Coach 'Skeet' was like a good parent to Clark athletes

College's athletic program founder, who died in July, eulogized

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

• His parents named him Claude, but for more than 70 years, he was known as “Skeet” O’Connell — a nod to an outstanding Oregon State athlete from the early 1930s.

“In the course of a ballgame, I made a couple good plays, and one of the guys called out, ‘Hey, great job, ‘Skeet,’” O’Connell told Columbian Sports Editor Greg Jayne in 2009. “After that, I was called ‘Skeet’ all the time.”

You don't need to know anything about sports to appreciate how Claude "Skeet" O'Connell approached coaching.

But you might understand it if you've ever been part of a family, one of his former athletes said Thursday.

That was the way Skeet handled a team, Denny Huston said just after Clark College celebrated of the life of the man who founded the Penguin athletic program.

O'Connell died on July 14, 2012; he was 96.

Thursday's remembrance took place in the building that bears his name, O'Connell Sports Center.

Huston, who played for O'Connell and went on to become Clark athletic director, said that Skeet "was like a good parent."

Skeet recognized the importance of the family unit, Huston said -- something that a lot of today's athletic leaders apparently don't understand.

"Look at all the dysfunctional families in the sports world," Huston said.

O'Connell wasn't a hard-nose, according to those who played for him.

"He never swore that I was aware of," Ron Keil, another former Penguin, said in a video tribute. "But you knew it if you blew it."

He definitely had a competitive streak, Huston said: "If he spit, he spit to win."

And win he did. O'Connell coached the Penguins men's basketball program to state championships in 1947, 1954, 1955 and 1956, while leading the baseball team to a state title in 1956, too. In the 1970s, he also coached Clark to a couple of golf championships.

O'Connell was born in the Skagit County town of Concrete on Jan. 8, 1916. He got a degree in education from Western Oregon State, then moved to Vancouver to work in the shipyards during World War II after a medical condition kept him out of the military. He soon found himself teaching at Vancouver's Lincoln School.

That's where another teacher, StellaMae, met Skeet.

"I called him that before I knew his name was Claude," StellaMae said Thursday. They were married for 69 years.

In those days, the Vancouver School District operated Clark College, noted Bob Schaefer, a Clark alum. Skeet left his job as principal at Fruit Valley in 1946 to take over physical education and athletics when Clark College reopened after World War II. O'Connell became Clark's first athletic director and basketball coach and baseball coach. He spent 41 years at Clark, in so many roles that he retired three different times.

But he didn't retire from competition. During his later years in a local retirement community, O'Connell became a trophy-winning pool player. And O'Connell didn't give up coaching, either, said former Penguin athlete Jim Shinn.

"A new fellow moved in who'd never played much pool. Skeet mentored him," Shinn said. "The guy got to be pretty good, too."

Appropriately, O'Connell had a chance for the last word Thursday, thanks to a video interview that was done a few years ago.

"It was just a great time here," O'Connell told the crowd. "I really enjoyed it."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com.col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.