Special Reports

Owen Beach sunbather uses mojo for matches

Jerry Lilly intended to be a baseball player. Instead, from the 1960s and into the ’80s, he became the Matchmaker of Owen Beach.

“He was a very promising baseball player,” said his sister-in-law, Virginia Lilly of Kenmore. “He was visiting his grandparents in Eastern Washington and working on his uncle’s dairy farm when a truck crashed into him.”

The truck crushed his foot and his future in baseball, but left his charm unscathed.

“Jerry was so much fun,” Virginia said. “He had so many friends. People just really enjoyed being around him.”

“Uncle Jerry was the coolest of our uncles,” said his nephew, Bryce Lilly of Portland.

Jerry was the maitre d’ at the Sabre Room in the then-elegant Winthrop Hotel. He was a raconteur, an authority on sports lore, an usher at Cheney Stadium.

And, in an era when it was glamorous to be so, he was magnificently bronzed.

“We’d visit – I was about 12 at the time – and he would be taking off to Point Defiance,” Bryce said. “That was in the ’60s, when they had those brown kitchen appliances. That was his goal, to be as brown as one of those. He was the tannest guy I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Jerry did not tan alone, nor at random.

Come the first warm days of spring, he would arrive at Owen Beach and arrange logs into a combination court and tanning salon. He faced the sidewalk, not the water – the better to see those going by.

“When I was 14 or 15, I went out there and saw him kind of lounging around by this fallen tree,” Bryce said.

It might have looked like mere lounging. In fact, it was social engineering.

“Jerry’s whole life was to socialize with the beach crowd of all ages,” friend L.A. Sterling wrote in a letter about Jerry. “He got people together as a large circle of friends, which, of course, created relationships – the subtle matchmaker. He politely discouraged guys from hitting on girls who were getting uncomfortable. Girls who were alone would sit with Jerry – for social protection. People would sit on the sidewalk edge and shoot the breeze facing Jerry, just out of courtesy, or to use the convenience of knowing him as a possible introduction source.”

Countless people paired up thanks to Jerry’s introductions, said Sterling, who wondered how many of them remain together.

Jerry Lilly died June 28, 1999, at 73.

In the long term, leaving that kind of happiness behind might have been as valuable as ending up on a baseball card.

And, Bryce said, his uncle came very close indeed to matching the appliances.

If you have personal stories or memories about the park you'd like to share, contact columnist Kathleen Merryman at kathleen.merryman@thenewstribune.com.