Purple and Gold Hornet: Bruce Lee Was 1960s UW Campus Curiosity

Dan Raley

The spacious grassy area outside of the Husky Union Building is a popular campus gathering spot for any number of activities. Protesting a war. Listening to music. Throwing a frisbee. Eating lunch.

Imagine 60 years ago, walking up to this centralized location amid all of the educational hustle and bustle, and coming face to face with a dynamic and limber student offering martial-arts lessons to a devoted but modest following.

As far as college athletic traditions go, Bruce Lee holding court at the University of Washington remains a tough one to beat.

USC has its Tommy Trojan. Clemson has Howard's Rock. The UW had the Green Hornet.

While his legend lives on, further elevated by a recently released ESPN 30 for 30 documentary (discussed in the video), the late Bruce Lee is part of Husky lore, his memory affording the school something highly unique to celebrate.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Lee arrived in Seattle to finish high school. He needed a change of scenery, engaged in too much street fighting to stay safe. His family sent him to the Northwest. 

By March 1961, he'd enrolled at Washington and begun taking drama and philosophy classes. He attended school for three years without graduating. 

He worked his way through the UW as a waiter at Ruby Chow's International District restaurant and by giving Jun Fan Gung Fu lessons anywhere he could. 

Lee likely attended Husky football games because he was a dedicated sportsman and the teams were good back then. He knew some of the players.

This superb yet unconventional athlete became friends with defensive tackle and future NFL player Fred Forsberg, an equally unorthodox person known as "Fearless Freddie," and fellow defensive lineman Dick Wetterauer. They all met at the HUB. These Huskies should have talked Lee into turning out and playing defense.

"My friend and teammate Fred Forsberg knew him well, with them both being characters of a different ilk," former Husky and NFL safety Ron Medved said. "Lee was his counterculture friend. With maybe 15,000 students on campus back then, wouldn't you know it that they would meet."

At one point, Lee lived in a ground-floor apartment at 4750 University Way Northeast, in a building that still exists. He often walked to the edge of Lake Washington because the waters reminded him of Hong Kong, and he sat and write poems.

He gave Gung Fu demonstrations at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 and at Garfield High School. In the International District and University District, he taught students martial arts. He opened his first studio in the city.

A Bruce Lee exhibit in recent years displayed one of his UW report cards that showed him weighted down with a 1.84 GPA, apparently stretched too thin by trying to keep up with his classes, lessons and work.

He met and married Linda Emery, a Garfield High graduate who attended the UW. In 1964, they were wed at the University Congregational Church on Northeast 45th Street, across from the university.

Lee dropped out of school and left Seattle that year for California to pursue his art form. He went on to become a well-known actor in the Green Hornet TV series and in the film "Enter the Dragon."

Not quite a decade after leaving Seattle, Lee died suddenly from a cerebral edema in 1973 in Hong King. He was just 32. His body was brought back to Seattle and rests in Lakeview Cemetery on Capitol Hill

Lee's well-visited burial plot remains just two miles from the UW, looking down on the campus he once called his own.

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2

Very cool. Thanks Dan Raley.

SI Mike Martin
SI Mike Martin

Great story. I didn't realize that he was buried in Seattle.