Jean Godden: Saying goodbye to our friend, Walt Crowley

He was master of the wry bon mot, Seattle's unofficial spokesman, and founder of HistoryLink, one of the state's great treasures. Lively to the end, he even had a momentary urge to run for City Council this year.
Crosscut archive image.

Walt Crowley in 2004. (Michael Cain)

He was master of the wry bon mot, Seattle's unofficial spokesman, and founder of HistoryLink, one of the state's great treasures. Lively to the end, he even had a momentary urge to run for City Council this year.

I have six indispensable books authored by Walt Crowley on the shelf in my City Hall office, tears in my eyes, and a very large hole in my heart.

Crowley, 60, keeper of the city's memories, died Friday night, Sept. 21, at Virginia Mason Hospital, felled by a stroke after an operation to remove a recurring cancer of the larynx. Earlier this year, his natural voice was silenced when his voice box was removed. But he had been gamely learning to make himself understood with help from a mechanical device. His many friends knew that - if anyone could - Walt would continue the good fight.

They, like me, are stunned, bereft, and devastated.

First and foremost, Walt was the main chronicler of our times in this city, starting with his arrival in Seattle at age 14.

In his crackling good historical memoir, Rites of Passage, he recalled, "I first saw Seattle from the windows of the Great Northern's Empire Builder early one November morning in 1961. Three days out from Chicago, the train delivered my mother and me to King Street Station, where my father waited to take us to our new home. My eyes filled with tears, but not of joy."

In years to come, Walt would fall in love with his adopted city and become Seattle's unofficial spokesman. He would riot in our streets, lead our anti-war demonstrations, help found The Helix, an alternative newspaper, and then guide our leaders, advising them and writing their speeches. Ultimately, he found his highest calling: sorting out our successes, our failures, and our visions and putting them into perspective. He was a professional writer, provocative commentator, popular historian, speechwriter, artist, cartoonist, art lover, and bon vivant.

If you wanted to prioritize the importance of an event, if you wanted to focus on an aspect of city living, if you wanted a quotable observation, a succinct summary, a wry bon mot, you went to Walt.

He was our institutional memory. And, perhaps most importantly, he was the founder of one of the state and city's great treasures:, a Web site that boasts more than 12,000 images and 3 million words. Walt considered the site his crowning achievement and, indeed, it is his great legacy. The site is a national role model. He not only founded it along with his enormously talented wife, Marie McCaffrey, and his friend, photo-historian Paul Dorpat, but he cajoled and scrounged for funds to keep it afloat, making history accessible and free to all.

As a journalist, I turned to almost daily. As an elected official, I use it no less frequently. I can scarcely imagine how we operated before its founding in 1997.

By the time he founded HistoryLink, Walt had become a public figure, well known to those who heard him during his seven-year run, from 1986-1993, on KIRO-TV's "Point-Counterpoint" with his conservative foil, John Carlson. It says much that Carlson and Crowley, opposite ends of the political spectrum, remained close friends to the end. They disagreed sharply, but they always preserved an aura of mutual respect and friendly rivalry.

Well as TV viewers and Seattle Weekly readers came to know him, Walt had another persona, one that he revealed fully to the surrogate family that descended upon their Phinney Ridge castle when he and Marie gave their annual Christmas Eve parties. Guests would climb the impossibly steep stairs to reach storied art-packed chambers, filled with tech toys, extraterrestrials, flying saucers, and other precocious artifacts from a marriage that also was also a thriving book-producing business and an enduring love affair.

Few of the hundreds who attended will ever forget the party Walt and Marie threw prior to removal of his voice box. The object: to hear his last natural words. Walt said that they would be: "I love you, Marie." What characteristic élan.

And, speaking of élan, Walt functioned as a study in pluck and bravery in the precious months that followed last February's larynx removal. He covered his scars with bandage, ascot, and scarf. He looked a Seattle fashion plate, the very model of a trench-coated man-about-town. He scribbled tirelessly on a white slate.

He even thought briefly about a political career.

Walt had been a candidate for a City Council seat in 1979. It was a draining campaign, one that he lost along with one of his opponents, current City Council President Nick Licata. At the time, Walt was unmarried. He often joked, perhaps not entirely facetiously, that, in order to persuade Marie to marry him, he'd been forced to promise he would never again run for office.

Still and yet. In the days following Walt's surgery, an opportunity for office seemed to present itself when City Council member Peter Steinbrueck announced he would be stepping down at the end of this year. An empty seat is a temptation, especially to someone who has been so much a part of the city's life and times.

At one meeting of the "The Word Salon," a group of Walt's and Marie's friends who meet monthly to parse and discuss aspects of a single word, Walt scribbled a question to political consultant Cathy Allen: What did she think of his chances at a run for council?

Although Walt would have been an appealing candidate, well known, knowledgeable, ready to hit the ground running, the rigors of a campaign might have sapped his precarious health. Pity. It would have been welcome to follow a race in which rhetoric and hyperbole were limited to bursts of rapid writing and the growls of an R2D2-like mechanical device. (Walt wryly called it "an electronic dildo.")

Walt's incredible journey is over, leaving those of us who knew him to mourn this significant loss. He was and remains an original, the kind of only-in-Seattle character that he himself celebrated in the thousands of essays on HistoryLink.

The popular prints write that he is survived by wife Marie, his mother, Violet Kilvinger, and father, Walter Crowley. But they don't list some of the other survivors, all who flock to his greatest legacy, Those of us already missing our good friend can send a donation in his memory to History Ink/History Link, 1425 Fourth Avenue, Suite 710, Seattle WA 98101.

And we can recall Walt's humor-to-the-end last words, as related to me by Ken Vincent, Walt's close friend, who went to see him near the last. Marie told Ken that Walt's last words were, "Goodbye – and you're wrong."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.