George Fleming was an explosive halfback when the University of Washington humiliated the Big Ten in the 1960 and 1961 Rose Bowl games, and went on to become a sturdy, constructive political player in the Washington State Legislature for more than two decades.
The death of Fleming at eighty-three has evoked Baby Boomer memories of when the Dawgs upset favored foes two New Year’s Days in a row, and of the first African-American to serve in the State Senate and champion of such causes as the Martin Luther King holiday.
“George Fleming was one of my childhood heroes scoring touchdowns in the Rose Bowl as a Washington Husky, and he was a hero to me in adulthood as he became a tireless public servant in the Legislature,” Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement.
Seattle’s Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, a former Husky linebacker, added: “He never hesitated to help me, advise me and inspire me.”
As a boy growing up in Dallas, Fleming had dreamed of playing in the Rose Bowl for UCLA, USC or Ohio State. As Dan Raley wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “The Bruins checked out Fleming first, urged the all-state running back to spend a season at East Lost Angeles Junior College and lost interest when he was injured. Washington, a school not at all familiar to him, offered a place to land.”
Life was initially difficult at Montlake, as the Dawgs went 3–7 and Fleming endured the Coach Jim Owens school of hard knocks.
The hardest knocks were endured by Black athletes. But a 10–1 season followed, culminating with a 44–8 blowout of favored Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Fleming was named co-MVP in a game where he returned a punt 53 yards of a touchdown, ran back another 55 yards and caught a 65-yard pass from QB Bob Schloredt. He would set a record with a 44-yard field goal a year later when the Huskies beat Minnesota 17–7.
Fleming earned a business degree from the UW. After a brief career in pro football – he played for the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers – he came home. Fleming worked for Pacific Northwest Bell, and in 1968 won election to the state House of Representatives from Central Seattle’s 37th District.
Two years later, he began a twenty-year tenure in the State Senate.
“I was one of those who tried to bring people together rather than push them apart,” Fleming would recall to Raley years later.
Fleming was a friend and model to young Baby Boomers elected to the Legislature, notably two who went on to higher office.
“George Fleming was a close mentor and a once-in-a-generation kind of leader,” said U.S. Senator Patty Murray, whose first two years as a state senator overlapped with the end of Fleming’s tenure. “He touched so many lives and he will be missed by so many – including me.”
A young budget writer in the state House of Representatives, future Governor Gary Locke, said in a statement: “George Fleming has always been my hero – from my childhood days listening on the radio to his record-breaking exploits in the Rose Bowl to our years together in the Legislature.
“He was a trailblazing leader of civil rights and was the conscience of the Legislature. He gave voice and power to the forgotten and overlooked, everyday working people.”
Other fond memories were offered by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
Fleming was part of a State Senate group, organized by her father Senator “Big Martin” Durkan, that in the early 1970s ousted and took control away from the musty Democratic leadership of the Legislature’s upper chamber.
He “broke so many barriers,” the mayor added.
Fleming went on to work for Seattle Public Schools and later King County government. “He fought yard to build a more inclusive community for all,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. He will be missed but his legacy lives on all throughout the Washington community and across our state.”
Fleming was inducted into the University of Washington Hall of Fame in 1980, named a Husky Legend in 1998, and inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2012. He is survived by Tina, his wife of fifty-four years, daughters Sonja and Yerni, and five grandkids.