Grade-schoolers and teenagers toss around the term BFFs in their tweets and texts to describe their Best Friends Forever as if they actually know what that means. Jim Archer, Len “Swede” Hartsell and Harold Studholme do know what “forever” means, as they have been friends for 80 years.
The story of this trio actually started five years before that. Studholme and Archer were in the same first grade class at Fern Hill Elementary in 1928. Hartsell didn’t enter the scene until fifth grade in 1934, right about the time the boys were preparing to move up to the “big leagues” of Stewart Middle School.
It was an era when everyone in the neighborhood knew each other, a time when doors where left unlocked and bicycles were seen at fishing holes or Andy’s Candy Shop at 84th Street and Park Avenue. Everyone raised rabbits and had gardens, if not full farms, to put food on tables during the tight years of the Great Depression, when seemingly everyone’s father was out of work. Neighbors helped neighbors get by and watched over everyone’s children, as if they were their own. Winters would mean trips to nearby Ward’s Lake.
“We used to ice skate there,” Studholme said. “It doesn’t freeze over anymore.”
The electric streetcars that used to web around Pierce County also provided endless – albeit extremely dangerous – fun as well. Children would routinely climb on the roof of the car and sit right below the power lines for rides from Tacoma to the suburbs.
“You weren’t worth nothing if you couldn’t ride the street car all the way to Spanaway and back,” Hartsell said.
The cars also provided endless opportunities to play tricks, something everyone in the neighborhood quickly mastered. Boys would grease the tracks on the hills so the cars couldn’t climb them. The antics didn’t end when school started either. Hartsell has the distinction of being kicked out of three classes in a single day while at Lincoln High School. The final trip to the principal’s office came after his German teacher entered the room and Hartsell immediately began speaking German, not a popular thing at the time.
“I said if you do that, I’m not cleaning it up,” Hartsell said, admitting he had no idea what she was actually saying and only wanted to make a joke. “She kicked me out, so off I went … again.”
Their Lincoln High years were spent at city league baseball games, particularly rooting for the Olympic Ice Cream team since Studholme was a batboy. Returning foul balls gained free admission, a practice used widely by children unable to pay for tickets even if they had after-school jobs selling newspapers and magazines or cutting meat at the grocery store. Studholme was living the good life in those days after buying a 1929 Ford Roadster for $30. His grandfather loaned him $20 to match his savings.
“I don’t know if I ever paid him back,” he said.
The trio graduated from Lincoln in 1941. All found themselves in uniform. Studholme served in the Air Force on a base in Iceland. Archer was a member of an anti-aircraft unit of the 26th “Yankee” Division in the Army. The unit saw Belgium, France and Austria as well as endured the Battle of the Bulge, and also has the distinction of shooting down 13 German planes in 17 minutes and the second highest number of anti-aircraft “kills” in the war. Hartsell served in the Navy in the South Pacific, where he was a gunner on Merchant Marine ships.
They found careers after the war and they returned home. Studholme worked 35 years at Safeway. Archer served for 35 years with the Tacoma Fire Department. Hartsell had a career with the City of Tacoma’s street maintenance division.
The trio has long since retired. They are 91 years old, after all. But their “greatest generation” work ethic has them largely active in their “second careers” as volunteers. Studholme spends a few hours a week at Allenmoore Hospital and Hartsell dedicated the last 40 years as a Bible distributor for the Gideons. They also meet up for lunch and picnics with Fern Hill residents from back in the day to talk about their times on the streetcars and at Andy’s place or about the pranks they would play… Devilish grins always appear when they talk.
“I would say that we lived through the best generation,” Archer said.
Following Lincoln High School’s 100th anniversary celebrations the weekend of Aug. 10 and 11, Tacoma Weekly put out a call on our Facebook page asking for photos – and readers responded.
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