Legendary coach Bob Thomsen turns 100

Bob ThomsenOn Jan. 11, Bob Thomsen celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by family and friends and former athletes in Cordiner Hall.

When Bob Thomsen arrived on the Whitman College campus more than a half a century ago, he was a 38-year-old former U.S. Navy lieutenant with a sizeable football coaching resume looking to establish himself at the collegiate level.

A 1934 graduate of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, Thomsen had paid his dues in the high school ranks, coaching multiple sports at his old hometown of Wahpeton, N.D., as well as several schools in southern Minnesota until 1943, when he was drafted. After completing his military duty, he earned his master’s degree in 1950 and his doctorate in 1952. Thomsen began his Whitman career as an assistant football coach and a physical education instructor. He was promoted to Dean of Men in his second year and became the Missionaries head football coach in 1955. The Missionaries posted winning records in five of Thomsen’s seven seasons as head football coach. Thomsen’s 1959 team won its first four games, including a victory over Pacific in the Northwest Conference opener that drew 2,500 fans to Borleske Stadium.

“I think that Bob Burgess and I developed a program from practically zero to a pretty darn solid program,” Thomsen said.

Thomsen, as it turned out, became best known at Whitman not as a football coach but as the school’s men’s golf coach, a position he held for 17 seasons. The Missionaries finished no worse than second in the NWC during 12 of those seasons, and they won five consecutive conference titles beginning in 1966. Thomsen’s 1969 squad posted a 20-2 record in dual matches, and his 1970 team won the conference title by 65 strokes.

“It has been a real privilege for me these last eight years to get to know Bob,” Athletics Director Dean Snider said. “He is remarkably healthy and mobile, and he is at our offices quite regularly, always asking how the recruiting is going and who do we need him to talk to. He’s really interested and engaged and it has been fun to get to know him.”

At his birthday celebration, Thomsen said he never had an inclination to leave Walla Walla during his retirement years.

“North Dakota and Minnesota are not good places to retire.”

—Excerpted from a story by Jim Buchan