Dick Grabenhorst loved Christmas nearly as much as he loved his family, but that didn’t stop the man from grabbing his fishing pole and his 6-year old daughter, Melissa, and then heading for the Naselle River – all this after present opening under the silver-tinseled tree and a fine Christmas morning breakfast.

Grabenhorst loved tradition, but was equally fond of the winter steelhead. Melissa describes crossing the river at low tide, and later, how her father would put her on his back and wade through floodwater, back to his home on the far bank. Grabenhorst was used to carrying weight; throughout his life, the stately slender man carried the community on his back.

The list of his community activities defies normal commitment. Community and service were his raison d’etre, his motivation and the source of his abiding affection. All that started before World War II, when, as a young man of 18, he joined the United States Navy. As a gunner’s mate, he saw plenty of war. Aboard the battleship New Mexico, he experienced both terror and bravery. After the war, his commanding officer penciled these words: “Mr. Grabenhorst is the most outstanding man that I have ever had serve under me … He is a leader of men that commands the respect of all who work with him.” Grabenhorst never wavered in his love and trust in America. Wherever he landed, whether on the battlegrounds of the Pacific, in a classroom or on a playing field, people remembered.

At 24, he finished high school, enrolled in Centralia Community College and then backed his education up with a bachelor’s degree. at the University of Puget Sound. Two years later, he finished with his masters from the University of Washington. If Grabenhorst was late in procuring degrees, he made up for any of his war-related procrastination by spending nearly every year of his adult life as coach, teacher, superintendent and mentor to students and staff at Naselle High School. All told, that added up to 30 years of commitment. 

His three daughters (Joan, Cheryl and Melissa), as well as his son Scott, describe their father as “cast from a different breed.”  “He took his job more than seriously,” repeated his youngest daughter, Melissa. She tells how “Dad” would patrol the icy winter roads before school and call the State Patrol to insure that “his school kids” would arrive safely. The game department would call if there happened to be roadkill. Grabenhorst would arrive on scene and gut and clean the deer or elk, and then deliver the meat to the school for their lunch program. State and county officials fondly called Grabenhorst “The Game Warden.”

He had a mania for the outdoors which led to years of commitment with the Boy Scouts of America. He would ultimately achieve the Silver Beaver award, the highest adult honor in scouting. He actually honored this reporter when, in the early 1960s, he was nominated for Eagle Scout. Grabenhorst spoke glowingly of the young man, and this Scout never forgot Dick’s kind words or his habitual encouragement.

Grabenhorst had a warm way of reinforcing friends and acquaintances. He had a way of touching their hearts and minds. He was simply a calm and devoted inspirer, and he never missed a ball game.

Students remember how the superintendent would wait for the buses to return from out-of-town ball games, how he wouldn’t go home until every student was picked up by parents or delivered safely to home.

Back in high school, Grabenhorst fell for lovely Shirley McGee with all the force of a battleship anchor falling into deep ocean water. But he left her in Onalaska about 1940 and wouldn’t see her for several more years. He couldn’t get her off his mind. From sea, the sailor sent an engagement ring and begged her hand. Mail being what it is in time of war – in the early 1940s – it would be several months before her reply reached the battleship.

As it turned out, the New Mexico arrived in Bremerton two months later and the couple arranged a wedding. But, once again, war interceded. Shore leave was canceled. Of course, Grabenhorst was devastated. He requested an audience with the ship’s commander. The captain arranged a garbage detail, told Grabenhorst to clean out one of the garbage cans and slip his Navy blues into the container. The cans would be deposited in town. The couple was married at 9 p.m. before the ship left port at 5 a.m. the next morning. The year was 1943. The groom wouldn’t see his new bride for eight more months. During the separation, Grabenhorst suffered shrapnel wounds. The rendezvous happened in a hospital in San Diego.

Shirley died at age 88 in a car wreck two years before Grabenhorst. To say the loss of his sweetheart devastated the man is an understatement. After all, they had been the best of friends for 65 years. Dick waded turned quieter and introspective. After bouts with his heart, he slipped quietly away in his sleep. His children projected that his first encounter in heaven would be with his best friend and bride.

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