Hello from the History Department – and happy Thanksgiving!
Lea McMillan became a Tacoma Elk at 23 years old in 1961. Why? Handball, of course!
But that’s not the most interesting part of his story….
McMillan became an Elk at 23 years old specifically because the building currently being renovated into our newest hotel had at that time “the best handball courts in the Pacific Northwest. They were slightly outsized, made with the finest construction, with a balcony and a door leading into a bar area. No expense was spared,” he remembers.
McMillan had been sneaking into the building to play on the courts since he was 16 years old in the mid-1950s – he and his buddies would wait for an Elk to come by and open the door with a key, then the kids would catch the door before it closed and sneak in to play handball and use the swimming pool. After entering the Navy at 18 and completing his service, McMillan returned to Tacoma and officially became an Elk. Why? “Handball. Those courts were the best.”
But the story of him gaining acceptance to the organization is interesting in and of itself. McMillan is half-Scottish (on his father’s side) and half-Suquamish on his mother’s side. McMillan has traced his heritage on both sides.
On his dad’s side, Lea is the descendant of John Cameron (1663–1748), the chieftain of the Cameron clan. Cameron was knighted by King James in 1717 and became known as Sir John Cameron of Lochiel, 18th Chief of Clan Cameron and a prominent Jacobite. He was the eldest son and heir of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, a fervent Royalist and one of the first to join the 1652 Rising in favor of King Charles II, by whom he was knighted in 1681.
And on McMillan’s mother’s side, his great-grandfather was Chief Jacob Wahalchu, who was next under Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe, for whom the city is named. After Chief Seattle’s death, Wahalchu was the last chief of the Suquamish Tribe and one of the signers of the Point Elliott Treaty on January 22, 1855.
And here is where it comes back to the Elks. In 1961, at the time of Lea’s application to the organization, people of color were not accepted. It was an unfortunate fact of that era, one that was not rectified by the Elks organization until much later (1976). So, on his application, McMillan simply left out the small detail of his Native heritage. He just wanted to play handball. He was accepted and remains an active member of the Elks today. McMillan is likely one of the earliest if not the first non-white member of the Tacoma Elks.
McMillan and his handball partner went on to become the 1964 Handball Champs, sponsored by the Tacoma Elks. He is considered one of the best players to come out of the Pacific Northwest and has attended the World Handball Championships. Today, at the age of 80, Lea is still an accomplished and active handball player; he is included in the Handball Hall of Fame and continues to travel around the U.S. to play in championships.
This painting by McMenamins artist Eona Skelton will hang outside the guest room named for Lea McMillan at the Tacoma Elks Temple.