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Iconic Peninsula high school baseball coach dies at 89

SAN MATEO — Ken Houle, a founding father of the West Catholic Athletic League and original member of the Athletics Hall of Fame at Serra High in San Mateo, died Tuesday night in Folsom at the age of 89.
During his lengthy 35-year career at Serra — which began in 1955, when the school relocated to the current location at 20th Avenue — Houle wore many hats as a Padre.
He influenced the way of life on campus as a baseball coach for two decades, as well as director of athletics from 1959 to 1977, to a teacher of finance, accounting, algebra, geometry, English and P.E., eventually assuming the role of business manager and facilities manager at the school.
After Houle retired in 1990, the same year he was inducted into the hall of fame, Serra’s sports facility was dubbed in his honor as the Kenneth R. Houle Athletic Complex.
“Kids now will ask if I’m related or if that’s my dad, so I would tell them the whole story, which is kind of fun,” said Chris Houle (class of ’92), his grandson, a teacher at his alma mater since 1997 and its current varsity baseball coach.
“He was 89 and lived a long life,” he added.
Ken Houle took over the baseball program from Jesse Freitas in 1956 and didn’t relinquish his spot in the dugout until after the 1975 season.
He coached major leaguers Jim Fregosi, Norm Angelini, Danny Frisella, Tim Cullen and Randy Gomez, along with longtime MLB scout Gary Hughes.
“The original guy that kind of put Serra baseball on the map,” said Dean Ayoob, in his eighth year as athletic director at Serra.
“The thing I remember, obviously growing up, was he had such a connection with a lot of the players that he coached — and with the students that he taught, too,” Chris Houle said. “And I just remember as a kid being introduced to a lot of these guys that played for him and they really kind of took care of him and they had lasting friendships beyond their time at Serra.
“I think, especially, the class of ’59. That was Jim Fregosi’s class. Those guys would include my grandfather in all the events that they do as alums.”
A month ago — April 21, to be exact — Ken Houle took a trip from Folsom to watch baseball at Frisella Stadium for the last time.
“Fortunately we were able to make that happen,” Chris Houle said. “It was great. Between my dad and my uncles and aunts, kind of got a little carpool going and got him down here.”
Also in attendance, Pete Jensen, the winningest baseball coach at Serra.
There was no doubt he’d be there for this.
“From a personal point of view, it’s hard for me to describe how much he meant to me and my career,” Jensen said. “I know I had a great deal of success there, but he was part of the foundation of it. I had to fill pretty big shoes there between him and Dave Stevens (1976-83), so it was an inspiration for me, getting started in my career, to be around him.”
Jensen, who wouldn’t inherit the dugout until 1984, joined the school for the 1976-77 academic year — the last one with Ken Houle as director of athletics.
“He was kind of like a walking legend when you met him,” Ayoob said.
“He was no longer coaching, but he essentially was my boss when I was hired,” Jensen said. “He was also our business manager. He ran the finances at Serra and when I came in, everything about Ken Houle was positive. About the work he had done as a coach, the work he was doing as athletic director and the work he did at the business office was just unbelievable.”
His wife, Ilene, ran the school’s cafeteria for years along with Jean and Ray Kniffin.
Meanwhile, whatever needed to be done around campus, Ken Houle took care of it.
“He did so much in terms of his commitment and trying do things right,” said Jensen, who was recruited by Houle to help build a press box for the football stadium. “If the baseball field needed sprinklers, he’d get a hold of some dads and they’d go out and do it themselves.”
He added: “He had such a big influence on the school. I just can’t say enough about how important he was to Serra’s early success and the establishment of the baseball tradition. He had terrific players and they all had a ton of respect for him.”
Winner of Catholic Athletic League titles in 1959, 1960 and 1962, Ken Houle played an instrumental role in the establishment of the WCAL in 1967.
“He always talked about that and was proud of the fact they were able to get that league together,” Chris Houle said.
He and Ilene had seven children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Two of the grandchildren, Chris and Brian, were coached on the baseball team by Jensen.
“I saw him quite often in those years and he was a real baseball fan,” said Jensen, who retired in 2009 after 23 seasons. “We talked a lot about games and how we’re doing and stuff like that.”
Life came full circle when Chris Houle informed his grandfather last June that his turn as varsity baseball coach at Serra finally came to fruition.
“It was incredible,” he said of the conversation. “He was overcome with a lot of emotion. I think it was probably something in the back of his head that he had always hoped might happen.”
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In his first year at the helm, Chris Houle led the Padres to a WCAL round-robin title.
During a Saturday in April at a place all too familiar, Ken Houle watched his grandson follow in his footsteps during a 5-2 victory over Bellarmine.
“At the end of the game, all of the Serra kids lined up and shook his hand,” Jensen said. “It was really an impressive moment.”
“And when I talked to him after the game, it was a lot of emotion for him,” Chris said. “And I think he knew that would be one of the last times that he’d be able to kind of be involved with Serra baseball and see a game.”
It’s another story Chris Houle will get to share whenever students at Serra ask about the Kenneth R. Houle Athletic Complex and the man who left a storied legacy as a Padre.

Big 5-2 victory today over Bellarmine today for varsity baseball, with legendary Serra coach Ken Houle on hand! Ken is the grandfather of Serra Head Coach Chris Houle ‘92. Great day for the Padres! #Serra75

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