When Walter Raleigh Okeson stepped onto the football practice field as a freshman he was never asked to participate, even with the scrubs. He was 5'11", big-boned with no extra flesh and a thin face.
"I guess I didn't look like a football player," was his explanation. And while this experience would have discouraged most men, Okeson had faith in himself and kept it to the end. He understood the game of football and he knew he could play. In his sophomore year, Okeson sat for the first three days on the bench, but on the fourth day one of the ends was injured and there were no other players on the bench. The coach at the time, Josh Hartwell, also played and was a halfback. The first time Hartwell carried the ball Okeson hit him hard before he reached the line of scrimmage. After practice Hartwell told Okeson to take the end position on the first team.
Okeson, nicknamed "Okey" played on the varsity in 1892, 1893 and 1894 and never missed a game. No record of Lehigh football would be complete without a tribute to the man who found time as a tirelessly loyal son of Lehigh to carry on the labors of the late Walter Camp in keeping football on the high plane.
After graduating in 1896 with a degree in civil engineering, Okey maintained his interest in football by playing, coaching and officiating. He was drafted as a player/coach for the Latrobe, Pennsylvania professional team after graduation and played for several years. Every fall he came back to Lehigh, and in the crowded smoke-filled gym gave one of his inimitable, inspiring talks the night before the Lafayette game.
Okeson won his football letters at Lehigh, and won even greater letters in the administration of football. For many years a leading football official and editor of the official Football Guide, he received the Touchdown Club award for 1941 in recognition of his outstanding contributions to football.
After serving many years as an active and leading football official, he became chairman of the football rules committee in 1933 and official editor of the official Football Guide in the same year. He was responsible for the original organization of the Eastern Intercollegiate Association and for the selection of football officials which eventually developed into the Eastern Intercollegiate Football Association.
He may be best known for his work as chairman of the NCAA football rules committee where he raised the standards of fair play. He also oversaw several rules changes which increased the importance of the forward pass. He served 21 years on the rules committee where he worked with Lou Tittle of Columbia and Knute Rockne of Notre Dame to develop rules which would increase the level of player safety. Okeson served as chairman of the committee for 11 years along with Fritz Crisler of Michigan, Bob Zupka of Illinois and Amos Alonzo Stagg of Chicago.
Several rule changes were instituted under Okeson's leadership. A ball put out of bounds was moved ten yards from the sideline rather than remaining against the sideline. "Clipping" was formalized as a penalty. The size of the football was reduced so as to increase the effectiveness of the passing game. Incomplete passes in the endzone were merely treated as a loss of down, rather than a loss of possession. But in perhaps the most important rule change under Okeson, the rules committee legislated mandatory head protectors.
But despite his national reputation, Okey always remained true to his alma mater.
On April 21, 1939 Okeson became vice president of Lehigh. He has been closely identified with the institution since July of 1917 when he became executive secretary of the Alumni Association. He served as secretary of the alumni association from 1917 to 1926 during which time he founded the Alumni Bulletin magazine. He served as secretary of the board of trustees and treasurer of the university from 1923 until his death in 1943.
In the words of his classmate and lifelong friend, Robert S. Taylor, "With his love and devotion for Lehigh, his gift of inspiring others, his radiating personality, his genius for making friends, he reorganized the inert alumni body and gave it life, spirit and purpose. He encouraged alumni to feel it an honor to be a Lehigh son and a privilege to function as an integral part of the University."
In his alumni work "Okey" was the creator and manager of the Lehigh alumni fund and manager of the Greater Lehigh fund campaign. During this time he increased membership from 600 to 3,000 and annual income from $3,000 in debt to a surplus of $20,000. Okeson was active in local civic and welfare affairs and served as campaign chairman of the Bethlehem Community Chest and as a member of the board of St. Luke's Hospital. He was also president and secretary of the London Mines and Mining Co. At Lehigh along with being a right end in football, Okeson was a member of the Rotary Club, Saucon Valley Country Club, Omicron Delta Kappa, Theta Delta Chi, the Engineering Society, and Mustard and Cheese Drama club in which he served as secretary, stage manager, and lead player in Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.
Okeson died on November 4, 1943 at the age of 68.
Birthplace: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Died: November 4, 1943
Degree: B.S. civil engineering
Notable Achievement: Chairman of NCAA football rules committee