Auburn's Bobby Vogel: The happiest man in town
Bobby Vogel, 67, is developmentally disabled and never went to school. But the manager of the Auburn High School boys basketball team teaches daily lessons to everyone around him.
Seattle Times staff columnist
AUBURN — The happiest man in town walks the streets carrying a white tote bag and donning a green letterman's jacket. He shuffles from place to place, a little limp in his step, a little hunch in his back. He wears shorts even though it's winter.
In fact, the people who know Bobby Vogel well can't decide what's more rare: seeing him in pants or seeing him in a bad mood?
Bad mood, they conclude. They can buy him trousers. His spirit, though, is precious.
Vogel is 67 years old, developmentally disabled and one of only three immediate family members still alive. But life couldn't be any better.
"I just have a lot of fun," he says loudly, proudly. "I enjoy every minute of it."
He is the adopted son of this South King County community. He doubles as Auburn High School's No. 1 fan and the city's most enthusiastic resident. Despite a difficult upbringing, the man who walks everywhere can't be called a nomad. He's at home, sitting at the end of the Auburn boys basketball team's bench, serving as its manager, feeling loved.
"I'm outgoing," Vogel says. "I make new friends all the time. Oh, I just have a great time."
"Best school I ever saw in my whole life"
Much of Vogel's life revolves around Auburn High . He lives a spitball away from the school, in a house that assistant basketball coach Chuck Chew and his wife, Crystal Wissness, purchased for him almost four years ago. He visits the school every day at 2 p.m., jokes with the athletic director, says hello to everyone in the office and then heads to the locker room to find head boys basketball coach Ryan Hansen.
Nine years ago, after arriving at Auburn, Hansen noticed an affable man hanging around all the time. Hansen was told that Vogel had attended games since the late 1980s, and the coach decided to make him the team's manager. In nine years, Vogel has missed only three practices.
Now the whole school has embraced Vogel. He goes to almost every home Trojans sporting event. Besides the basketball team, he enjoys helping the football and track programs. The student body appreciates Vogel so much that it has collected donations and bought him two letterman's jackets over the years.
"They treat him really well," Auburn athletic director Bob Jones says. "He knows everyone, and he's complimentary of everyone. I think his personality is his adaptive mechanism. He knows that if he's outgoing, they're going to be outgoing right back. So he makes sure he meets everyone from the superintendent to the custodian."
Vogel isn't as forthcoming about his life story. Few people know his journey. He was born in Omaha, Neb., but his family moved to Washington while he was little. He has just two immediate family members still living, both sisters. One lives in Seattle, but they aren't close. The other lives in Cle Elum, and they have a good relationship. His mother died in 1985, his father a few years later. Five brothers have passed, too.
"Until I made friends, it was really sad for me after I lost my parents," Vogel says. "It was really hard for me."
His sister in Cle Elum, Patricia Schiferl, can fill in some of the gaps. Schiferl, 68, calls her brother a sweetheart and sadly remembers that he didn't get to attend school as a child.
Back then, people didn't understand children with special needs, and they dismissed Vogel as a kid who couldn't learn. He was sent to group homes and never received any formal education. His greatest wish was to go to school.
"He always loved school," Schiferl said. "He'd see his brothers and sisters go to school, and he so wanted to be there with us. But people thought he was incapable of learning."
More than 50 years later, Vogel is 67 going on 17. He's not in a classroom, but he's affiliated with a school, at last.
"It's the best school I ever saw in my whole life," Vogel says of Auburn High. "It feels like a home for me. There's so many nice people around this school. You would like this school pretty good, too."
"Bobby belongs here"
After a practice, the Trojans' basketball team huddles and discussed its plan for the next day's game. The team's pregame meal comes up.
"We're going to have spaghetti and meatballs," the coaches say.
Several players turn to their manager. "What do you think of that, Bobby?"
"Meatballs!" Vogel exclaims.
The man likes to eat. He's eating all the time. It's one of the running jokes between the team and the manager.
"When we're at games, he's always the first person to the concession stand," says Auburn guard Kevin Henderson, the team's best player.
Says forward Iszia Johnson: "If you ask him about it, he'll put a smile on his face, nod and keep on walking."
Vogel is just one of the guys. Auburn, No. 4 in The Seattle Times' Class 4A rankings, is a team blessed with great chemistry. Hansen inherited a scuffling program nine years ago and helped it recover. He says Vogel has done a lot to inspire his players.
"Bobby belongs here," Hansen says. "The kids have embraced him. And I've come to the realization that Bobby's always going to be there. It's comforting. It would be kind of weird to not have him there. Bobby is a huge part of this team."
Vogel takes the job seriously. He carefully realigns the chairs on both benches at halftime. He neatly folds and stacks players' warm-ups. During practice, when the team isn't shooting around, he puts every loose basketball in the cart. It bothers him to see strays all over the court.
Vogel gets winded easily. By the time he walks upstairs to the team room after games he's breathing hard.
"The team can hardly hear me give my postgame remarks," Hansen says. "But that's OK. He's part of the family."
Hansen awards Vogel a plaque during every basketball banquet. Manager of the Year, it says. Vogel cries every time he accepts it.
"So, I take good care of my house, do I?"
Vogel is excited to show off his house.
"You're coming over later, right?" he asks me during practice.
Ask him if he ever thought he would have his own place, and Vogel shakes his head.
He has lived in Auburn for 30 years and made a good life for himself. He worked several places, including a Marriott hotel and most recently, Safeway. He is retired now, he says, and he jokes with Jones, the Auburn athletic director, about beating him to retirement.
Vogel has been named Auburn's No. 1 hero twice during the town's annual Good 'Ol Days festival. He credits his late mother, Thelma, for teaching him to survive .
"She taught me how to take care of my clothes, how to take care of a lot of things," Vogel says. "She would be happy I did all of this."
He looks into the distance. I ask if he's surprised by his life.
"In a way, yes," he says.
"The good way!" he exclaims. "Definitely, the good way."
His house is a tribute to three things: Auburn High, his religion (he attends Grace Community Church) and stuffed animals. He has a bookcase full of animals, six shelves high — rabbits, frogs, pandas, zebras, bears.
"I just love animals," he says, sitting on his bed, which features a camouflage Auburn High comforter.
Vogel reckons the house is only missing a dishwasher. He often tells Chew, the Auburn assistant coach who found this home for him, just that. Chew doesn't think the kitchen is big enough for a dishwasher, but Vogel persists. Chew laughs.
"He is such a positive influence on everybody he's around," Chew says. "Even on my toughest, worst day, if I'm around Bobby, he just lifts my spirits. He's got that amazing gift of making you smile. He is just an amazing person to be around."
Vogel forgets about the dishwasher, for now. He marvels at his home anyway.
"So, I take good care of my house, do I?" he asks. "So you really like my house?"
"OK, good," he says. "I can't wait to see the newspaper. All of my friends are gonna like that. I've got a lot of friends, so I need you to send me a whole lot of copies. I mean, a whole lot, if you can. OK? Thank you. My friends are gonna love this.
"It's going to be so much fun!"
Bobby Vogel smiles. He's sitting in his living room, in his house, next to his school, in his town. Life couldn't be any better. And in this moment, there's only one thing you can feel when thinking about this jolly 67-year-old man.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com,Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
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Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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