Walt Crowley, 1947-2007

He lived the history of modern Seattle, from the volatile '60s in the streets of the University District to disruptive innovation on the World Wide Web.
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From top: Walt Crowley in 2006; an undated self-portrait; with John Carlson (left) on KIRO-TV in 1986; and after chemotherapy in 2005. (Roger Hudson, Walt Crowley, Nick Gunderson, Marie McCaffrey)

He lived the history of modern Seattle, from the volatile '60s in the streets of the University District to disruptive innovation on the World Wide Web.

Sad news about the death of Seattle author, pundit, and historian Walt Crowley, who passed away Friday, Sept. 21, after complications from surgery.

The last time I saw Walt was at a Historic Seattle event at the University of Washington this summer, where he was touting the upcoming 100th anniversary of Seattle's first coming-out party, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. It was also the first time I had seen Walt since he'd had cancer surgery earlier this year. He'd had his larynx removed. Knowing him as guy who liked to talk (and talk), I wondered how he'd do speaking through an electronic voice box.

I shouldn't have worried. Even without his voice, Walt was still Walt, irrepressible as ever. Before his lecture began, he was silently directing his assistants in setting up a screen for his PowerPoint presentation. I realized how expressive he was even as a mime: the gesturing arms, the theatrical expressions, the eyeball rolling – all the things we remember from watching him perform as a regular commentator on KIRO-TV in the 1980s and '90s when he provided the liberal point to John Carlson's conservative counterpoint.

Before his surgery, he'd written me: "Armed with a talking dildo, I'll soon sound just like Stephen W. Hawking, making me 'the smartest guy in the room' wherever I go." The fact that an ascot had replaced his trademark bow-tie only added to the effect.

Walt Crowley often was the smartest guy in the room – and when he wasn't the smartest, he was the most voluble. Over the years, I watched his career grow and morph. The first time I encountered his work was seeing his psychedelic flower-power political artwork in the pages of Seattle's '60s underground paper, The Helix, where he worked with his future frequent collaborator on historical projects, Paul Dorpat.

As a young political activist, Walt soon generated a large FBI file, which was less a commentary on his radicalism than on the excesses of the J. Edgar Hoover era. It likely made him very sensitive to the political witch hunts of the Clinton years, when Walt and his wife, Marie McCaffrey, became friends and tireless supporters of Whitewater scandal victim Susan McDougal.

By then, Walt had already turned from activist to insider. In the early '70s, he took a job in Mayor Wes Uhlman's administration. He later ran for City Council and worked as head speechwriter for Gov. Mike Lowry. In the 1980s, he joined the staff ofSeattle Weekly and later became a widely recognized political radio and TV pundit. He also began authoring local history books. One of most entertaining was Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, the definitive book on an era whose hallmark is being forgotten by those who were actually there. But Walt hadn't forgotten much, and he'd been part of it all, from the University District street riots to the Sky River Rock Festival.

In the 1990s, Walt morphed into a Web pioneer with the encyclopedic HistoryLink.org, a Web site that has become an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Seattle and Washington heritage. I say heritage because the Web site embodies more than just a dry look at popular history but manages to capture the essence of the place, in part because HistoryLink doesn't attempt to sugarcoat the past.

Walt certainly wasn't a sugar-coater. In too-nice Seattle, he was often ready with a snarky quip or a sharply worded opinion. His views weren't always predictable – he opposed putting a cap on the height of downtown high-rises when many greens favored it. He was also a feisty proponent of the things he loved. He was a preservationist who went to bat more than once to save the Blue Moon Tavern, not only a favorite watering hole but a place that embodies the kind of unruly city that Walt understood and loved. His independence, combined with his wide-ranging knowledge, made Walt a go-to guy for working reporters. I haven't done a database search, but I'll bet that a good chunk of his legacy can be found there in the sage quotes and pithy observations he made about Seattle.

It seems fitting that the most comprehensive biography of Walt is the one that can be found at HistoryLink. Somehow, clicking there is a fitting way to remember him and the good work – and many links – he's left behind.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.