They returned heroes

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In 1965, their record-breaking achievements made them statewide heroes. Forty years later, they’re remembered for their knowledge and perseverance, as driven young men whose accomplishments helped steer PSU in a new direction.

On March 7, 1965, the Portland State College Bowl team shook Oregon to its core when they beat Birmingham-Southern University to become champions on the nationally televised college trivia game show, "GE College Bowl." The victory, their fifth and final, was a substantial step towards overcoming the university’s image as the "flunk-out" school for failed University of Oregon and Oregon State University students.

The students returned statewide heroes and received proclamations from Governor Mark Hatfield and the legislature. At PSC (then Portland State College), they received letterman’s jackets and, eventually, the Smith Memorial Student Union was named in honor of team member Michael Smith who was battling cystic fibrosis at the time.

Brand new and grossly under-funded in the early ’60s, PSU was in dire need of a revamped image to convince the state and prospective students that it was not a school for the academically mediocre.

Today, their victories are considered a major factor in the improvement of the university’s image and the legislature’s 1965 decision to fund a graduate program. On March 26, 1965, Time Magazine published an article observing the College Bowl’s role in PSU’s various improvements.

Jim Westwood, team captain and only surviving member, recalled the shock and joy of sudden national notoriety.

"It was pretty neat," Westwood said. "It was awfully hard to not get a big head over it. College Bowl was really a life-changing thing at the time."

"There was always this feeling that we needed to prove ourselves," explained Clarence Hein, editor-in-chief of the Vanguard in 1965. "[The wins] gave everybody a sense of pride … it really was a little bit of legitimacy."

Having covered the team’s endeavors from their initial preparations through their wins and government proclamations, Hein experienced first hand the hysteria in and around Portland that stemmed from their achievements.

"The longer they went on the program, the more the interest [was] piqued," said Hein. "There was a lot of people in the city that thought it was pretty swell."

After responding to an ad in a spring 1964 issue of the Vanguard, Westwood and co-bowlers Robin Freeman, Larry Smith and Michael Smith, along with alternates Al Kotz, Marv Foust, Jim Cronin, Doug Hawley and Jim Watts, joined coach Ben Padrow for nine months of intensive preparation and anxious waiting as an alternate team, to be called in once a team won five games and retired as champion.

The team finally got its chance when Lawrence University retired. After months of waiting with no idea of when or if they would play, they were suddenly swept off to New York City to compete against San Francisco University.

They went on to five consecutive victories, all by over 100 points, most by over 200 points and some by more than 300 points. They retired champions. Their 1,725-point total set a new record for total points achieved and was fourth overall after the show’s end.

According to Westwood, preparing for the competition was a long and tiring process, though boning up on miscellaneous trivia was not their chief concern.

"We didn’t study anything special," said Westwood, explaining that they were all "trivia nuts" to begin with, young men who had spent their childhoods poring over almanacs and encyclopedias on their own accord.

Instead, Padrow worked relentlessly with the students, building on their preexisting knowledge, developing their speed with the buzzers and familiarizing them with the game show’s format.

After College Bowl, Padrow served a stint as then-mayor Bud Clark’s campaign manager, coached the PSU forensics team and taught speech at the university until retirement.

Westwood observed the late Padrow’s inexhaustible energy and leadership ability as the "stern taskmaster."

"High-strung, driven, and he drove us," said Westwood, "he knew exactly what was going on and what we were going to do. I give him all the credit for all we were."

Though all the original members save Westwood have since passed, their story has lived on. Michael Smith’s battle with cystic fibrosis, in particular, has been told and told again as an example of determination and perseverance against heavy odds.

"He was courageous, lord knows he was courageous," said Westwood. "He was my closest friend at the time."

Though it has since become one of the most oft-acknowledged facets of the College Bowl saga, the topic of Michael Smith’s illness, it seems, was left virtually untouched by press and team.

"It was not really widely known," said Hein. "I sensed he wanted to live a regular life."

Westwood remembers his friend as the team’s sharpest pundit, with a sense of determination that he admires to this day.

"He had willpower you wouldn’t believe," said Westwood, "and he kept his sense of humor through it all."

Michael Smith graduated from PSU a double major in English and Psychology. He died in 1968.

Building on the knowledge and experience gained from PSU and College Bowl, Westwood, Larry Smith and Freeman all went on to lead fruitful, intellectually rich lives.

Using his newly gained notoriety, Westwood worked a brief stint as a local broadcast television weatherman. He used his College Bowl winnings to fund himself through Columbia University’s law school and is now a lawyer at the Stoel Rives firm in downtown Portland.

Larry Smith became a freelance writer and died in 1999 on the Oregon Coast.

Freeman, the "brainiac" of the group, moved to Europe and lived his remaining years as a student and scholar. He died in November in London.

In 1990, Pat Squire, Director of Alumni Relations at PSU, conducted a College Bowl replay after meeting Westwood, who served as president of the alumni board at the time.

"This just seemed such a unique part of Portland State history," said Squire.

At the replay, Westwood moderated while selected students competed against past team alternates. The alumni won.

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