Sh*t Kent Said

Nuggets of wisdom from Seattle's mossback Yoda

Crosscut archive image.

Kent Kammerer

Nuggets of wisdom from Seattle's mossback Yoda

Seattle Neighborhood Coalition wise-man and Crosscut writer Kent Kammerer died in December. His memorial service on Jan. 6 at the Museum of History and Industry was a reminder of the multitudes one life can contain. A table of Kent's memorabilia included a typewriter, pictures of Kent as a bell-bottomed, bearded, and beloved teacher at Lincoln High School, his cameras (he taught photography), his paintings and poetry, his climbing gear, a picture of Kent boxing, and a couple of figurines that offered proof that he truly resembled a garden gnome. 

There were many in attendance, from former students and SNC colleagues to people who were touched by Kent's civic activism, including Jim Street, Tim Burgess, Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark, Al Runte, Emory Bundy, Ted Van Dyk, Anne Levinson, Jim Diers.

One eulogist put Kent in the pantheon of Victor Steinbrueck, Emmett Watson, and Ivar Haglund as representatives of Seattle's fabled small "d" democracy. Kent liked keeping a lower profile, however. He was a guy who enjoyed be at a round table of equals talking about details, and larger philosophical issues. Listening, too.

Kent, it turns out, was a fix-it man, the kind of guy who had a shop full of tools and knew how to use them, who volunteered to fix your plumbing, paint your house, or who made his own campers so he could travel like John Steinbeck. He used what was at hand: his wife Sonja's first engagement ring was a washer that he happened to have in his pocket when the moment struck. His ideas about civic life were a bit like that too: he believed in a practical, duct-tape approach to things, nothing fancy, expensive, focus on the basics, no need for high-horses.

Back when Crosscut was starting up, nearly five years ago (how many years is that in Internet time? Fifty?), Kent asked me if he might try his hand writing for us, and that worked out wonderfully. He was eager to learn to be a better writer and wanted editing, but he also taught a lot by offering his reflections and feedback on my stories or current issues being debated on Crosscut. His emails to me often had little nuggets in them that seem so very Kent: observations, questions, a knack for deflating hype and looking at things from the ground level. 

I went through my old emails and pulled out some of Kent's observations, a taste for his end of the ongoing "conversation" we were having about Seattle, which I present below with the permission of his daughters Britt Kammerer and Lile Ellefsen.

On historic preservation for blue-collar buildings, like old rooming houses:
It has always seemed to me that criteria for the historic preservation of buildings would be enhanced if what happened in a building ranked higher along with what it might have looked like. Many if not most of the buildings I can think of were architecturally unremarkable but richer because of who lived or worked there.   

On the cultural changes at Boeing:
A new young engineer.... was hired for his first job at Boeing. Sadly he told me that in his entire (team) there is no one with any experience. No leadership. He said that the best and highest paid engineers were encouraged to retire by the previous administrators. An effort to become lean and mean as they say. With their departure was the common sense and experience of what works and what doesn't and what a computer can and can't do. An old country saying was used for years.  "When in doubt, build it stout."
Contrast new administrative policies with my old mentor a supervisor at Boeing who only had an 8th grade education. His language skills were almost embarrassing, but he was one of the smartest and most valuable men I've ever met. He also knew how to lead men and get a job done. Someone in management or the old family you describe, understood what it took to build a plane.  

On fashion:
As to dress. My family has called me Pigpen for the last 40 years. No matter what I wear I look like I just crawled out from under a car. Often the case. Nordstrom would go broke with more folks like me. I haven't bought clothes anywhere but the thrift store since 1969.

On city planning:
I have believed for some time that as cities encourage growth and small towns with existing infrastructure, schools etc. are losing people because there are too few jobs that it would make sense to find a way to get more jobs in small towns. The end result how we do it now can be overcrowded cities with high cost of growth and struggling small towns. It would seem dispersal back to small towns should be a part of planning strategy.

On the demolition of the Ballard Denny's:
We lost a place that served as a social lubricant, melting pot where our differences, loneliness or hunger weren’t so different after all. Personally I have a deep and serious concern that our current crop of leaders, urban planners and developers may not fully understand how their urban redevelopment theories affect our culture.

On Obama's election:
I don’t think even Obama can do much to teach us that we can’t have it all — or to inoculate us from the greedy. If we are to learn from this recession it will be that maybe for the first time we will have to set aside money to pay for what we want rather than putting everything on plastic. I would hope this includes our cities like Seattle, which still fails to manage its budget so that we can maintain our roads, bridges and public works without asking for special levies to pay for it.

On ambition:
We live in a culture that demands ambition. To become more in order to make a mark on society. We don't honor our thinkers, and those who just take up space. The movers and shakers get the press or the credit.

The slippery slope of outdoor guides:
When I first started mt. climbing in the NW only Fred Becky's guide existed in print (his first edition now rare and collectable) described access to Washington peaks. Later an active hiker woman named Louise Marshall published a mimeographed newsletter about trails and hikes in the Cascades. When she began there were large portions of the Cascades that USGS still hadn't mapped. We could subscribe to her newsy letter size sheets and get some notion where some of the great hikes were. Louise told me later that she had deep regrets about publishing her first guide book, "100 Hikes," because she knew it would open up the wilderness to many who, in her words, were too lazy or disrespectful of the wilderness to be so easily brought to the choicest spots.

On stifling public process:
While the most creative in the private sector have developed company protocols that bring teams to the table to brainstorm and mold ideas, our politicians are prohibited from even gathering together in private where they might explore even the most unlikely ideas. Our city council for example simply can’t just sit down at the kitchen table and discuss the what ifs of pending legislation let alone the unintended consequences.

21st Century Grapes of Wrath:
Yesterday morning, I looked out the window to see a Lincoln tow truck dragging a somewhat dilapidated pickup camper down the street. There were things hanging off the camper and the image was reminiscent of photos taken by Dorthea Lang of sharecroppers escaping the dust bowl in Kansas on their way to the California’s promised land during the great depression.

The image shocked me because this particular camper had been parked adjacent to our local park. I have met and talked with the occupants and met their two much loved dogs. As neighbors they are more considerate, politer, and quieter than some of my other neighbors. They are nice folks by any standard with the one exception that the only home they have is their camper. Their big crime against the citizens of Seattle is they waited three hours too long before driving away. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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