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Mentors matter: Dr. John Olerud recognized for career with George H.W. Bush Distinguished Alumnus Award

SEATTLE, Washington -- Washington State University fans celebrated Coug Day at Safeco Field on July 16, but the day was extra special for one alumnus as Dr. John Olerud was honored by the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.

Olerud became the fifth recipient of the George H.W. Bush Distinguished Alumnus Award -- presented to a baseball letter winner who has achieved success away from the diamond -- at a dinner following the Seattle Mariners' 1-0 win over the Houston Astros.

"This could not have been a more absolutely spectacular day. I don't think it could have been better than here at Safeco Field and thanks to Bill (Moos, WSU athletic director) and WSU for sharing their day here," Olerud said during his acceptance of the award.

"I can't over-emphasize what an honor it is to win this award, and so I just want to say thank you to the College Baseball Hall of Fame, and I also want to say what an important part of my life being a college baseball player was and thank all of you who came today."

It was a day of celebration for Olerud, who threw out the first pitch prior to the game. And catching the strike he tossed from the mound? None other than his son, John, a fellow WSU alumnus and a 2007 inductee into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.

The younger Olerud also was one of a trio of speakers at the dinner. Each spoke about a different facet of Dr. Olerud's life -- his time at WSU, his professional career as a physician and his life as a family man.

"Growing up as a young kid who had a desire and dream to play professional baseball, I really couldn't have picked my parents any better," the younger Olerud said. "My mom was great. She took care of us at home and in all our activities. Great support there. My dad experienced going through college ball, playing minor league ball. I had access to learning about the subtleties of the game that I think a lot of people didn't get a chance to have."

However, he said, that didn't always mean he listened to the guidance his father tried to provide on the field.

"Just because he had those credentials doesn't necessarily mean you win over your kid or they believe you," John G. Olerud said.

He then recounted a game story involving an opposing batter who was fouling off pitch after pitch and John's efforts to throw harder and harder to get him out. Father and son had been working on changeups in practice, but throwing the pitch in a game situation was something new.

"(The batter is) fouling it off and my dad calls a changeup," John said. "I completely disagreed with the call because I'm thinking, 'I'm just about getting it by him, why on earth would I throw it slower? He's gonna kill this.' I don't remember exactly how it happened as far as the discussion on the mound or me shaking him off, but he made me throw it and in my head I'm thinking I'm gonna show you that this is a bad call. I'm gonna do it exactly the way we worked on it. I'm gonna throw it down the middle of the plate, he's gonna hit it out of the park and I'm gonna be able to say, 'I told you.' I throw the pitch and this guy's so far out in front of it and takes such a goofy swing that I just couldn't help but laugh. I just couldn't believe it and then it was, 'Do we throw it again?' He had to coach me that it's not a pitch you throw all the time."

And while that coaching and mentorship was important, it wasn't the most impactful lesson Olerud learned from his father.

"I think probably the thing I appreciate most about my dad is the example that he set for me growing up," he said. "Being able to watch him go about his life, he's a man of character and integrity. He's very hard working and I got to see that. Putting a lot of time in and effort but at the same time, I always felt like we were a priority and that showed up in coaching the little league teams and being available."

Mentorship was a theme running throughout the evening. Dr. Phil Fleckman, a colleague of Dr. Olerud, spoke about many facets of Olerud's medical career, but specifically discussed his mentorship of students and young physicians.

"As a mentor is where, to me, he really excelled," Fleckman said. "He had effects on a number of people. He was involved in mentoring almost 5,500 second-year medical students, over 2,200 third- and fourth-year students that took rotations in dermatology, over 1,000 medical residents who rotated through dermatology and almost 100 practicing dermatologists. He also mentored faculty."

Fleckman said prior to the event, he asked Dr. Olerud what he was most proud of and the answer was the acknowledgement of his mentorship.

"He's very proud of his research. He understands that research is cumulative," Fleckman said. "Not very many people win Nobel Prizes but a lot of people contribute to the body of science, and he's done that. He's very proud of his acknowledgement by his peers, the (WSU Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award), but he's most proud of the acknowledgement of his mentorship. The thing that he pointed out to me first was, a number of years ago our residents created a teaching award, the John Olerud Teaching Award, and he was the first recipient of the award and I think, that was the thing that first came to his mind."

While family and professional accomplishments are key to who Dr. Olerud is, baseball also is an important part of his life -- then and now. In fact, he continues to play baseball with the Washington Titans, a senior league team in the Seattle area.

Former teammate Bob Stephens spoke of Olerud's time at Washington State playing for legendary coach Bobo Brayton.

"I never knew anybody that worked harder than John at developing his skills," Stephens said. "John was the leader of our team. (He) had the ability to know his pitchers better than they knew themselves, and he could figure out hitters. As a hitter, he had good power but he was a clutch hitter. John was the guy you wanted up there."

Stephens recounted a story that actually involved Brayton calling Stephens' number to pinch hit for Olerud in a game that saw the Cougars trailing their opponent. Stephens admitted to being shocked at the decision, but grabbed his bat and stepped to the plate.

"By the grace of God, I lucked out and got a single and we tied the game and then we ended up winning the game in the same inning," he said. "The first person that met me coming off the field was John. He put his arms around me and said 'Way to go, Stephens.' That's the kind of character this man has. He was a great teammate and a very good, very close friend. And I just have to say, John, that I had the opportunity to play for the best coach in the country and pitch to the best catcher in baseball and I sincerely mean that. I know right now that Bobo's up there looking down and saying in his gravely voice 'Way to go, Olee.'"

When Dr. Olerud stepped to the podium, it was to thank the many family, friends, teammates and colleagues who had gathered to celebrate his achievements.

"It's an incredible gathering of people here that have touched my life in so many different ways," he said. "I could tell you a story about every person sitting in this room and that's what makes this such a wonderful, wonderful event."

Dr. Olerud thanked his wife, Lynda, the "love of his life," and children, John and Erica, as well as his mother, Alice, who he pointed out was his first batting practice pitcher and who still goes to his games with the Washington Titans.

"Mom still goes with me to these national tournaments," he said. "There aren't too many guys my age that have a mom who still goes to their ball games. Thank you, mom, for being the starting point of my baseball career."

And while his family was and is central to much of his life, Olerud credited Brayton, who was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, with teaching him many lessons that still guide his daily life.

So he left the crowd with the "Lessons I learned from Bobo:"

"One of the lessons was 'It's great to be a Cougar.' The point is it is so important to have pride in your organization and allegiance to what your organization was. It was part of what he thought was important to understand.

"Don't let anybody outwork you. That's been an approach maybe almost over the top for me. And don't let anybody be better prepared.

"Make the most of where you are. Don't lose the opportunity of where you are.

"And this one, 'A swinging bat is a dangerous bat.' That I've said over and over again as a really important lesson in my life. Not only is that true for a baseball player, but I mean I had chances to do something so I took a swing at it. A swinging bat is a dangerous bat and I think that applies to a lot of life."

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