Recalling the innocence of Seattle’s World’s Fair
by Ted Van Dyk
Spreading around the Galaxy Gold, the Space Needle's original color. Left to right are C. David Hughbanks, Stuart Rolfe, Mauren Wright, and Jeff Wright. Credit: Rod Mar/Rod Mar Photo
It was a glorious, sunny day on Saturday (April 21) at Seattle Center, where thousands turned out for the beginning of our six-month celebration of the landmark Seattle World’s Fair of 1962. For many of us present at the creation, it seemed only yesterday. The faces at the Legacy Luncheon in the Space Needle were familiar, though bearing a few more lines and wrinkles than 50 years ago.
The luncheon itself was a gem of its kind. Only three speakers: Jeff Wright, whose father Howard Wright had taken him as a pre-schooler to the top of the Space Needle construction site; Mayor Mike McGinn; and Crosscut’s own Knute Berger, whose book, Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle, had just been published. All spoke briefly and gracefully and with only one obvious error. McGinn referred to “the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1959″ which, of course, had taken place in 1962.
The guest list, surprisingly, mainly included only persons who had played a 1962 role of some kind. The only politicians in attendance were Rep. Jim McDermott, in whose district the Seattle Center resides; Mayor McGinn; City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who has jurisdiction over Seattle Center; and former City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, pondering a 2013 run to challenge McGinn, whose father had played a role in the fair.
I had gotten involved with the fair only by accident. As with many others, that involvement proved to be a turning point in my life. In March, 1962, I was just on the verge of release from an Army active-duty callup, as a Soviet intelligence analyst, to the Pentagon triggered by the 1961 Berlin Crisis (during which the Soviets had erected the Berlin Wall). I had been bitten by Potomac Fever and intended to stay in Washington, D.C. if the right job materialized.
Walking downtown in Washington, D.C. I ran into an old Bellingham High School friend, Ed Stimpson, who was representing the Seattle World’s Fair in the capital. Stimpson told me he had just come from the office of the European Communities, the forerunner of today’s European Union, which would have a pavilion at the Seattle fair. The all-European staff was encountering difficulties, however, and the EC’s Washington, D.C. office, staffed by Americans who were EC employees, was looking for an American to oversee the pavilion. Would I be interested?
I interviewed for the job, which would involve spending most of my time in Seattle over the following six months but which, afterward, could involve a permanent position in the EC’s D.C. office. I was hired and agreed to fly to Seattle immediately after my pending discharge from military duty. A few days later, however, it was announced that EC President Walter Hallstein was coming to the capital to meet with President Kennedy, speak to the National Press Club, and confer with congressional leaders. Would I postpone my departure for Seattle to manage the Hallstein visit? Hallstein then asked me to remain in D.C., as deputy director of the EC office, rather than spending the next six months in Seattle.
Nonetheless, I still bore responsibility for overseeing the EC’s Century 21 pavilion. On the fair’s opening day, 50 years ago this past weekend, Hallstein and other international and national dignitaries were present. I sat with Hallstein at the Space Needle’s inaugural luncheon. Word had it that the restaurant level made a 360-degree circle every hour. To test that claim, Hallstein placed a dinner roll on the ledge near our table. Sure enough, it returned to us in exactly one hour.
I visited the fair another four or five times that year, typically when some issue arose between EC staff and the fair’s management. I got to know well the fair’s principal movers and shakers, including Eddie Carlson, the CEO of Western International Hotels, whose initial inspiration and drive had brought the venture to life. (Eddie also had Bellingham origins, having begun his working career as a bellhop in the Leopold Hotel there). I saw my old pal Stimpson frequently and also got to know Dorothy Sortor, a Century 21 staff member who later would marry Ed. I saw them both last year, during Ed’s last illness in a Boise hospital. Then, last Saturday, there was Dorothy again, now retired in Seattle, and we sat together at the Space Needle luncheon with other 1962 veterans.
As it turned out, I would work with Eddie Carlson frequently in ensuing years. As Vice President Humphrey’s assistant, in the mid-1960s, I ran a presidential commission on transportation to which Carlson, then president of United Airlines, was appointed. Several years later, when I established a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, Eddie Carlson and UAL were among my first clients and remained so over 11 years. My chance streetcorner meeting with Stimpson, as it turned out, led me to a long career in national government and politics which might never have happened without the existence of the fair and Ed’s role as its capital liaison.
The 1962 World’s Fair was, at heart, an innocent exercise in optimistic boosterism by civic leaders who wanted to put their city on the map. The United States, in 1962, was a more innocent country as well. Internationally, we were focused on a Cold War with what is now the former Soviet Union. But, otherwise, we were pursuing President Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon, to “get America moving again” economically, and building momentum toward the great civil rights and social-welfare breakthroughs that would follow only a couple years later.
As I walked the Seattle Center grounds last weekend, before and after our Space Needle luncheon, it occurred to me how similar the people there were to those who had jammed it at the fair’s opening 50 years before. They unmistakeably were of this place — of many ethnicities and racial origins, dressed informally, surrounded by music and other arts, with a unique air about them of freedom being exercised and of, yes, the innocence still so much a part of our local culture. A good innocence which we should never lose.