also worked with Thorvilson for many years.
Thorvilson, 68, died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 2, about two months after being diagnosed.
When Walster wrote a post on Facebook about his friend’s cancer diagnosis, more than 1,000 people responded within 24 hours.
Cards and letters poured in before and after he died. Walster hand delivered them in batches to his family. Even now, seldom a day goes by when he doesn’t receive a card or two at the school or through the mail.
“Thor was a legend,” said Tom O’Hara, a shop teacher at the high school. “He affected a lot of lives over the years.”
‘A second father’
For many years, Dan Hutchinson worked at Car Toys.
Colleagues say he changed his career to teaching after his mom, who was ill with cancer, urged him to find a calling that would help other people. He was in his 30s when he did so.
Dan Teeter, a Lakewood history teacher and the high school football coach, noticed that the new middle school language arts teacher many called Hutch established a quick and easy rapport with students from many walks of life, including his own players. Teeter had an opening on his staff and created a new position: academic coach. Hutchinson excelled.
The job included working after school with any players who needed tutoring or had fallen behind or even a few lacking basic reading skills. Hutch could provide meaningful instruction in any subject.
Hutchinson, who wore number 51 when he played at Marysville Pilchuck High School, saw his coaching roles evolve over the years to working with different groups of players on the practice field. He also would become a boys and girls wrestling, baseball and softball coach.
On campus, Hutchinson was not one to eat lunch in the faculty lounge. Students gathered in his room before school, during lunch and after school.
“I never have seen anybody so kid-driven as Dan Hutchinson was. Literally every moment was for the kids,” Teeter said. “He really saw the students as his kids.”
Colleagues said he shunned social media but thrived in face-to-face interaction.
Hutchinson fell ill in mid-December and died Dec. 16 of a non-COVID illness.
Afterward Teeter, who has been coaching for decades alongside many accomplished assistants, told his fellow coaches something to the effect of, “No offense but Hutch was probably the best hire I ever made.” It wasn’t for his mastery of techniques or the Xs and Os of play calling.
“It was just the impact of wanting to build a family in our team, and Hutch was really instrumental in making that happen,” he said.
O’Hara, the shop teacher and wrestling coach, understands that family comparison.
“He was like my brother, my right-hand man, in school and coaching,” he said.
And in life.
His own children also liked Hutch and had him over for Father’s Day, which seemed apt to O’Hara.
“My kids, he was almost like their best friend,” he said. “He was like their second dad. It was always about the kids, whether it was my kid or someone else’s.”
‘He was my mentor’
Dick Cardinal arrived in the Lakewood School District in the early 1950s.
Dick Jensen, now in his early 80s, was a seventh-grade student the year Cardinal arrived. There were just 15 students in the entire grade. All of which meant that Cardinal, a math teacher, had to be versatile enough to teach several other subjects. A college wrestler and football player, he also became the first coach of sports at the middle school, starting flag football, basketball and track programs. Later, he became the first football coach for the maroon-and-gold Lakewood High School Cougars. The school’s stadium was later named for him.
For many years early in his career, he also could be found with the kids on the playground during recess, waiting for the big school bell to clang.
When Jensen returned to Lakewood schools as a teacher in his 20s, Cardinal became a major influence. They lived a few blocks apart and carpooled to school for many years.
“He was my mentor,” Jensen said. “He was very inspirational in what I ended up doing.”
Dick’s son, Paul Jensen, said Cardinal was an old-school teacher and coach.
“When he walked in a room, everyone kind of sat up in their chair,” Paul Jensen said.
When players were on the field, they could expect a long and rigorous workout.
Cardinal knew all about fitness. He trained religiously into his late 80s and 90s in gyms or wherever else made sense. His vibrant longevity was admired, and he was asked back to campus a time or two in recent years to provide inspiring words to athletes. When offered a chair, he preferred to stand.
His wrestling days didn’t end in college. He grappled competitively, taking on all comers, and also, to help provide extra income for his family, in a regional “professional” circuit that was more entertainment than sport. When someone from the school district suggested his professional wrestling gig might not embody the image desired in a teacher, he got his hands on a mask and called himself the Red Devil. He even wrestled as a mummy in Hawaii, Dick Jensen said.
Dick Jensen is glad his former teacher, fellow educator, carpool partner and longtime friend was honored with a stadium named after him.
“He deserved it,” he said. “He did an awful lot for the district.”
Eric Stevick: firstname.lastname@example.org.