Shelby Scates: A friend to governors, fugitives and political truth

Longtime Seattle journalist Shelby Scates was a titan of a better age of newspapers and a bygone generation of reporters that made a crucial difference in our politics.
Crosscut archive image.

The summit of Mount St. Helens. Shelby Scates is at the far right, Joan Hansen is seated in front of him, Governor Dan Evans in the center, the author as a boy at left. Photo credit: Worth Hedrick.

Longtime Seattle journalist Shelby Scates was a titan of a better age of newspapers and a bygone generation of reporters that made a crucial difference in our politics.

The Northwest lost one of the towering figures of a great era of journalists with the recent death of Shelby Scates. For decades Scates was an articulate and sophisticated voice in Olympia, Seattle and beyond. He was a newsman, an advocate, a mentor and an icon; a contradictory combination of a hard-assed yet gentlemanly, sophisticated good ol' boy — a Washingtonian son of West Tennessee.

I first spent time with Scates on a climb of Mount St. Helens led by my father, Worth Hedrick, a reporter colleague and close friend of Scates. My father respected Scates' journalistic excellence, admired his courage and loved him like a brother. In another world, he could have been: More than a decade before meeting his longtime companion Joan Hansen, Scates once dated my aunt, a fellow student at the University of Washington.

In the 1950s my dad ran the only mountain climbing guide service on the then-sleeping volcano, knew every inch of the mountain and had already dragged my little boy butt to the St. Helens summit several times, the first time at the age of six. The climb was nearly a decade before the peak’s 1980 eruption and the mountain, though surrounded by a checkerboard of clearcuts, was still a beautiful cone, oft compared to Japan’s flawless Mt. Fuji.

It was a relatively simple ascent, especially compared to some of Scates’ other climbs, but was memorable especially for another member of the party — then-Governor Dan Evans. Scates admired Evans as an archetype of strong leadership and moral rectitude. In his memoir, "War and Politics by Other Means," Scates compared Evans favorably to the southern leaders that he had covered earlier in his career, writing that Evans did not hesitate to use “the tools of his office and his power to arouse the public to its better senses,” and that he, unlike many politicians, “was incorruptible.”

Though Scates was a social progressive and an environmentalist, his personal views aligned well with Evans, who created the state Department of Ecology, pushed the Shorelines Protection Act through a recalcitrant legislature and provided key support for a state law protecting abortion rights. That type of Republican no longer exists at the national level.

For decades, Scates also reported on the career and achievements of six-term U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson. He admired Maggie and the immensity of his progressive legislative achievements, chronicling the senator's life in his biography "Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America." Scates recognized Maggie for the unassuming titan that he was, writing that those with a close view of his work knew he was "a master at work on his art." The same could be said for Scates.

Scates was a veteran of the U.S. Army, the International Press Service, United Press International, the Associated Press, the old weekly Seattle Argus and, for 27 years, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. There he was part of a reporting duo with Mike Layton that set the P-I apart in its coverage of state politics. The Layton and Scates era was a heyday of substantive, investigative political journalism. Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the P-I was the more politically sophisticated paper in town, far more aggressive in its coverage of Olympia than Fairview Fannie.

In that era, the Post-Intelligencer had the resources and the will to report on state government and politics deeply and without fear. Scates and Layton covered Olympia with an unmatched level of comprehension, rooted in their rapport with politicos of all ideological stripes. These relationships were sometimes earned in hard drinking late nights at long-gone watering holes such as the Melting Pot and the legendary jazz joint Red Kelly's Tumwater Conservatory.

Their sources, and the time they invested in developing them, helped them uncover myriad scandals. Their reporting led to the downfall of state senate Majority Leader August Mardesich, a Democrat, and to the disgrace of former Democratic House Speaker Len Sawyer. Most famously, Scates’ personal rapport with legislators and sources of all political stripes, led former state representative Bob Perry, then a fugitive from federal prosecution for corruption, to give himself up. His condition was that he be able to tell Scates his story first, and that Scates be the one to accompany him to the federal courthouse to surrender himself.

The investigative journalism of Scates, Layton and others, along with the grassroots support of activists, notably Jolene Unsoeld, led to the passage of the state’s public disclosure laws in 1972. This legislation enabled Washington to be among the first states in the nation to reveal, as Unsoeld put it in her detailed reports, Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?”

What also set Shelby Scates, and the Post-Intelligencer, apart from the local journalistic crowd, was reporting far away from the state house. The P-I sent him repeatedly to the Middle East, where he covered the Six-Day War in 1967 and many conflicts and attempts at peace to follow. He also reported for the P-I from Cambodia during Pol Pot's regime and from Pakistan as the official correspondent for the first American ascent of K-2. His reporting, like that of Layton’s from Central America during the contra wars, was insightful, controversial and brave. They both risked their lives in writing from war zones and the P-I’s readers were more informed because of their intrepid dispatches.

I like to think of Shelby as my almost uncle — a trusted mentor and a role model. If I close my eyes, I can still see his thick salt and pepper beard, smell the aroma of his ever present and intermittently lit pipe, and hear his molasses smooth Tennessee accent with the matchless cackle of his soul-lifting laugh.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors