The 16th hole at the Walla Walla Country Club can be one giant pain in the backside.

Playing at 351 yards from the white tees, the par-4 hole is just long enough that it is borderline reachable in two for the average duffer.

What complicates matters is Stone Creek, which winds its way through the 18-hole track and comes into play numerous times. The stream flows directly in front of a wide, but shallow, 16th green that slopes down to the water. Second shots that fall just short of the green usually wind up wet, and shots that fail to hold the green are likely to bound into a thick mat of rough above the putting surface.

Either way, you’re almost certainly looking at a bogey, at best. Pars are prized on the 16th hole, double-bogeys hardly uncommon.

For that reason alone, many players choose the layup as a safe second-shot option. Rather than go for the green, they intentionally lob an easy iron shot short of the creek, chip on with their third shot and hope they get the ball close enough to the cup to make their par putt.

Not so Bill Gray. 

Bill, who will celebrate his 79th birthday this month, does not believe in the layup. He believes layups are for basketball, which is another sport he knows something about. 

More on that later.

It doesn’t matter if he’s smack-dab in the middle of the fairway, behind the black locust tree in the right rough or lodged in the fairway bunker on the left, Bill Gray is going for the green on his second shot, no matter what. It’s the only way he knows how to play.

Billy, as his friends and playing-companions often refer to him, is driven by a competitive gene that pulses from the top of his brain to his big toe. It’s a can-do attitude that has served him well throughout a lifetime of achievements on many fronts.

From teaching and coaching to running a lumber mill, from helping create and then directing a public schools classified workers’ union to a long and successful military career, Bill Gray’s life has been one fast break after another. And he’s still going strong.

Born in Grand Coulee, Wash., Bill grew up in tiny Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation some 16 miles north of the Grand Coulee Dam. Paul and Eva Gray raised Bill and his three siblings in their modest home less than 100 yards from the grave site of Chief Joseph, the legendary leader of the Nez Perce Tribe during the late 1800s.

“I defy anyone to have a better upbringing than I did,” Bill says. “We swam in the mill pond, learned to walk the logs and sometimes swam under them for as far as we could go. We rode horses and pulled all kinds of tricks.”

But only to a point.

“We had the run of the town,” Bill says. “But every parent was your parent because they all watched you. You didn’t dare to step (too far) out of line.”

Bill attended Nespelem High School, from where he graduated in 1953. He was the quarterback for the school’s eight-man football team and pitched and played center field on the baseball team. But it was on the basketball court where he shone the brightest.

“We had a great basketball coach named Ben Pease, who was a full Crow Indian,” Bill says. “He came to the reservation when I was going into the sixth grade, and he was one of the most influential men in my basketball life, for sure.

“He stressed the fundamentals: dribble, pass, block out, rebound — all the fundamentals. And that turned out to be so important to me.”

As a shooting guard, Bill was one of the state’s leading scorers as a senior and helped his team win 19 straight games before losing to Tonasket the final game of the regular season. Nespelem then went on to win its first district game before losing to Brewster in the district finals.

“That game was to go to state, and we lost by one point on a free throw,” Bill says. “I can remember every doggone play of that game. It has stuck with me all these years because basketball was so big.”

Bill played well enough that year to establish himself as a prospective college player. He accepted a full-ride scholarship offer from Gonzaga University in Spokane because it was closest to home.

“Other than one trip to Spokane, I had never left the reservation,” Bill says. “My whole radius was 25 miles. But I had relatives who had gone to Gonzaga, and my grandfather wanted me close to home and he was the light of my life.”

Bill began his college career on the junior varsity team. And in the second game of the year — against Big Bend Community College — he got his big chance. 

“We had lost our first game to North Idaho, and we were falling behind again in our second game,” he remembers. “The coach called me from the end of the bench and asked me if I could stop that left-handed guard, and I said, ‘Sure.’

“And right away I stole the ball, but I was so nervous (driving to the basket) and I hit the backboard so hard that my shot rebounded all the way to the other end of the gym. But I played the whole game and we won. And the next day I got a note to report to varsity practice.”

Shortly thereafter, Bill and another freshman guard, Clark Irwin of Central Valley High in Spokane, were inserted into the starting lineup against Seattle University.

“We had played them earlier, and our guards couldn’t get the ball up the court because Seattle double-teamed the guards,” Bill says. “Ben Pease taught me how to break that when I was in grade school, and Clark and I wound up playing together for four years. We became known as the Gold Dust Twins.”

Those were the days, Bill says, when Gonzaga was an NAIA school and Seattle U, led by the great Elgin Baylor, rose to become the No. 1-ranked NCAA team in the nation.

“We would play them four times a year, and we would split home and away,” Bill remembers. “Seattle went on to the (NCAA) national finals one year. We always went to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, but we didn’t know the difference.”

One of Bill’s fondest memories of his years in Spokane was the band of loyal fans from his hometown who made it to nearly every one of Gonzaga’s home games.

“I would look up at the end of the coliseum and there would be this group of my Indian friends, nearly every one of them a direct descendant of Chief Joseph,” Bill says. “I would leave the floor and go up and greet them. We were awfully close.”

After his playing days were over, Bill remained in Spokane for one year as one of Hank Anderson’s graduate assistants, then spent six months on active duty in the military to fulfill his ROTC obligation. 

The plan was to return to Spokane, but that all changed when he and his wife, Sue, whom he had met during his senior year at Gonzaga, stopped off in Livingston, Mont., to visit her parents.

“Sue’s dad owned one lumber mill and was in the process of building a brand-new one,” Bill remembers. “And he offered to give us part of the business, either the old one or the new one, and on top of that he would build us a new home.”

It was an offer Bill and Sue couldn’t turn down, but three years later they were on the move again.

“We were sitting there with a new baby, a new car, a new home and part owner of the business, but I was a duck out of water,” Bill says. “After three years, we decided we were not happy doing that. We missed Spokane. And I missed basketball, and I wanted to get back into it.”

With no immediate coaching openings available at Gonzaga, Anderson told Bill of a vacancy at DeSales High School in Walla Walla. And in August of 1961, Bill accepted the position of Irish head basketball coach.

“I taught math and a couple of PE classes,” Bill remembers. “I even taught a typing class. I was also Jerry Anhorn’s assistant coach in football, and he was my assistant in basketball. And I took baseball in the spring, and Jerry took track.”

The following year, Gonzaga offered the Grays a chance to return to Spokane. But, by then, it was too late.

“They offered me the job of alumni director, with a chance to move in as the assistant basketball coach,” Bill says. “We went up there to meet with them, and they wanted me to be in Washington, D.C., the following Monday. But all the way home we were thinking of Walla Walla. We had fallen in love with the town, and by then we had three kids and were very comfortable.

“Sue and I made the hardest decision we have ever had to make. We decided we were going to stay in Walla Walla no matter what. This was the place to raise our kids.”

After three years at DeSales, however, Bill parted ways with the school. 

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” Bill recollects. “I was in the medical detachment here in town and was at summer camp when Ted Murray, the superintendent at Umapine High School, called me. He needed a basketball coach and was begging me to take the job.

“I told him I would help out for a few weeks, and ended up staying for five years.”

It was during those years at Umapine that Bill was approached by a state senator from Olympia who was in the process of organizing a classified school-employees association, and he was looking for someone with school experience to help out on the east side of the state. 

“It was something brand new and very challenging, and I accepted,” Bill recalls.

During his 24 years with the Public School Employees of Washington, a labor union for public school employees other than teachers and administrators, Bill rose to the position of executive director. He takes pride in the fact the association “grew from a small group that filled one conference room in a small hotel in Ocean Shores to 45,000 members who filled up the Bellevue Convention Center.”

Through it all, Bill also ascended the ladder in his capacity as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He retired as a full colonel in 1992 after 34 years in the military, serving 10 of those years on active duty.

“I was literally working 10 to 12 hours every day,” Bill says. “But I found the military very challenging. And I can say that other than vacations, which we never took, my family didn’t have to sacrifice anything.”

These days, Bill and Sue live the good life on their three-quarters-of-an-acre place up on Mill Creek, where they are often visited by their six children — Monica, twins Barbie and Billy, Lisa, Tom and Jennifer — as well as 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

And then there are all those pleasant afternoons on the golf course, where Bill is joined by an eclectic group of retired and semiretired doctors and lawyers and bankers, engineers and teachers, merchants and restaurateurs, and even one old sports writer.

“It keeps my competitive juices flowing,” Bill says of his mostly Monday-through-Friday afternoons — weather permitting — on the golf course. “I love the competition and the social outlet, and it’s also some exercise.”

As if he needs the exercise after daily morning walks and regular visits to the YMCA, where he focuses on weights. In earlier years, Bill was an avid handball player, and for 20 years he “jogged for health reasons.” 

He’s been good enough on the links to shoot his age on several occasions. And on those afternoons when the bogeys and doubles outnumber the pars, he refuses to get his dauber down.

Instead, he loads his clubs in the trunk of his car, smiles that Bill Gray smile and offers his four-word philosophy on how to live life.

“Tomorrow,” he will say, “is another day.”

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