Jay Inslee didn't have much interest in a life in politics during his early years, and even after graduating from law school. But he was an honor student and showed an early predilection for taking charge and helping people, his friends say.

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Some politicians appear aimed for elected office from an early age, but that wasn’t true for Jay Inslee.

Basketball and his girlfriend — now his wife, Trudi — were at the top of his mind in high school, he recalls.

At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, Inlsee played small forward on Ingraham High School’s 1969 championship basketball team and was starting quarterback on the football team.

But Inslee kept up with academics, too. He was on the honor roll in high school and college, and showed an early predilection for taking charge.

Randall Leeland, a high-school buddy, still recalls waking up to a commotion in the middle of the night at basketball camp 45 years ago on Whidbey Island.

A kid in his bunkhouse had fallen out of bed and was unconscious on the floor. Leeland and other teens gathered around the boy, uncertain what to do — except for then-16-year-old Jay Inslee. He alerted the adults and started pulmonary resuscitation, although the stricken boy didn’t survive, Inslee’s campaign says.

“He was desperately trying to get this guy conscious,” Leeland said. “He seemed to get control of the situation and take action.”

Family and friends say Inslee has stepped up to try to help people throughout his life.

“He genuinely cares about people,” said Fred Jackson, a critical-care physician in Seattle and a longtime friend. “He’s been doing this since he was a kid.”

Oldest of three

Inslee was born and raised in Seattle, the oldest of three sons. Now 61, he describes a typical middle-class childhood for the 1950s and early ’60s, spending afternoons at the Red Shield Boys & Girls Club and playing in fields and empty lots near his home.

His father, Frank Inslee, was a biology teacher and basketball coach at Garfield and Chief Sealth high schools, and later became Seattle Metro League athletic director. His mother, Adele, was a sales clerk at Sears.

Hints of Inslee’s interest in environmental issues during his years in Congress can be found in his childhood. Both of his parents worked with high-school students at Mount Rainier, clearing trails, removing brush and planting trees. And Inslee recalls visiting his grandfather’s beach cabin on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in the 1960s and helping tribal fishermen haul in salmon with their nets.

Former Ingraham High classmates say Inslee was about as clean-cut as they get.

“He was pretty much on the straight and narrow. He wasn’t doing all the crazy stuff some of them were doing,” said Randy Houghton, a former football teammate.

Inslee and his pals were gym rats who would stay after school and play basketball until the doors closed.

The hard work paid off. The varsity basketball team during Inslee’s senior year had a perfect season, winning 23 games and the state championship, with no losses. It was Inslee who gave the team a pep talk that helped avert a loss during a game where the team trailed with seconds to go, Leeland recalls.

The football team did not have such a happy ending. With Inslee at quarterback, the team had a winning season but lost the Metro League championship game to Chief Sealth High School in a 7-0 shut out.

Inslee says he learned about perseverance and loss playing sports in high school. “Both are important,” he said in an interview. “But the second one is harder.”

He also noted, “my ideas of how to work together as a team were fashioned on those fields and in the gym.”

Starting at Stanford

In college, Inslee largely confined sports to games with friends.

Entering college during the Vietnam War, Inslee received a student deferment as a freshman, then number 187 in the draft lottery but was never called to serve, his campaign says.

He started college at Stanford University with the goal of becoming a doctor, but he quit a year later after running out of money.

Inslee says he spent his life savings to attend the first year at Stanford, wasn’t able to get a scholarship and did not want to take out student loans to remain there.

Instead, he enrolled at the University of Washington.

He lived in his parents’ basement and paid his way through school by working odd jobs, including waiting tables and spending months operating a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer. He refers back to his bulldozer driving days during his jobs-themed gubernatorial campaign this year, even sitting in one for part of his campaign’s first TV ad.

Inslee also worked summers for the Seattle School District, overseeing crews of disadvantaged students hired to do landscaping. When he and Trudi got married in 1972, Inslee invited his student crew — even taking the time to drive some of them to the wedding, Jackson says.

“I think he really enjoys people and has a good sense of humor and he likes to gab with people and talk to them,” Trudi Inslee said. “I think sometimes people don’t realize how focused he is and how informed he is.”

After graduating in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Inslee applied to law school at the UW but was not accepted. He attended Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., graduating magna cum laude three years later.

Inslee says the couple wanted to raise their family in a small town, so they moved to Selah, north of Yakima, where he joined the law firm Peters, Schmalz, Leadon & Fowler and worked by contract as city prosecutor.

Jump into politics

It was only after spending more than a decade in Central Washington with his family — the couple have three sons — that Inslee became active politically.

It started with a school-bond campaign in 1985. The area had rejected seven previous bonds, Inslee recalls, leaving the high school overcrowded and facing the prospect of sending students to class in two shifts.

“I said, well, somebody ought to run a bond issue and everybody said, ‘Good luck, we failed seven in a row.’ We got together with another couple and we chaired an effort and passed it on the eighth try,” Inslee said.

After that, he mulled the idea of running for office.

“I remember one day, I was sitting at my desk thinking about it. I was thinking I care about schools. This is a place where maybe I can do something. Literally the phone rang and a woman named Deb Hunt called me,” Inslee said.

Hunt, the mother of state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, is a longtime Democratic Party activist in the Yakima area.

“I was quite impressed with him. I thought, ‘I think we need him in politics, not as an attorney but in politics.’ So I called him and asked if he’d be interested in running for office,” she said.

“He said, ‘Why me?’ and I said, ‘Why not you? You’re a good-looking guy, you’re a smart fellow.’ “

Not long after, in 1988, Inslee ran and won election as a Democratic state representative for the 14th Legislative District — a seat that had been held by a Republican who decided not to run again.

Inslee was 37.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com