Scholar, author, athlete, musician, painter, poet, actor: all these words apply to 61-year-old Yakima native William (W.D.) Frank. None, however, describes this affable yet intense man who has squeezed every drop of zest and passion from life.
Although W.D. is a fairly private individual, locals might recognize him as part of the band Stimulus Package, which has regular gigs at Santiago’s restaurant.
But more recently Frank has gained recognition from the new book he’s authored: EVERYONE TO SKIS! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon, through Northern Illinois University Press. In 2011, Frank earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington, and the idea for his book came out of his thesis.
For the layman, the winter sport of biathlon consists of a race during which competitors cross-country ski around a course and intermittently stop to fire a rifle at targets, either in the standing or prone positions. According to Frank’s research, biathlon is considered the No. 1 winter spectator sport in Europe.
The average American sports fan might wonder how Frank came across such an obscure sport. The answer can be found in his childhood.
“I can’t remember when I started to ski,” Frank said. “What really got me turned around was being in Cragg Gilbert Sr.’s Boy Scout Troop 9.” Gilbert, who was president of Gilbert Orchards and is now deceased, would drive the troop in a pickup to a Chinook Pass cabin, where the group of kids would ski and explore over Christmas break. During summer, the troop would hike and climb in the Cascades.
Frank said Gilbert was the perfect mentor. As a World War II veteran who volunteered to serve in the 10th Mountain Division, Gilbert trained at Paradise on Mount Rainier and fought during the war in the Italian Alps. He often told his Boy Scouts tales of his mountaineering exploits. “If I hadn’t met Cragg Gilbert, I would never have written this book,” Frank said.
Frank loved downhill skiing in high school, but in college it was out of his budget. “As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, downhill got really expensive,” he said. “I went up to see my cousin in Northern Michigan … and that’s the first time I got on cross-country skis. It was really fun.”
Two years later he transferred to Stanford University in California, earning a B.A. in Classics and an M.A. in Education Administration. He spent his free time rock climbing with his California buddies at Yosemite National Park.
But it wasn’t until after college, when Frank started working at Sierra Designs in Palo Alto (a high-end manufacturer of mountaineering and backpacking gear), that he experienced serendipity. His boss, Bob Woodward, the guru of cross-country ski racing in California, encouraged him to race. He would say, “You’ve got to get into it, Billie. You’ve got to get out there and cross-country ski race!” Following Woodward’s advice, Frank began training and going to races.
“I met this guy named Glenn Jobe,” said Frank. “He had a ski touring center at South Lake Tahoe, and I went to work for him from 1976 to ’77. Jobe was a big-time cross-country ski racer and was into biathlon. He’d been to the Olympic trials in 1976.” Jobe encouraged him to try biathlon. Fortunately, Frank had experience shooting shotguns while bird hunting in Yakima as a boy.
“Jobe just handed me a rifle, told me to line up the front and back sights, take a deep breath and squeeze.”
Intrigued, Frank started training for the biathlon in earnest and began doing well in competition. “When I was training up to the 1980 Olympic trials, I was still working in the winter for Glenn and then in the orchards in Yakima during the summer.” Frank would get up at 4 a.m. to train before going to work three hours later. “I’d roller-ski from Lester Avenue near Franklin Park, up Chestnut, over to Powerhouse Road, then up Garretson Grade and out to Tieton. There was no traffic and the road was as smooth as the Greenway.”
For rifle practice, he found a remote hill in Selah to set up his shooting range. Hitting the paper target was difficult. But the practice of setting aside the ski poles, removing the more than 11 lb. rifle from his back, lying prone and bringing his heart rate and breathing under control, proved doubly hard — especially when every second counted in a race.
Frank eventually gained national ranking in biathlon, competing in the U.S. Biathlon Team Selection Trials for the 1980 Winter Olympics, the 1981 Biathlon World Championships in Lahti, Finland, the U.S. Biathlon National Championships of 1979 and 1981, and the U.S. National Cross Country Championships of 1985.
After a good run, he finally gave up racing and settled into working full time in the fruit business and raising two sons with his wife, Betsy, back in Yakima.
“I’d forgotten how much skiing and and hiking was part of our lives,” remembered Betsy. Frank led many a mountain hike with sons Alex and Andy. Betsy remembers one trip to the top of Gilbert Peak: While Frank and his sons admired the view — eating candy and wearing old jeans, used boots and T-shirts — a group of fully-equipped adult hikers appeared alongside and looked on in disbelief.
Frank also continued to travel, and added foreign language study to his list of interests.
“In 2003 I decided to take my career in another direction and go back to school,” Frank said. “I needed a different kind of challenge.” He enrolled in a two-year master’s in history program at Central Washington University. A Russian and Soviet seminar led him to research skiing in the Soviet Union with the help of the Russian newspaper Pravda. This topic led to his master’s thesis and eventually to his Ph.D. in history from the U.W. His book, EVERYONE TO SKIS, comes just in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, where the sport of biathlon has been known to attract crowds in the thousands.
“It’s an amazing achievement and so much hard work,” said Betsy. The book is currently available at Inklings Bookshop in Yakima and on Amazon.com.
To add to his already remarkable life, Frank is an avid painter who’s garnered awards at a number of juried regional art shows. Poetry and an occasional acting role at the Warehouse Theatre have also found a place on his list of interests. Who knows what Frank’s insatiable curiosity will lead him to next? But it probably won’t be boring.