By Brenda Pittsley
Sam Pugh was a wide-eyed country boy when he moved to Tacoma. The first thing he noticed as the train that brought him approached Union Station was a neon sign—the first neon he’d ever seen. AMOCAT, AMOCAT, it flashed—the brand name for West Coast Grocery, and Tacoma spelled backward.
The Pugh family of six came to the Northwest from “Mizzurra”—Pugh still pronounces it like Huck Finn himself. The trip took five days of steady travel. The train had no sleeping cars—”we slept sitting up all the way”—and travelers carried their own food.
Conditions in their old town had been “primitive—few people had telephones. There was no indoor plumbing.” By contrast, the house in Tacoma had a water closet. “I was surprised by so many things,” Pugh says.
The year was 1919 and Tacoma was in a boom cycle. Public water and power supplies had expanded, port facilities were improved, and a municipal streetcar service had just begun operation. “Everything was growing,” Pugh says. “It was a busy city with more going on than I’d ever thought possible.”
The College of Puget Sound was part of the surge. In 1920, land was selected for a new campus, and construction of the first building—Jones Hall—began soon after. Pugh entered the college after four years at Tacoma’s Lincoln High, but the school that would become the University of Puget Sound still occupied a vintage porticoed and gabled structure at Sixth Avenue and Sprague Street. Pugh thinks he’s the oldest, perhaps the only, surviving alumnus who attended the university’s earlier incarnation at the Sprague location. “I went for one semester,” he says, then in 1924 the school moved up to Union Avenue.
Pugh, who will be 100 on June 4, graduated with a B.A. in English in 1928. (His three siblings—Elizabeth ’30, Jessamyn ’37, and the late Paul Pugh ’36—are also Puget Sound grads.) He regrets now that he didn’t study more in college, but finding time, well, “that was a problem.” Like most students then, “I worked my way through,” he says. Summers he worked at “box factories” that made wood crates for harvest season. School terms found him operating a machine at the historic Hamilton Candy Company.
“I went to college till noon,” he recounts. “Noon till 8, or later during the busy season, I was at the candy company. That was when I had the bicycle, so I’d ride up McKinley Hill to where we lived, and study till midnight or 1 a.m. I had to be back to school at 8.” Acquisition of a Model T finally saved him from a bike or trolley ride up the hill and he “gained a little study time.”
Regardless of the work it took to get there, Pugh always loved the views of the Pacific Northwest from up high. Even today he keeps a picture of Mount Rainier on his desk at home in Indianapolis. “That mountain was an influence in my life,” he says.
Pugh went on to a career in ministry and was editor of World Call, an international magazine for the Christian Church, with headquarters in Indianapolis. He received a graduate degree from the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky; ministered parishes in Watsonville, Hollister, and Sacramento, California; and traveled the globe visiting the Christian Church’s remotest ministries. “I’ve been to almost all of the capitals of the world,” he says.
Yet nothing could ever be as intriguing as being a 14-year-old just off the train in Tacoma. After Missouri, Tacoma was “like living in a different world.” From that point, “I guess I became more accustomed to [amazing things]. I had more experience of the world.”