Bethel High School – 1955 Graduate – Deceased
“Gene Ketter was the best athlete of that era at Bethel High School”. – Dave Rich, teammate – ’55 B.H.S.
Gene Ketter excelled in three sports and by the time that he graduated in the Spring of 1955, he would be awarded nine varsity letters – three in football, two in baseball, and four in basketball. Those four letters would place him in some rare company in that Gene, Dave Rich and Walt Leigh would be the only basketball players of that era to garner that many.
Gene was born December 31st, 1936 in Tacoma, WA. His parents, Andrew and Alma had five other children, Andy, David, Zona, Bonnie and Barbara. He attended Roy Elementary School and in the Fall of 1951, Gene’s freshman year, the Bethel School District was still in transition. Construction on the new high school would not be completed until the Fall of 1952 and consequently, the Kapowsin and Roy High Schools were still open but the athletic teams from the two schools were combined and known as the “Bethel Braves”. According to Mr. Ed Niehl, the athletes had to be transported by bus to the practice facilities and at times this created some logistical problems. Nevertheless, “the system” worked.
1951 saw some changes in the coaching staff. Ed Niehl, a 1951 graduate of Washington State College, was hired as the new head football coach and Robert Fincham was promoted from assistant to head coach of the basketball team. Both had had very successful careers in college, Mr. Niehl was a varsity letterman at halfback for the Cougars for several years and by all accounts he was a fine athlete and a tough, hard-nosed football player and his teams would take on that same character. Mr. Fincham was a 1949 graduate of the College of Puget Sound, where he was not only a four year letterman in basketball, but an All-Northwest Conference selection for three years and an All-Evergreen Conference pick as a senior when the Loggers joined the new circuit. Finally, in his freshman year at C.P.S., he scored 252 points in 12 Northwest Conference games (21.0 average) to set a league record that stood for some time. Both would have a major impact on their respective teams during the decade of the 1950’s. Mr. Niehl’s football teams would win three league championships (1955, ’57 and ’58) and share a fourth (1954 with Fife). Mr. Fincham’s basketball teams would also win three titles (1953-’54, 1954-’55 and 1958-’59) and share a fourth (1957-’58 with Yelm). Also, his 1958-’59 team would be the first from Bethel to compete in the State Tournament.
As a freshman, Gene turned out for the basketball team. The prior year (the ’50-’51 season) the team played 12 league games and managed to lose all of them, so he probably figured that he didn’t have anything to lose! However, things would be different as Mr. Fincham started to mold a team that would be competitive and much different from the previous year. Gene, along with fellow freshmen Dave Rich and Walt Leigh made the varsity squad – and Gene was a starting guard. The team played five non-league games, beating Morton and St. Martin’s but losing to Lincoln, Sumner and to St .Martin’s in a second matchup. In league play they were 5-7 (7-10 overall), but four of those losses were to Eatonville (twice), the league champions, and to Yelm (also twice), the second place finisher – both of those teams would go on to compete in the State Class “B” Tournament and finish second the sixth respectively. In seventeen games Lee McGee, Bethel’s star 6’4″ center, led the team with 193 points (11.4 average per game), Dan Rolcik was second with 105 (6.6 average per game), Gene was third with 95 (5.9 average per game), and Virgil Lyons was fourth with 69. Dave Rich and Walt Leigh were frequent substitutes off of the bench all season.
Now a sophomore, Gene turned out for football in the Fall of 1952 and made the varsity squad as an end, both on offense and defense. The Braves were one of the favorites to take the league title but as fate would have it, three tie games would lead to their undoing. The team would finish league play undefeated (3-0-3, 5-1-3 overall), but again, those ties cost them dearly. Orting was the league champion (5-0-1) and Bethel tied Fife (4-1-1) for second place. Gene had a good year and was instrumental in two of Bethel’s three league wins. In a 13-7 victory over Fife, quarterback Ken Olive hooked up on a 35 yard pass to Gene to score Bethel’s first touchdown, and in a close 7-0 shutout over Yelm, Gene’s 15 yard touchdown pass from Gene Curbow was the difference. In order to put Gene’s season into perspective, the Braves were mainly a running team – they threw only four touchdown passes all season and Gene caught two of them.
The 1952-’53 basketball team had to be completely restructured. Five of the best players on the team, Lee McGee, Dan Rolcik, Virgil Lyons, Jim Rotondo and Charles Klingenberg had graduated. Two of the starting five were returning, Gene and senior Ken Olive and they would be joined by sophomores Dave Rich and Walt Leigh, along with juniors Felix Brodigan and Gary Allison, a transfer student from Eatonville High School. Mr. Fincham now had the nucleus for two teams; one that would provide Bethel with its first winning season and the other would deliver a league championship. The team tied for fourth with Peninsula in the eight team Pierce County League, with a record of eight wins and six losses. Throughout the season the Braves exhibited a very balanced offense in scoring. Walt Leigh and Felix Brodigan were high point men in three games each and shared a fourth, Dave Rich followed with three, then Ken Olive with two and Gene and Gene Curbow with one apiece. Finally, the season also saw another first, a chance to play in the post-season. Because of the tie with Peninsula, the last seed in the Class “A” District Tournament was yet to be determined, and in the play-off game, the Seahawks prevailed by a score of 56-47. Yes, the year ended on a “sour note”, but the next basketball season would prove to be indeed, magical.
The 1953 football season would be another challenge for Ed Niehl and his assistant, Jack Justice. Their star fullback, Darrell Borden, along with quarterbacks Ken Olive and Gordon Barna and end Terry Piper, all graduated and had to be replaced. In some moves that seemed questionable at the time, John Kerr was moved from his offensive end position to fullback; Felix Brodigan, a defensive tackle, would take his place as an offensive end; Dave Rich would replace Terry Piper at the other end position; Gary Allison would start at right halfback in place of Glen Fuhrman, who suffered a career ending injury in the 1952 season; Gene Curbow would return as the left halfback; and Gene Ketter would be the quarterback. A new position, a new number (Gene wore #29 his sophomore year, #30 this year and #33 his senior year), and a new league. Apparently the coaches must have had “Lady Luck” on their side, and a “crystal ball” to guide them because all of these moves proved to be very successful.
Now a member of the West Central League, Bethel, along with Peninsula and Federal Way, were the pre-season picks to win the league title. The Braves opened the season with a non-league 18-0 win over Eatonville in the annual “King’s Axe” game and they followed up with a league opening 14-0 victory against the 1952 champion Orting Cardinals. Gary Allison scored first, and late in the game, Gene Curbow tossed a three yard pass to Gene for the final touchdown. The next two games were also shutouts, 25-0 over Vashon and 33-0 against Eatonville. In the Vashon game, Gene scored the first touchdown on a short run. Now, with four straight wins and nary a touchdown scored against them, the Braves would face the Peninsula Seahawks in a match-up of two unbeaten teams. The pre-game press coverage was extensive. In a column written by Rog McDonald of the T.N.T., he wrote the following: “The Braves lineup is loaded with outstanding players… Gene Ketter, a 185-lb. junior, handles the quarterback chores and is rated as one of the smartest signal callers in the conference.”. As advertised, the game was exciting – the teams battled to a 12-12 tie. The post-game write-up, in part, stated that “ends John Kerr and Gene Ketter played excellent ball on defense and were a thorn in the sides of the Peninsula ball carriers all evening.”. This meant that the undefeated Federal Way Eagles were now alone at the top of the league standings.
Apparently undeterred by the tie, Bethel blanked Buckley 13-0; the Fife Trojans 14-0; and the Yelm Tornadoes 46-0, a game in which Gene was at his best. He completed 10 out of 15 passes, three for touchdowns – two to Felix Brodigan and one to Dave Rich – Gene Curbow also threw a scoring pass to Brodigan. Gary Allison accounted for two touchdowns on runs and Dennis McGraw added another. As was the case in 1951, the stage was set for another showdown against Federal Way, only this time it would be for the outright league championship.
The game was originally scheduled to be played at the Eagles’ home field, but it was deemed to be unplayable and the contest was moved to the Sumner High School field, which quite frankly, was just about as bad. As in the Peninsula game earlier in the season, the press coverage was considerable, not only in Pierce County, but in King County as well. One column entitled “Hard To Predict” stated that “Bethel is primarily a running team, although in a 46-0 rout in Yelm on Armistice Day the Braves racked up 204 yards passing and 100 rushing. Gary Allison, Gene Curbow and Gene Ketter are standouts in the backfield, along with Felix Brodigan, an end, in the Braves’ offense”. Bethel had to win the game in order to take the league title, a tie wouldn’t do it as Federal Way’s record was 7-0-0, compared to Bethel’s 6-1-0. So, on November 20th 1953, the teams squared off on a very muddy field for the championship.
Federal Way took the opening kickoff and scored. Bethel came right back to score a touchdown which was set up by a 55 yard pass from Gene to Felix Brodigan. Two plays later, Gene Curbow went in from three yards out. At the end of the first quarter it was Federal Way 7, Bethel 6 and for the next three quarters the two teams were locked in a bruising, sometimes bloody defensive standoff until finally, with 55 seconds left to go in the game, the Eagles scored a second touchdown and prevailed 13-6. Bethel would finish alone in second place with a record of 6-1-1, followed by Peninsula and Orting at 5-2-1. All-in-all, it was a successful season, but three straight second place finishes, mainly at the hands of the Federal Way Eagles, would haunt the Braves for another year.
The 1953-’54 basketball season proved to be a different story. Coming off of an 8-6 league campaign the previous year, Mr. Fincham had the luxury of having four of his five starters returning for another year, along with a solid bench of sophomores and juniors. The only starter that had to be replaced was Ken Olive, and Gary Allison proved to be up to the task. The center would be senior Felix Brodigan; the two forwards were juniors Dave Rich and Gene; and junior Walt Leigh and senior Gary Allison would be the guards. In order to get his team “league-tough”, Mr. Fincham scheduled four games against some much tougher competition, i.e. Bellermine, from the Class “AA” City League and Franklin Pierce, an “A” member of the Puget Sound League. The Braves lost both games to Bellermine, but split the two games with Franklin Pierce – a 47-42 loss and a 55-36 win. The Braves were now ready to take on their West Central opponents and they did so like a well-oiled machine, winning all 16 games and the league championship. Only two games were even close and there really wasn’t any team that could match them, either on offense or defense. Peninsula ended up in second place with a 13-3 record followed by Eatonville at 12-4. The Braves led the league in scoring with 945 points and third in points allowed (72-6), an average margin of victory of 14 points.
Individually, Walt Leigh and Gene were the scorers, Felix Brodigan was the go-to-guy underneath the basket and Dave Rich, along with Gary Allison, were great on defense and their pin-point passing led to many assists. Walt Leigh led the team with 233 points (15.5 average in 15 games); Gene was second with 213 points (13.3 average in 16 games); followed by Felix Brodigan (190, an 11.9 average in 16 games); Dave Rich (136, an 8.5 average in 16 games); and Gary Allison (96, a 6.0 average in 16 games). Finally, Gene led the team in scoring in seven games; Leigh in six and Brodigan in three.
Throughout the season, the local sportswriters recognized how balanced this team was and several quotes were indicative of that fact:
– “Led by Gene Ketter and Felix Brodigan, the Bethel Braves scored a 53-41 victory over the defending champion Yelm Tornadoes in an early season West Central League ‘Crucial’ here Tuesday night”. This piece was followed up with a pre-game analysis of the Bethel – Fife game: “In order to win, Fife will have to stop Gene Ketter, Bethel forward, who scored 23 points and center Felix Brodigan who hit 17 against Yelm”.
– In the aforementioned Fife game, the summary stated as follows: “Gene Ketter collected 22 points for Bethel to take scoring honors, but his wasn’t a solo effort, as Walter Leigh and Dave Rich scored 17 and 12 points respectively. Leigh was also outstanding in his floor work, setting up plays, and in rebounding.”. The final score was Bethel 67, Fife 54.
– In a 65-53 win over Peninsula, the story appeared the next day and stated that “four Bethel starters hit two figures in the scoring. Dave Rich had 11, Gene Ketter 19, Felix Brodigan 16 and Walt Leigh 15.”. After the first victory against Eatonville (51-42), a writer reported that “Dave Rich, Gene Ketter and Walter Leigh turned in outstanding jobs for the winners with all-around good floor play and rebounding. Felix Brodigan, Bethel center, caught fire in the second half and poured 15 points through the hoop. His total of 18 was high for the night.”. And, in the second Eatonville game (61-60), “four of the Bethel starters hit the double figures. Walter Leigh led the attack with 18 points followed by Gene Ketter and Felix Brodigan 14 and Gary Allison with 12.”.
Unfortunately, Bethel’s season came to an abrupt halt in the West Central District Class “A” Tournament. Bethel received a first-round bye, but was defeated by Auburn of the Puget Sound League 64-55. Three days later, the Braves met the Bremerton Wildcats of the Cross-State League. Bethel led 20-11 at halftime, but the Wildcats staged a third quarter rally and held on to edge the Braves 46-43. It surely was a disappointing end to a fine season, however, it was Bethel’s first league championship and the first appearance in a tournament. It would be something to build on.
The 1954 football season ended three years of frustration and second place finishes, as the Braves would tie the Fife Trojans for the league title. Gene and Gene Curbow, now seniors, were still at quarterback and left halfback. Dave Rich, also a senior, would be one of the offensive ends and Walt Leigh would be the other. Fullback John Kerr and right halfback Gary Allison graduated and were replaced by Gene Ressler and Dennis McGraw, with sophomore Wayne Bush as a frequent substitute for McGraw. As usual, head coach Ed Niehl and his assistant Jack Justice made the right moves. Due to the records being unavailable, the game summaries for the entire season are incomplete. However, newspaper clippings covering five of the eight league games (there were no pre-season games) have been provided and they document the most important games of the season.
Bethel opened league play with a 6-0 win over the Vashon Pirates. The game was mainly a defensive battle with the Pirates holding the favored Braves twice within the 10-yard line on downs. In the last 90 seconds of the game, Gene’s 12 yard touchdown pass to Gene Ressler proved to be the winning margin. In the second contest of the season, the Braves took on the Eatonville Cruisers in the “King’s Axe” game and came out on top 20-0. Gene had a fine game, running for one touchdown, passing for another to Walt Leigh, and caught a scoring pass from Gene Curbow for the Braves’ final touchdown. Gene completed nine of twelve passes for the night, and on defense, Thorne Tibbitts, Gene Williams and Allen Michener were mentioned as “playing good ball for the winners”.
After a 45-0 rout against Peninsula, the Braves were undefeated and now had to face the only other undefeated team in the league – the 4-0-0 White River Hornets. In a hard-fought 14-13 win, Gene Curbow scored all of Bethel’s points, incuding a 12 yard pass from Gene in the third quarter. Tibbitts was again mentioned in the post-game newspaper summary: “Little 145-pound Thorne Tibbitts played an outstanding defensive game for Bethel, leading the team with 14 tackles.”. Now at 4-0-0 in league play, the team would travel to Fife to play the once-beaten Trojans – in the fourth game of their season they lost to White River 21-8 – and Bethel ran into a fired-up Fife team that absolutely controlled the second half. Bethel scored first when Gene hit Dave Rich on a 31 yard touchdown strike to give Bethel a 6-0 halftime lead. Fife came back to score twice in the third quarter, one on an 88 yard punt return and the other on an 11 yard run. According to the post-game write-up, Fife’s blocking and defensive line play was outstanding in the second half and that was the reason for their 14-6 win.
The Braves bounced back the following week, notching a 13-6 win against a young, talented Yelm team. Now with Fife and Bethel having identical 5-1-0 records, the final two games would be crucial, and as fate would have it, the next to the last game of the season would be against, of course, the Federal Way Eagles. For the preceding three years that team had been a real pain, a nemesis for Bethel. In 1951, the Braves had a chance to tie Fife for the league title. Going into the final game of the season, both Federal Way and Bethel had identical records of 4-1-0 – the winner ties the Trojans for the championship and the loser finishes second. The Braves were decisively beaten 37-6. In 1952, an early season 6-6 tie with Federal Way proved to be very costly, as the Braves went on to tie for second with the Eagles. The 1953 game has been covered in this biography and suffice it to say, the 13-6 loss to Federal Way meant that Bethel would finish in second place for a third straight year.
However, it’s now 1954 and there’s an old saying, “Revenge is Sweet” – better yet, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. On a very chilly night in November the Braves absolutely demolished the Federal Way Eagles 51-0 and it was Gene’s night for sure. He threw five touchdown passes good for 202 yards, and was on the receiving end of another scoring throw from Gene Curbow. Dave Rich caught four touchdown passes, three from Gene and one from Gene Curbow. Curbow also ran for 105 yards on 12 carries (an 8.8 average) for one touchdown and Wayne Bush added two more. The game summary also stated that “the backs did not win the game alone…..as the entire Bethel forward wall played hard, aggressive ball. Thorne Tibbitts, Curbow and Ketter shared defensive honors with 11 tackles each.”. The Braves concluded their season with a 49-0 win over Orting. A tie with Fife for the championship gave Bethel its first league litle since 1950 when the school was in the old Pirce County League. Finally, the team statistics were impressive, Bethel led the league in points scored (204) and fewest points allowed (33).
As a brief aside to this biography, Thorne Tibbitts should be mentioned. He was special. At 145 lbs., he was an offensive guard, a linebacker on defense and set a new school record for tackles (89) during this season. Assistant head coach Jack Justice later on would say that “Thorne Tibbitts was the toughest football player I ever coached.”.
1954-’55 proved to be another banner basketball season for the Braves. Center Felix Brodigan and guard Gary Allison had graduated and they were replaced by Larry Symmons, Don Stave, and Thorne Tibbitts – Symmons and Stave shared the duties at center while Tibbitts stepped in for Allison. Also, the “core” of the team was returning for their senior year; Gene, Walt Leigh, along with team captain Dave Rich, and it would turn out to be a very remarkable year.
Early in the season, as was now Mr. Fincham’s habit, he scheduled four games against bigger schools from other tough leagues. The Braves won three of them, losing only to Franklin Pierce. As league play began, Bethel reeled off seven straight wins, all by convincing margins, but in the eighth game the team fell to the White River Hornets, 57-53. Undaunted by the upset, the Braves went on to win the remaining eight games and capture their second straight league title. As was the case in the previous season, aside from the one loss, there were only two other games that were even close, and by the way, the Braves avenged their only loss, beating White River 78-54 in the return match-up. And, just like the previous season, Bethel had a balanced attack on offense, and everyone on the team contributed to their 15 league wins. Some quotes from the writers who covered the games are as follows:
– Bethel 61, Yelm 29 – “Gene Ketter, Bethel guard, was high for the game with 16 points, although three other Bethel players hit double figures. They were Walter Leigh with 13, Thorne Tibbitts with 12 and Dave Rich with 11.”.
– Bethel 58, Central Kitsap 48 (a non-league game) – “Gene Ketter was the game’s high-point man with 21, although two other Braves hit double figures. They were Dave Rich with 13 and Walter Leigh with 10.”.
– Bethel 62, Vashon 51 – “The ability of Don Stave, Dave Rich and Larry Symmons on the boards for Bethel was a major factor in the win. Gene Ketter paced the Braves’ scorers with 21 points.”.
– Bethel 57, Yelm 35 – “Dave Rich turned in a good game on the boards and also led the scorers, hitting 21 points for Bethel. Little Thorne Tibbitts gave the spectators a thrill when he cast off from behind the center line at the end of the half and swished the twine for one of Bethel’s field goals. The shot was from approximately 45 feet away.”.
– Bethel 64, Fife 56 – “One of the decisive factors in the game was the board work of Walter Leigh and Dave Rich, Bethel’s two forwards. Also important was the defensive work and ball-hawking of Thorne Tibbitts and Gene Ketter, Bethel’s guards.”.
– And finally, in one of the few close league games, Bethel 45, Eatonville 43 – “Gene Ketter supplied the go-ahead points with two minutes to go as he stole the ball the dropped in a field goal to put his team in front 40-39. The Braves scored eight straight points immediately before Ketter’s bucket , to pull up from a 39-31 deficit……Ketter led Bethel with 16 points.”.
In the 16 league games, the team set a new record by scoring an even 1000 points (a 63 per game average) and allowing 711 (44 per game), which was second to Eatonville’s 689. Just before entering the West Central District Class “A” playoffs, Dan Walton of The Tacoma News Tribune commented on the team’s season, including the four non-league games: “During their 20 game campaign, the sharp-shooting Braves scored 1235 points. That’s an average of more than 61 per game. Their opponents 46.6. The Braves’ scoring pace is remarkable when it is considered that the preps play only eight-minute quarters. * * * The previous year, Bethel was undefeated in 16 games, giving the little school (enrollment 420) a record of 31-1 over the two-season span in West Central competition. The team has won 35 and lost only 7 in the two campaigns as an over-all record.”.
The Braves would fare much better in the District Tournament than the previous year. After an opening round thumping at the hands of Enumclaw 71-46, the Braves came back to beat Renton (42-39) and Fife (67-48) and were one win away from going to the State Tournament. In a heart-breaker against South Kitsap, Bethel led 43-40 at the end of the third quarter, only to have their opponents come back in the final quarter to take a 49-46 victory – only four points away from going to the State Tournament. The team’s overall record for the season was 20-4.
Individually, Gene led the league in scoring with 289 points in 16 games – an 18.0 average, followed by Walt Leigh with 249 in 15 games a 16.6 average; Dave Rich with 144, a 9.0 average; Thorne Tibbitts with 128, an 8.0 average; and Larry Symmons (5.5) and Don Stave (2.8). It should be noted that Symmons and Stave were not the scorers that Felix Brodigan was, but both were good rebounders and accurate passers. The team, in their 24 game season, scored a total of 1436 points, i.e. 60 per game and this record couldn’t be matched by most high schools, even in this day and age. Gene (430) and Walt Leigh (361) scored 791 total points in those games. Simply stated, a great coach and great players that produced a great team, one of the best in the history of Bethel High School basketball.
Gene was also a very accomplished baseball player and was the starting shortstop on the 1954 and 1955 teams. He was a good hitter and a gret fielder on defense. While the records are woefully incomplete for these two seasons, they at least indicate that he was a “clutch” player in this sport as well. In the opening game of the 1954 baseball season the Braves beat Orting 2-1. Orting scored their one run in the first inning, but the Braves came back in the fourth. John Kerr reached first base on an error and Walt Leigh smacked a triple to score Kerr, then Gene followed with a single to bring in Leigh. Those were the only two hits Bethel would have in the game and the team held on for a 2- 1 win. The Orting pitcher would strike out 13 Braves, but sophomore pitcher Danny McGraw would put up 11 “K’s”, allowing just three hits to pick up the win. Bethel would finish third that year (5-3), behind Fife and Peninsula. At the end of the school year, Gene received the Outstanding Athlete Award and was also president of the 1954-’55 senior class.
After Gene graduated, he worked for Concrete Technology for over 30 years. He also continued to be involved in athetics, playing both fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball for several years on various teams in the area. However, his true love was the outdoors, and hunting and fishing were his favorite passtimes. Because of his athleltic abilities, he also excelled as a bowler and was an avid, low-handicap golfer. As a quarterback, a high-scoring basketball player, and a shortstop on the baseball team, one could surmise that his exceptional hand-to-eye coordination had something to do with his success in these other sports.
Gene was a devoted family man. In 1959 he married Joyce Grinde and they had four children, Kenny, Kellie, Kevin and Kyle. All of his children graduated from Bethel High School and participated in various sports programs. Of his six grandchildren, five have also graduated from Bethel and one is still attending. True to their grandfather’s “roots”, all were, or are, involved in athletics and the entire family still resides in Roy.
Gene Ketter passed away in March of 2006 and he is survived by his wife, Joyce, and their four children. He, along with so many others who are no longer with us created an enduring legacy of the early years of Bethel athletics, and this biography, hopefully, will provide a window into that past. Gene was certainly a big part of this and his induction, along with his teammates Felix Brodigan and Gene Curbow into The Bethel School District Athletic Hall of Fame, will serve as a tribute and a reminder as to just how many individuals are a part of that great history.