Saturday, September 22, 2007

“A Populist in Ways Deeper Than Politics”

I may not be the most appropriate person to bear this news, because I could not have been considered a close friend of his; yet I feel compelled to say something, at least, about the untimely, if not wholly unexpected demise of Seattle writer, historian, and political commentator Walt Crowley.

Crowley was 60 years old and had been undergoing treatment for cancer of the larynx for the past 18 months. He’d reportedly been in good spirits, despite having already lost his ability to speak naturally. In fact, the latest e-mail newsletter from HistoryLink, the successful Washington/Seattle historical database he’d helped birth on the Web in 1998, reported: “Good news regarding Walt. His throat surgery yesterday [September 19] went just fine, with no surprises. Everything went according to plan, and his surgeon is pleased at how it all turned out.” Crowley himself, on a blog he and his wife, Marie McCaffrey, had set up to keep their friends apprised of his condition, enthused that not long ago that “Mel Brooks has already optioned the musical of all my operations; it will be called ‘Old Frankenstein.’ I should be dancing (if not singing) again by the end of September.” Unfortunately, he died on Friday “after complications following a stroke.”

Already, some excellent tributes to Walt Crowley have been popping up around the Web. They give a bit about his background (born in the Detroit area, the son of a Boeing worker, former university rabble-rouser hired by Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman as a liaison with students, speech writer for former Governor Mike Lowry, etc.). But few so far rival one by Michael Hood, a longtime Seattle journalist who, among other things, covers the Seattle talk-radio scene. In his blog, BlatherWatch, Hood recalls that
Walt was a liberal, a democrat, and a populist in ways deeper than politics. Blessed with a sense of humor, and a wide-ranging curiosity; he had sense of the absurd, and a penchant for B-grade science fiction, robots, and rocket ships. ...

He couldn’t be facile or suffer fools or bores; but he loved people. If it was you he liked--he was loyal, and generous to a fault, and that was that. Walt cut his commentarian teeth as a political cartoonist; and took great joy in sometimes being an overlarge garlic fragment in baba ganoush of Seattle nice. ...

Civically, he was tireless.

Crowley led the successful public campaign to save Seattle’s historic Blue Moon Tavern from demolition in 1990, and chaired Mayor Norm Rice’s task force on historic downtown theaters, which drafted new laws and tax incentives for preservation and restoration of the Paramount, Moore, and Eagles theaters.
Hood knew his subject better than I did. I first met Crowley when, in the mid-1980s, he signed on with the staff of what was then The Weekly (now the Seattle Weekly), an “alternative newspaper” with a bent toward investigative stories, political coverage, arts reporting, and any other subject that could give it a from-the-sidelines voice in the operations of Washington’s largest city. I was pretty green at the time, though I’d been a reporter with a similar alternative rag in Portland, Oregon, Willamette Week. Crowley struck me back then as being a bit of an “in-crowder,” the sort who restricts his associations to movers and shakers who will steady the ladder of success while he climbs up it. He wasn’t an offensive name-dropper, but he did often pepper his remarks in editorial meetings with mentions of what So-and-So (insert name of prominent Seattleite) had to say regarding the topic of discussion. And in those days, he had the unexpected advantage of being a smoker, and therefore hung out for intimate chats not only with cigarette-accessorized celebs (or what pass for celebs in the Emerald City), but also other nicotine-addicted writers. There was undoubtedly a part of me that was jealous of Crowley, for the easy access he had to prominent and literary folk. I was certainly envious of the fact that he had been given the media business beat, which I wanted to cover myself (and would a few years later, after Crowley moved on from The Weekly).

It wasn’t until earlier in this decade that I came to see Walt Crowley as a valuable colleague. By then, he’d written a very useful guide to Seattle’s history and had founded (along with his wife and a local history writer, Paul Dorpat) the HistoryLink site. He was directing more and more of his attentions to the subject of Seattle’s unexpectedly intriguing heritage, about which I was also writing much. Since I had recently vacated a magazine-editing job, and Crowley was looking for copy to fill his Web site, he started to throw some assignments my way. It was a great opportunity for me to recycle my research, whether I was writing about the Panic of 1893, the so-called Wild Man of the Wynoochee, Washington’s Capitol Building, or one of my favorite subjects, Tusko, the “great unwanted” Thai elephant that had brought havoc to a small town, but joy later on to the children at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.

Crowley, though, always seemed to have a great deal more ambition for HistoryLink than he did money, so our association in that area was inconstant. I would still see him occasionally on downtown Seattle streets, and we lived close enough to each other in the city’s Greenwood-Phinney Ridge area that I bumped into him while grocery shopping or book buying. However, I couldn’t make the single Christmas party he invited me to attend (legend has it that those occasions were delightful), and our social circles didn’t intersect enough for us to stay in close contact. Any jealousy I felt toward Crowley dissipated as I saw that he really was a genuinely warm man, and he never failed to stop and talk, when he did see me. There was always something in the works that he thought might interest me (most prominently, a franchising of the HistoryLink site to San Francisco, California--one of the cities I most adore in this world).

It was several weeks ago that I heard his time on this earth might be short. That he wasn’t doing so well with his cancer treatments. I wasn’t sure at first whether I should be acknowledging his health problems by dropping him an e-mail note, so I hesitated. And now my chance to do so, to wish him the best in his last days, is gone. I feel no guilt, for I am confident he would not want me to; but I do feel sadness at having lost somebody with such energy, curiosity, and intelligence. Certainly, Walt Crowley was a lucky man to now be missed by so many.

READ MORE:Walt Crowley, 1947-2007,” by Knute Berger (Crosscut); “Walt Crowley, Historian, Part of City History, Dies at 60,” by Sharon Pian Chan (The Seattle Times); “Degrees of Separation,” by Marlow Harris (360Digest); “Say Goodbye to Our Friend, Walt Crowley,” by Jean Godden (Crosscut); “Goodbye, Old Friend,” by Charles Smyth (Spiraglio); “Walt Crowley, 60,” by Rick Anderson (Seattle Weekly); “Walt Crowley Remembered,” by Joel Connelly (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

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