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Two great men who shaped our state

Washington State Capitol Credit: Washington State House Democratic Caucus/Flickr

Two great men of public life in Washington state died last month:  Mike Layton and Norm Schut. Both men had tremendous impact on our politics and policy, and both deeply affected my growth as a young man. Each provided me a powerful role model and served, in different ways, as a mentor.

Mike Layton was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s long-time, plain-spoken man in Olympia. He dominated the Capitol press corps with his ability, as state historian John Hughes said, “to spot B.S. at a hundred paces.” He bluntly spoke truth to power, often with great effect on our state’s policies. He embodied the “journalism in the public interest” that is Crosscut’s mission.

Layton irritated the incompetent, inspiring former Gov. Dixy Lee Ray to name one of her Fox Island piglets after him, and later to slaughter it. His reporting laid much of the foundation for the landmark Growth Management Act and for our open meeting laws. He played a key role in preserving the Orca population of Puget Sound. Other times, he tilted at windmills, as in his personal crusade for a Seattle-to-Olympia high speed monorail.

I knew Mike in my childhood as one of the closest friends of my father, Worth Hedrick. They were colleagues in journalism, brothers in arms in environmental activism, drinking buddies at the old Melting Pot, Red Kelly’s, and other Olympia hangouts, and mountain climbing and hiking companions.

Layton was a tough son of a bitch, a decorated paratrooper in the Airborne Divisions and Special Forces in WWII and Korea. He would swim all year round in the frigid waters off his Cooper Point home. I can still hear the echo of his growling “God damn it, Hedrick, step it up!” when I would fall behind him on a hike. He helped give me the confidence to join him in reporting from Nicaragua during the contra wars, while I was just a college newspaperman. He was deeply intimidating to me as a child and inspiring as an adult. I craved his approval nearly as much as my own father’s.

Mike was a true friend to my dad, standing by him through professional struggles, successes and battles with personal demons. After my father’s sudden death nearly 30 years ago, Mike, along with a small group of my dad’s other friends, served as a band of paternal surrogates. I regret not having properly thanked Mike or any of the others for their support.

Like Mike Layton, Norm Schut helped raise me. I have foggy images of sitting on his lap while he and my father, who worked for Norm when he led the state employee’s union, would drink beer and talk politics. As a labor leader, Norm was perhaps the most powerful and successful lobbyist in state government. He engineered the 40-hour work week for employees of state institutions, state worker Social Security coverage and health insurance, the first collective bargaining law over non-economic issues, and the civil service structure that ended the spoils system in state hiring. He stood out as a labor advocate for civil rights, beginning with the Japanese-American internments during WWII.

Unlike the typical lobbyists who needed to grovel for legislator attention in the wings of the state House and Senate floors, Norm would often sit between the chambers in an old, worn leather chair and wait for legislators to come to consult with him while he sat on his throne. In his “retirement” Norm founded and ran the Senior Lobby, an incredibly effective organization that served as a model for similar advocacy groups across America. During one of my father’s periodic, self-inflicted bouts of unemployment, Norm contracted with him to write a step-by-step guide on how to organize seniors, which was re-printed many times.

In the second phase of his retirement, Norm became a Trustee of South Puget Sound Community College. In his typical fashion, he helped Earl Hale, the community college system’s executive director, transform Washington’s two-year colleges into the most successful of the state’s education lobbies, and one of the best funded systems in the nation.

It was while serving as a Trustee that Norm also became a student at SPSCC, learning about horticulture and fruit tree cultivation. He converted his Sound-side parcel from a plain lawn into a paradise of dozens of different varieties of berries and fruit trees. His intellectual curiosity and Type A personality made his home into an arboretum. A renaissance man, he introduced me to classical music and opera, and shared generously of his vast library, never letting me leave a visit without a book or record to keep. He helped broaden my mind and convince me, a kid from a broken family and public schools, that I could succeed at Stanford and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Later, during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote village in the West African country of Senegal, he kept me in touch with his life and with Olympia. My monthly treks to the nearest post office were made less arduous by the anticipation of another newsy and erudite letter from Norm.

The past few years I lost contact with both Norm and with Mike. I had a demanding job as a corporate CEO, young children to raise, and a relocation in 2007 to serve in my current post as Peace Corps director back in Senegal. Not once did I take the time simply to thank Mike or Norm for what they meant to me, to let them know what a profoundly positive effect they had on me as I was growing up.

Now, they’re gone, and I have missed the chance to reconnect. If I had taken a few minutes from my busy life full of seemingly urgent needs that fade quickly in import simply to write them a note, give them a call or stop to see them, then perhaps today I would not have such an empty feeling to my core. I hope to learn from this emptiness and, by sharing a few words about these great men, perhaps others may benefit as well.

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