Handball and Heritage

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….

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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.

8 Comments

  1. Jim Harrop on November 21, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    Fascinating story. I’m 72 and live in University Place (just South of Tacoma) and, I’m amazed by the amount of local history I’m still learning (which is good because, at the rate I forget things, everything old is new again). By the way, how are things going with the refurbishment of the Old Tacoma Elks Lodge?? We are certainly glad you’re making it great again!!

  2. Sharon Komforty on November 21, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for this sharing this interesting story. I loved reading about Lea McMillan. What a true legend.

  3. Nick Zatkovich on November 22, 2018 at 11:14 pm

    Lea taught me how to play handball when I was in my early 20’s as a Tacoma Elk. One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet with a wealth of knowledge. What a great honor for a great guy! Congrats, Lea!

  4. John David Todd on November 23, 2018 at 11:34 am

    Very, very interesting. I joined the Elks in 1953, and I remember it well that the Elks had a color line. I’m glad they finally changed it.
    The door he mentioned was in the back of the building on Stadium Way. I had a key, and would use it to enter to use the workout room and pool after work at St. Regis paper company bag plant, a couple times a week.
    Tacoma Elks Lodge # 174 in the 50’s had over 10,000 members. Largest lodge in the nation. Good ol’ Days !

  5. Dean Haner on November 30, 2018 at 9:57 am

    OUTSTANDING! Lea is one of the most deserving people to be honored in such a manner! Lea is an inspiration to all who has had the opportunity to meet and converse with him. As a kid at Lincoln High in Tacoma I first met Walt and Shorty and then Lea as time went on. I got to know Lea much better in more recent times as Lea and Shorty joined their good friend Paul Cusato and myself in purchasing two tables for the Pierce County Prayer Breakfast held the first Friday in May each year. Thanks to all who recognized the importance of displaying the painting of him outside the guest room named for Lea McMillan at the original Tacoma Elks Temple and soon to be McMenamins.

  6. Walt Guske on December 10, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    Walt Guske,
    I set pins at 174 on broadway when I was 14 years old.
    When I joined and became a member of the lodge. Membership number 15334.
    Lea & I won the open city doubles championship,1963 in that building.
    I was handball chairman that year and ran the tournament.
    The trophies had a real handball mounted on top.
    San Francisco,Lodge # 3,Is the oldest lodge in the country. Membership number 020066
    My Best
    Walt

  7. Sue Parkhurst on August 30, 2022 at 11:40 am

    So proud of my uncle, Lea McMillan! He’s a great guy — last surviving sibling of the 5 McMillan siblings. Uncle Lea is still going strong. Not sure about the handball. He just turned 84 and may have had to give up that activity or cut way back on it.

    Walt, I think I remember you visiting my (Evelynne and Leonard’s) family with Lea back in the mid-1950s! I remember hearing your name a lot as a friend/handball partner. I hope you’re doing well as I write this in August 2022.

    –Sue Parkhurst

    • Sue Parkhurst on August 30, 2022 at 11:42 am

      * friend/handball partner of Uncle Lea. …

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