Seattle loses Dr. William Gerberding, a great civic leader

Remembering the former UW president and constant civic champion.
Crosscut archive image.

Dr. William Gerberding, then-UW president, speaks at a YMCA Spring Friday Forum in 1978.

Remembering the former UW president and constant civic champion.

Dr. William Gerberding, 85, died last weekend in Seattle after suffering a stroke in Los Angeles earlier in December. He lived a full life, until a ripe age, but somehow his departure was a surprise.
Formal obituaries in local media will relate his achievements as longtime president of the University of Washington, executive vice-chancellor at UCLA and in other parts of his life. But they are less likely to relate his devotion to his wife Ruth and children and his longtime commitment to values in our larger society.
This constitutes an informal personal recollection.
Bill often spoke of his family and included Ruth on his many e-mails to friends concerning public issues, including her always in the dialogue.

He; University of Washington professor Don Hellmann; author Peter Jackson, son of Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, and I were scheduled to discuss the 1960s after the Seattle Repertory Theater's matinee performance of Robert Schenkkan's The Great Society this coming Saturday. The play follows LBJ's second term as he struggles to advance civil rights, education and relieve poverty.
Bill, Don and I all worked in policy and politics during that era. He was a staff member for Rep. Frank Thompson of New Jersey, who was an important force for civil rights and other liberal legislation, and also for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Midwest iconoclast who had great affection for Bill. It was an exciting time of rapid change. (Don Hellmann, for his part, worked for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, another major political force, and I for Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey). The period was never far from the surface of any conversation among us — usually treated with good humor and irreverence.

On Saturday, we will proceed without Bill, but his absence will be painful.
Bill Gerberding's favorite luncheon venues were marginal places along First Avenue near his and Ruth's home. One, the Frontier Room, closed recently. He also was prepared to engage at any other venue — a bus stop, on an Alaskan Way sidewalk, or while shopping at the Seattle Public Market — on any current foreign or domestic issue. Unlike many of his age, he kept himself well informed via publications and the Internet.

He always had the most recent information and gossip from the University of Washington campus. His opinions were blunt and seldom tempered.
I last spoke with Bill early in December. I was traveling at the time and we agreed to meet, on my return, at one of his First Avenue lunch spots to discuss Saturday's gig at the Seattle Rep. When I returned, Ruth Gerberding informed me that Bill had been felled by a stroke in Los Angeles and was at Harborview for recovery and therapy. He might be ready for visitors, she said, sometime the following week.

When you reach octogenarian status, news of loss comes regularly. But Bill Gerberding's death nonetheless came as a shock. It is difficult to imagine this community without his intelligent, engaged and good hearted presence. Just a few days ago he was vital and joking.

Stimson Bullitt, Ancil Payne, Brewster Denny, Paul Schell, Booth Gardner, Ken Bunting, Meade Emory, Dick Larsen, Shelby Scates, Herb Robinson, Herb Ellison, Tom Owens, Don James and many others important to our community have left us in recent years. All, as Bill Gerberding, shared a common quality. They were devoted to something beyond themselves and took their work more seriously than themselves. And they all loved Seattle. Hail and farewell.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of