Stim Bullitt, last of the Seattle heroes

Stimson Bullitt, broadcast executive, enlightened developer, and 'man of parts,' dies at 89, leaving a remarkable family legacy. His watchwords: Be stubborn in the big things. Never boast.
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Stimson Bullitt, 1919-2009

Stimson Bullitt, broadcast executive, enlightened developer, and 'man of parts,' dies at 89, leaving a remarkable family legacy. His watchwords: Be stubborn in the big things. Never boast.

Stim Bullitt, long a friend and an inspiration, died Sunday night, drawn up in a chair and looking out at Puget Sound and the mountains beyond. He would have been 90 next June, when I'm sure there would have been a party of warm friendship and witty speeches.

He was a beloved person among his wide circle of friends drawn from many worlds, for he was what is called "a man of parts." He brought to these times many antique virtues: manliness (a boxer, a war hero, a fearless climber), principled stubbornness, an epigrammatic writing style with each sentence hammered into hard rock like a piton, reverence for the law as a profession and a tradition, an elaborate code of manners that could tie the rest of us into knots, and an unshakable commitment to the public good.

Charles Stimson Bullitt, as his name conveyed, was part of two notable families of the region. Charles D. Stimson moved to Seattle from Chicago in 1889, bringing $500,000 to invest in timber, saw mills, and real estate. He built the Olympic Hotel and the Highlands, where the family moved after living in the Stimson Green Mansion on First Hill. (Stim grew up in the Highlands, but like F.D.R. was something of a rebel to his privileged class.) In 1918, C.D.'s daugher Dorothy married Scott Bullitt, scion of a distinguished Eastern family (Philadelphia, Louisville). Scott Bullitt, who died in 1932 on the eve of possibly being named F.D.R.'s Interior Secretary, was the model of political engagement and heroic striving for his son. His motto: "If you stand for it, do it!"

The impact of the family is very great. Dorothy started KING Broadcasting, which Stim ran for only 10 years, 1961-71. Stim as KING's CEO was not thought by him to have been a business success but he attracted a remarkable cadre of journalists, many of whom (like me) spent years trying to rebottle the creative lightning of the station. (Among the might-have-beens in Seattle history: what if the talks between KING and Hearst had resulted in the Bullitts' owning the Post-Intelligencer?) When the stations were sold, the money went significantly to augmenting the Bullitt Foundation, which soon became the area's leading environmental foundation.

Stim, having been eased out of the station (as the story goes), exchanged his stock in the broadcast property for real estate holdings, mostly downtown. Thus began his quiet effort to assemble run-down properties along First Avenue, in service of his dream of building residential towers in the center of town. Many scoffed at this premature vision, particularly when the plans included a public plaza and steps. That open space, a big success, was paid for with Harbor Properties' money,since the City of Seattle could never get its act together to build the plaza.

As with the Metropolitan Tract of his grandfather, so Stim's Harbor Steps anchored a downtown revival. He waited the many years for the market for apartments to turn, and in the end built 1,000 units in the complex. The project, along with Paul Schell's Cornerstone project on Bullitt land to the south, spurred the downtown SAM and Benaroya Hall. It also typified the values of Bullitt, as embedded in his company. Here's how I once summed them up:

Think in terms of a small neighborhood, not just a building here and there. hang tough for good (but not showy) architecture. Really get to know the neighbors, and learn from them what makes the place tick. Gain the trust of your partners and the community so they will make the leap with you. Build honest places for real people. Be prudent and go slow, for there are swift punishments for getting it wrong. Enlist a strong board and listen to them when you disagree, but be stubborn in the big things. Invest for the long term. Remember the public interest. Don't sell. Never boast.

"Remember the public interest." He always did, in many different ways. He would write letters to a Seattle School Superintendent urging the hiring of a young black woman who was his friend. (The answer in 1941: no way.) He took a lonely stand against Japanese internment in 1942. He was the first major television owner to oppose the Vietnam War. His father had run unsuccessfully as a lonely Democrat in the 1920s for Senate and the governorship; Stim ran for Congress twice, losing to the amiable seat warmer, Tom Pelly. Out of this race came a memorable book, full of pithy and candid epigrams, To Be a Politician. The book is a small classic, earning for the author the cherished compliment of David Riesman: "M. Montaigne of Seattle."

Once upon a time, there was a whole circle of Stim Bullitts in Seattle, Stevensonian Democrats intoxicated by the nobility of American history and the law. Stim was in many ways the anchor of this group, the genial host (if punctuated by long silences), the most memorable character. (I think of people such as Judge Bill Dwyer, Ken MacDonald, Gordon Culp, and John Goldmark.) For a while, KING was their medium, just as Sen. Warren Magnuson was their political mainstay. Now, mostly gone.

Stim once wrote, "I would rather have been a hero than a saint, a sage, or a success." He was a hero, though I doubt he ever acknowledged that to his demanding, uneasy self. An awkward and unlikely hero, to be sure. You could come upon him walking a downtown street with coils of climbing rope around his torso, as if he had just descended a giant beanstalk. He loved many people from all walks of life, but he could rarely put them at ease in his angular presence.

He aspired to the highest things, yet was beset with doubts about himself, particularly his business acumen. He can seem at times the essential man of Seattle and at other times quite peripheral. He had an enormous impact, as did his family, yet I sensed that he could never really understand this fact. I would see him in these last years, walking the streets and greeting people with a very sweet smile — almost serene at the end, an elderly Roman of the old Republic now in exile. He was difficult and he was loved. He was that rare thing, a fully authentic individual.


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