A Look Back in Time: Teenage Firefighter Tragically Drowns at Alexander Park in 1963


Dean Willson had reportedly drowned at Chehalis' Alexander Park on the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, 1963, during a swimming party for a group of young firefighters. 

“A swimming party for a group of young firefighters from Cedar Creek Forest Camp near Rochester Sunday afternoon ended in tragedy when one of the boys, Dean Willson, 16, drowned at Alexander Park in Chehalis,” The Chronicle reported.

Dean Willson was the son of “Mr. and Mrs. Fred Willson” of Seattle. He had been on fire standby during the previous week. 

After crews were rotated, the boys were given permission to go swimming and chose to go to Alexander Park because the camp pool was out of order and Millersylvania Park, where they would usually go to swim at Deep Lake, was closed due to windstorm damage. Thomas Girard, the camp superintendent, said several of the boys had heard Dean Willson cry for help but he was gone by the time they came. Girard said they believed Dean Willson, who was reportedly a good swimmer, had suffered a cramp. 

Stan Hedwall, the Chehalis Parks superintendent, said Alexander Park was still closed for the winter and was not scheduled to reopen until May 30. 

“(Hedwall) said he was attempting to gain information on the swimming party because there is a large sign at the park stating it is closed and that there is to be no swimming,” The Chronicle reported. Hedwall also said during the summer months a lifeguard was on duty at the park.


Saturday, May 20, 1933

• Marvin Gifford, the 12-year-old son of “Mr. and Mrs. Albert Gifford,” died in a “regrettable accident” on the morning of May 20 after his mother gave him an overdose of rhubarb powder. “The boy was seized with convulsions and died about an hour later,” The Chronicle reported. Two of Marvin’s siblings, June and Emma Jane Gifford, also took the powder and became violently ill. However, his siblings survived because they had eaten breakfast and were able to “vomit the medicine” while Marvin had taken the powder on an empty stomach. A doctor had come to save Marvin, though he was unable to do so. Marvin attended the Lincoln school as a sixth grader.

• Sylvia Wilson, a Lewis County pioneer, died at the age of 104 in Puyallup late on Friday, May 19. “Hale and hearty until the last,” Wilson died one month before her 105th birthday and was believed to be the oldest person in Washington state at the time. She was born in Tennessee on June 18, 1828 and was one of only a few American women receiving a pension from the federal government as a widow of a Mexican-American War veteran, as her first husband, Willis Moore, had been a soldier during the war. Wilson moved with her family from Tennessee to Missouri before moving to Lewis County in 1863, traveling on the “old” Oregon Trail by covered wagon. She was survived by four daughters, two sons, 13 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.

• The front page of The Chronicle featured a story reporting two divorces had been granted in Lewis County Superior Court. One divorce was granted to a wife who charged her husband with cruelty. She was given custody of their two children as well as support money and attorney’s fees. A man was also given a divorce from his wife for unspecified reasons. They were awarded joint custody with the husband paying support money.

• Grand Mound was expected to hold its sixth annual Strawberry Festival on the evening of Wednesday, May 24 at the barrelling plant. “Festivities will start at 8:30 o’clock, a program and dancing benign attractions together with the strawberry shortcake, which has been so important in making the occasion memorable,” The Chronicle reported. Chris Tashos was the chairman of the event, with W.O. Demorest and Nicholas Lorang also helping with arrangements. Activities included dancing, “entertainment,” and speakers, “but the main diversion will be partaking in strawberry shortcake.” In previous years the event had drawn about 1,500 people and plans were being made to accommodate at least as many people for the 1933 festival. The Grand Mound barrelling plant was reportedly one of the largest in the country, with a daily capacity of 600 barrels.

• An annual spring concert by Centralia High School music students was held on the night of Friday, May 19, The Chronicle reported. The concert included solos by Paul Bussard, Vera Hylton, Lois Watson, Ed Nelson and Royal Kiely. There was also a mixed quartet performance by Lois Watson, Glyndon Dickey, Paul Bussard and Royal Kiely. 

• “The Movies and Your Child” was the subject of the sermon Rev. J.C. Tourtellot was expected to present at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 21 at Chehalis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. “The subject, dealing with the effect of the movies on boys and girls who see them,” was to be based on a review of a national investigation made over five years by a group of scientists. During the Sunday morning service, Tourtellot was to deliver a sermon entitled “Be Yourself.”

• The Chehalis Junior High School was expected to hold its elections for student body offices on Monday, May 22. Nominees for president were Dick Post, Bob Markstrom and Rosalyn Kieszling. Nominees for vice president were Robert Urich and Storm Holland. Nominees for secretary were Dorothy Pool and Mary Louise Gilbertson. Treasurer nominees were Ray Parr and John O’Ban. The nominees for sergeant-at-arms were Oren Holt and Alfred Hamilton. 


Thursday, May 20, 1943

• Centralia College, then known as Centralia Junior College, was expected to hold its 17th annual commencement on the evening of Friday, May 21, The Chronicle reported. The event was to be held in the Centralia High School auditorium and 20 students were expected to graduate. 

• The War Department included the name of Technical Sgt. Stanley Stemkoski Jr. among a list of men missing in action in the “European area,” The Chronicle reported. Stemkoski’s parents first learned he was missing in action in mid-April, shortly after they learned he had been awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster for valor. According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency of the federal government, Stemkoksi was killed in action on April 5, 1943 and is buried in an American military cemetery in Belgium.

• Chehalis Senior High School’s 87 graduating students were expected to open their commencement week on Sunday, May 23 at a baccalaureate service at the junior high school auditorium at 8 p.m. “The service will mark the beginning of a week of activities which will reach its climax the following Thursday evening, when commencement exercises will be held, followed by the closing of school on Friday,” The Chronicle reported. Rev. J. Henry Ernst, the president of the Chehalis Ministerial Association, was expected to deliver the sermon. The subsequent Friday, the annual senior class picnic was expected to be held at Millersylvania State Park on Deep Lake.

• Students at Chehalis and Centralia public schools were expected to receive survey questionnaires to obtain registrations from students and others willing to assist in harvesting farm crops in Lewis and southern Thurston counties during the summer. Students were asked to return the forms to either the school, the local chamber of commerce offices or the U.S. Employment Office in Chehalis. 

• Purchases of war bonds and savings stamps in Centralia amounted to $41,075 for the first two weeks of May, according to Jack McNiven, the war savings chairman. “The chairman said that although the sales for the second week were under those at the start of the month, indications are May will see close to $80,000 of war savings purchased,” The Chronicle reported.

• A report for the Lewis-Pacific County Health District showed “one of the healthiest tweeks yet recorded” for the area. Only three new cases of communicable disease were reported in the district, according to district health officer Dr. Robert Fishback. Fishback said there were only two cases of “German, or three-day, measles” which is also known as Rubella. There was also one case of syphilis. 

• About 65 tons of paper that had been previously collected by Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other school children in Centralia were expected to be shipped on Saturday, May 22. It was unclear why the paper was raised, but it may have been related to America’s ongoing involvement in World War II. The paper was to be shipped to Everett, with proceeds to be divided among the Boy and Girl scouts and Centralia’s Parent-Teacher Association.


Wednesday, May 20, 1953

• The Chronicle reported new officers had been elected by the Free Masons during a meeting in Centralia. The Masons elected Everett Woolcock of Walla Walla as Grand Master of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Washington. Also elected at the meeting was Charles Boughner of Centralia as principal conductor of work. 

• The Centralia Commission had changed the city’s water ordinance on Tuesday, May 19, which The Chronicle said would result in some water rates being raised while others would be lowered. Public Works Commissioner Paul Bigelow and Water Superintendent Gordon Hoover reportedly stressed all basic rates would remain the same. The increased rates would be for “suburban” water users and those having new connections made. “New connections will raise from $18 to $30, the city officials pointed out this is still less than the actual costs of the labor and materials, and lower than most Washington cities charge,” The Chronicle reported. Suburban sprinkler rates, which applied to residences outside the city limits, would double from six cents to 12 cents per 100 cubic feet of water used above the monthly average.

• Jim Turner, the 1953 sweepstakes winner of the Chehalis Kiwanis Club amateur show, was presented a plaque for his school at an assembly earlier in the week. It was to be put into the school’s new trophy case.

• Both Chehalis Mayor Leonard Sonnemann and Centralia Mayor Claude Warren signed a proclamation declaring Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23 “Poppy Days’ for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. “WHEREAS the scarlet poppy is recognized throughout the world as symbolic of the sacrifice by our men and women in the military service during the first and second World Wars, and WHEREAS it is our desire to recognize the lasting debt of gratitude we owe to the nation’s War dead… WE, LEONARD A. SONNEMANN AND CLAUDE W. WARREN, Mayors of the City of Chehalis and the City of Centralia, do hereby proclaim Friday and Saturday, May 22 and 23, 1953, as Poppy Days. We earnestly urge all citizens of Chehalis and Centralia to observe these days by wearing veteran made poppies,” the proclamation stated. 

• A Bucoda man named Donald Imler was being treated in St. Helen Hospital in Chehalis on May 20 after receiving a severe bruise late on the night of Tuesday, May 19 after his arm was caught under a planer roller. The accident occurred at the Woodproducts Corporation plant in Chehalis at 11 p.m. Imler, 26, was attempting to remove a stick while the planer was in reverse. 

• Bryson Lausch began his work as the new field executive for the Tumwater Council of Boy Scouts in the Centralia and Evergreen districts on May 20. Lausch replaced Everett Groves, who left the position around the end of the previous year. Lausch, who was planning to move to Centralia, was originally from Astoria, Oregon and was a graduate of the University of Washington School of Forestry. He was an Eagle Scout and a quartermaster in the Sea Scouts.

• Graduation preparations were underway in Pe Ell with Rev. Oscar Lindseth of Doty expected to give the baccalaureate address on Sunday, May 24. A total of 19 high school seniors were expected to graduate. The class president was David Epling, the valedictorian was Gail Bateman and the salutatorian was Jeanette Knox. 


Monday, May 20, 1963

• Warm weather had come to Lewis County, The Chronicle reported. “Summer weather exploded for Lewis County communities over the weekend, mixing suntan oil, sprinklers and outdoor fun with a dawn-to-dusk rush on farm work and fast moving woods closures to protect against forest fires,” The Chronicle reported. On Sunday, May 19, temperatures had reportedly reached 88 degrees, the warmest of 1963 up to that point. A “drying” east wind closed logging operations in eastern Lewis County. The humidity reading in the Lucas Creek area had dropped to a “dangerous” 16 percent and the fuel moisture in the forest was a “tinder-dry” 9 percent. 

• Every home in the Chehalis School District was to be told the facts of the special school election the next Tuesday, said election campaign leaders on May 20. Special plans for house-to-house calls had reportedly been completed the prior week. The election was for the approval of a $608,000 bond for classroom additions at W.F. West High School, as well as a one-year levy to raise $61,000 for “badly needed” restroom repairs and furnishing replacements at Cascade and R.E. Bennett elementary schools.

• The Adna School District was expected to open bids on a $110,000 gym remodeling project, announced Adna Superintendent Robert Eastman. The work was expected to be done through the summer months. 

• Lewis County Sheriff O.R. Amondson criticized parents and others who allow or participate in swimming parties in gravel pits and river holes without lifeguards and proper supervision on May 20. He said the danger of drownings increases “many times over” when people swim in unsafe waters. The Chehalis community pool was expected to open on May 30 and the Centralia pool was expected to open on June 10. 

• Work was “well under way” on the construction of a diversion structure related to the $10.5 million Packwood Hydroelectric Project. Fourteen men were reportedly working in two shifts on the structure, which was located just below the outlet of Packwood Lake and would divert part of the water of Lake Creek in order to keep the stream “clear and free of mud.”

• William Eaton, 85, died in a  Chehalis nursing home on Sunday, May 19. Eaton was born on April 15, 1878 in Carbon County, Wyoming. A retired logger, he was survived by three sons, two daughters, a brother, a sister, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

• Members of Morton Cub Scout Pack 93 took part in a fishing derby on Sunday, May 19 at Mineral Lake, The Chronicle reported. Parents accompanied the cub scouts and a wiener roast was held after the derby.