It’s a sound that Mary Lyn Titcomb never thought she’d miss: the clang of horseshoes hitting metal stakes.
That rang through her childhood — and for decades after.
“All these years it drove me crazy,” said Mary Lyn, a 56-year-old Boise resident who moved in with her father six months ago to help care for him.
Her father, Don Titcomb, practiced daily, developing world-class skill at pitching horseshoes even before his five children were born. Now the courts behind the three-time world champion’s Meridian home have fallen silent.
The 88-year-old died Dec. 2 from complications following a fall in mid-November.
A light-hearted jokester who loved being the center of attention, Titcomb penned this last note while a group of family and friends stood at his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center:
“This is a great crowd I have drawn again,” he wrote, eliciting laughter from the room full of people.
LURE OF THE GAME
Titcomb’s singular obsession was horseshoes, and he used his winning way with people to lure them into the game.
He taught the finer points to hundreds of school groups, community clubs and other interested novices, including President George H.W. Bush.
The president invited Titcomb to the White House in 1989 when the horseshoe pits were installed.
“My dad got the invitation and threw it in a drawer. He thought it was a joke,” said Mary Lyn Titcomb. He later learned it was legitimate, and framed photos in his house show him pitching and posing with President Bush.
After the president threw a ringer, he said, “OK, the game’s over,” Titcomb’s daughter recalled.
A Washington Post article about the dedication of the new horseshoe pit said Harry S. Truman was the last “horse-shoe pitching president.”
Titcomb kept framed an Aug. 8, 1963, letter he received from Truman (writing from Independence, Mo.) in a hallway of his home.
“We had a lot of fun pitching those horseshoes but if I ever hit a ringer it was by accident and not intentional,” Truman wrote to Titcomb of the horseshoe pits at the White House. He encouraged Titcomb to go see Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, whom he described as, “the greatest horseshoe pitcher of them all.”
MASTER PITCHER ENJOYED TRICKS
Horseshoes is a straight-forward game: Toss a U-shaped piece of steel that weighs no more than 2 pounds, 10 ounces at a 15-inch stake that’s 40 feet away (less for women, children, etc.), aiming to encircle the stake with the shoe. Players get points for getting close to the stake, but masters throw a very high percentage of ringers.
Decades-old videos show Titcomb doing all sorts of tricks, throwing ringers even when view of the stake is obscured by a blanket or a friend sitting in front of it.
A 1984 article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal described a trick in which Titcomb attached matches to the stake and lit them with the toss of a horseshoe.
“If that weren’t impressive enough, Titcomb put the fire out with the next shoe,” the article said. The demonstration was done at a press conference before a tournament in Las Vegas.
Titcomb’s form was phenomenally consistent, the motion for each toss identical to the last. The left-hander threw shoes so they would turn one-and-a-quarter times before hitting the stake.
He set a record in 1958 for pitching 97 ringers out of 100 throws and won the first of his three world championships in 1960 (84.85 percent ringers).
In 1962, he appeared on the “Tonight Show.” He’s in the Horseshoe Hall of Fame.
Titcomb didn’t let his success go to his head. One of the things that delighted him the most was getting new people into the sport.
“He had no acquaintances — only friends,” said daughter-in-law Teresa Titcomb, who knew him 33 years. “And many of them loyal, loyal friends.”
Jerry Smith, a Nampa retiree who worked for the California Department of Correction for 30 years, met the horseshoe-pitching legend in 1987 at a tournament in San Jose.
“He lived in a trailer next to the courts,” said Smith, then new to the sport but already hooked.
He recalled Titcomb’s friendly and welcoming way.
“He said, ‘You’re new, and you’ve got a nice-looking shoe (throwing motion),” Smith said. The pair became close friends later in life when they both ended up in the Treasure Valley.
Smith said his best throwing topped out at about 40 percent ringers (average of all pitchers is about 32 percent).
Titcomb was born and raised in San Jose, Calif., where his parents owned a nursery business and a 2-acre farm. He worked on the family farm and played horseshoes on a makeshift court his father, Henry, created with some pipes under a couple of walnut trees.
“We had an odds-and-ends assortment of horse and donkey shoes (the real things),” he said in a book about his life that Smith wrote three years ago.
His country school, Franklin School, had pits.
“The principal, Mr. Egan, used to save horseshoes for me because he knew I liked it,” Titcomb said. He took second place in a school contest and continued to play through his first year of high school — when he recalled driving 70 miles round-trip to Santa Cruz to play on the beach.
Titcomb dropped out of high school after one year to go to work at a meat-packing plant. About a year later, World War II broke out and he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
He served in the Pacific until 1945. He went to San Jose State on the GI Bill, and studied writing — he loved literature and enjoyed writing poetry. But he left after less than four years to manage a bowling alley.
He held many jobs over the years — often two at the same time — and retired in 1989 as a landscaper at the San Jose Unified School District. He and his wife, Mary, raised five children, including Donna Journey of Collister, Calif.; Judy Maxwell, of Reno, Nev.; and Patty Layng, of Oceanside, Calif. His son, Bill, lives in Eagle.
After Titcomb’s 1960 championship win, he took a break from national and international competitions.
“My family came first, that’s why I left horseshoe pitching for 15 years while at the top of my game,” he said in the book “The Legendary Don Titcomb: His Life His Game His Way.”
He won world championships in the intermediate division (ages 60 to 65) in 1988 and in 1995 (seniors 65 and up).
Titcomb spent most of his life in California, though he also lived in Florida and Kentucky. His move east made headlines on both coasts.
“At my age, I’ve done everything there is to do within the sport,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in a 1991 article about his move to Florida. “During my last years, I want to use my talent and skills to help as many people as possible to learn the sport of pitching horseshoes.”
In 2005, he moved to Idaho to be near family.
His daughter Mary Lyn went to his tournaments, and his son Bill participated in some of them. Their sister Judy promised her father she would continue to play and try to make it to the world tournament.
“All he wanted was one of his kids to carry on the legacy,” Mary Lyn said.
Titcomb was an active member of the Treasure Valley Horseshoe Club, which organizes practices each week in Boise, Meridian and Nampa (tournaments on Saturday). It’s no accident that Meridian’s Settlers Park has some of the best horseshoe courts in the country. Titcomb had a hand in that.
In January, he suffered a stroke and some paralysis of his left side. The left-hander didn’t give up the game; he learned to pitch with his right hand.
A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, at Holy Trinity Church in Meridian. Titcomb’s family plans to engrave his urn with horseshoes, and it will be interned at Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery in San Jose.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413