Munro, Donald Frederick (1940-2012)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 6/17/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10406

Don Munro was born in Vermont and grew up in Yakima, but it was in Seattle that he would make a lasting mark as a public servant, business entrepreneur, and supporter of the arts. Munro graduated from the University of Washington in 1967 with a degree in civil engineering and worked for a few years in that profession. In 1972 he was hired as a policy planner in the administration of Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) and was widely credited with the creation of Seattle's downtown "ride-free" transit program, which would endure for nearly 40 years. From the mayor's office, Munro would move on to become Metro Transit's planning manager in 1973, where he would serve for the next seven years. After leaving public service in 1980, Munro founded Munro Associates and won the contract to design and implement the Benjamin Franklin Transit System in Benton and Franklin counties. In 1981 he cofounded Coast Climate Company (later called Coastal Environmental Systems Inc.), which designs and manufactures high-tech weather-monitoring systems for civilian, scientific, and military use. Munro also was active in the local arts scene, serving on the board of Seattle's Skid Road Theatre and collecting works by a number of contemporary Northwest artists. He died at his home at Quartermaster Harbor on Vashon Island on his 72nd birthday, April 27, 2012, after living with prostate cancer for more than seven years. 

Born in the East, Raised in the West

Donald Frederick Munro was born in Newport, Vermont, on April 27, 1940. The family soon moved west to settle in Yakima, where Munro attended grade school and high school before entering the University of Washington in 1964. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1967, he went to work for Lewis Redford Engineers, where he stayed until 1972. Among his projects for the firm was engineering an Interstate 5 overpass, one he always enjoyed driving over in later years.

While a student at UW, Munro became friends with Bob Gogerty, who would go on to become a prominent political consultant. Gogerty served in the administration of Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman, who was elected to his first of two terms in 1969. At Gogerty's urging, Uhlman hired Munro to work on his staff, and in 1972 Munro became deputy director of the new Office of Executive Policy. The OEP was Uhlman's attempt to create a group within the mayor's office to handle long-range policy planning and enhance coordination among City departments. The  proposal was unpopular with some members of the Seattle City Council, who saw it as an attempted power-grab by the executive branch. Nonetheless, the council finally approved creation of the office in August 1972.

A Focus on Public Transit 

Munro's first interaction with the city council, in January 1973, did not go particularly well. The council had asked the Office of Executive Policy to study and propose a system for the acquisition and management of City property. When Munro presented the OEP findings, several members of the council were unimpressed, with Councilmember Phyllis Lamphere (b. 1922) stating publicly, "I cannot express my disappointment adequately" ("City Policy Office Fails First Test ...").

By summer of 1973 relations with the council had improved considerably. Munro, who was by then director of the policy office, is widely credited for developing a plan under which the City of Seattle would pay Metro Transit to provide free bus service through the city's commercial core. In August 1973 the council unanimously approved the allocation of $64,000 from the City's emergency fund to compensate Metro for income it would lose by terminating the existing downtown "dime shuttle." The new "ride free" zone was  bounded on the north and south by Stewart and S Jackson streets and on the east and west by 6th Avenue and Alaskan Way. Passengers who entered and exited Metro buses within this zone would pay no fares. Originally called the "Magic Carpet" service, it stayed in place with only minor modifications for nearly 40 years. By the time it was ended on September 29, 2012, the City of Seattle was paying Metro more than $400,000 a year to subsidize the popular program.

Munro continued to be the point-man on transit issues while working for Mayor Uhlman. In November 1973, the Puget Sound Governmental Conference released a regional transportation plan that proposed heavy investment in new highway projects. Munro, objecting to the plan's concentration on private automobiles, told a local newspaper, "Overdesigned freeways sometimes can be an asset people can do without ... .  I'm skeptical of the need for a plan that puts two-thirds of our eggs in the freeway basket" ("Plan Hit for Shortchanging Transit").

On to Metro

Having gained expertise in transit issues, Munro in 1974 was hired by Metro as its transit-planning manager. It was a time of ferment and experimentation in public transportation, and one of the first programs that Munro dealt with in his new post was a rather far-fetched proposal for a "personal rapid-transit" system that would use small, computer-operated vehicles to give riders a semblance of the privacy they enjoyed in their own automobiles. A $50,000 allocation of federal money had already been spent on a preliminary study, and $100,000 more had been allocated for a second phase. Mayor Uhlman, supported by Munro, argued that these funds should instead be used for an area-wide transportation survey being conducted by Metro. After hearing testimony from Munro, the county council's transportation committee agreed.

In 1972, Metro Transit had extended its service to reach Seattle's suburbs, primarily to serve commuters, and when Munro came onboard, he worked hard to enhance the system. By 1975, annual ridership had almost tripled, increasing from 1.8 million in 1972 to more than 5 million, and he was justly proud of the progress:

"My favorite statistic is that of all the people on the Eastside who cross Lake Washington going to the central business district in Seattle (in the morning rush hours), 43 percent are on buses. It was 13 percent when we took over ... we've added a hell of a lot of cross-lake routes" ("Business Is Good But ...").

Munro continued to push innovation at Metro. On July 11, 1977, a van service was inaugurated to carry passengers to and from Woodridge, a suburban residential area in South Bellevue. Called "paratransit,"  it used small vans that could deviate from set routes to provide nearly door-to-door transportation in areas that were inconvenient for full-size buses. Vans capable of carrying 14 passengers circled through the neighborhood every 30 minutes during morning and evening rush hours, carrying passengers to and from transfer points where they were picked up or dropped off by full-size buses. During the rest of the day, the vans would serve Woodridge on an hourly basis.

During Munro's time as director of transit planning at Metro, the needs of the elderly and the disabled finally got the attention they deserved. New guidelines issued in April 1978 mandated that all new buses and trolleys be fully accessible for the handicapped and include power-lifts or ramps and dedicated interior tie-down areas for wheelchairs. Older buses would be retrofitted at a cost of nearly $10,000 per vehicle. Metro also pledged to continue reduced fares for the elderly and disabled and to use $300,000 in federal transportation grants to further subsidize services for those with special needs. Another innovation, introduced later that year, was to open Metro's "park-and-ride" lots to car-pooling commuters.

Supporting the Arts

Although running Metro's transit-planning divisions was more than a full-time job, Munro also kept his hand in the local arts scene. He served as board chairman of the non-profit Skid Road Theatre, which brought quality productions to Seattle audiences for several years before joining the list of small theaters that succumbed to financial troubles. In 1979, Munro and artistic director Roberta Levitow spearheaded an effort to move the company from its long-time home at 102 Cherry Street in Seattle  to a recently rediscovered theater space above the Seattle Fire Department's oldest-surviving station, No. 2, at 4th Avenue and Battery Street. The theater had been built in 1923 by the Firemen's Relief Fund and was used for Firemen's Balls, theater productions, and union meetings before being shut up and forgotten for decades.

Although the Skid Road Theatre, like many small professional theater groups, was almost constantly in financial difficulty, Munro hoped to tap into a $15-million federal block grant to obtain $100,000 to refurbish the space. But his were not the only hands grasping for funding from that source, as he explained.

"The problem is that there are at least $30 million worth of demands for that $15 million in block-grant funds. But the concept of having private enterprise support the arts may swing the City Council behind the project" ("Stage Group Is Fired Up... ").

That money did not come through, and for the next two years Munro and other theater supporters worked to obtain other funding to lease and renovate the space. But the group's financial condition continued to deteriorate, and in June 1981 it was forced to lay off its professional staff and halt rehearsals for a production of "Carnival," scheduled to open the following month. Said Munro:

"We ran into several financial whammies almost all at once ... . Because we had no money to pay them, we had to lay off our professional staff this week. We're keeping Roberta [Levitow, the theater's artistic director] on a retainer. We've kept a bookkeeper on salary, and we have two people part-time running the box office" ("Skid Road Scenario ... ").

There was hopeful news too. Munro was optimistic that the City would agree to lease portions of the old fire station to the theater and that it could be made into a self-sustaining operation. He told the press of plans being laid:

"We would sublease the first floor to a compatible, market-rate tenant ... . We expect that the theater would net between $50,000 and $80,000 a year in rent. If we have to get bank loans to do the renovation, then that rent would go to paying off the loans. But if we can raise the remodeling costs in donations -- and we think we can -- then that $50,000 to $80,000 a year would become the operating fund for the theater" ("Skid Road Scenario ... ").

But it was not to be. Skid Road Theatre's financial condition worsened, and in 1982 it was forced to close its doors for good. Another Seattle theatrical institution, the Cirque Playhouse, had failed just months earlier.

From Public Service to Private Enterprise

Munro left public service in 1980 to establish a business called Munro Associates, but he would continue to serve as a "consultant for special assignments" with Metro ("Officials Hope Changes Will Lure Riders to Bel-Hop"). By almost any measure, his tenure as planning manager had been a successful one. As reported in The Seattle Times shortly after Munro had left:

"Here in Seattle our own Metro Transit looks hale and hearty today. Featured in a U.S. News report on cities that are 'coaxing people out of cars,' Metro is usually the leader in monthly statistics that show ridership growth in the nation's all-bus transit systems. 'We're on top of the heap,' said Don Munro in his last week of work before stepping down voluntarily as Metro's transit-development director earlier this year" ("Metro Transit's Negative Attitude ... ").

Munro had become a transit visionary, often working  to implement innovations that few others took seriously at the time. According to Munro's longtime friend and public affairs colleague Bob Royer:

"Don ... was in charge of the planning for the bus tunnel in downtown Seattle. Later he handled the acquisition of the hybrid electric buses that would run in the tunnel, the first diesel/hybrid electrics to be deployed in scale anywhere. Think about it -- a fleet of hybrid electric buses in the late eighties when we are struggling to bring on a few thousand cars with the same technology today" (Royer)

If there is a valid criticism to be made of Munro's time at Metro, it is that his success in spearheading the expansion and improvement of bus service in King County robbed advocates of rail-borne mass transit of their argument of critical necessity. Munro was not opposed to light rail, but it had been rejected by the voters, and he put his considerable talents to work on transit innovations in the realm of the possible. In fact, it would be nearly two decades before rail commuting came to the Puget Sound area with the inauguration of the "Sounder" service between Seattle and Tacoma in December 1999. And it would be another 10 years before Sound Transit, which serves King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, started its light-rail service between downtown Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  

Munro Associate's client list was not limited to Metro. In May 1981, Ben Franklin Transit was established as a municipal corporation to provide transit services in Benton and Franklin counties in South Central Washington. The cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, West Richland, Benton City, Prosser, and several unincorporated areas were all included in the plan. The system would serve more than 200,000 residents in a geographical area that totaled 818 square miles. Munro Associates was retained to head the project, and Don Munro did it all -- organizing the election campaign that approved the system, assisting in all aspects of planning, even selecting and purchasing the buses to be used and hiring the first drivers.

And Metro was not through calling on Don Munro's expertise. In 1985 he was brought back as a consultant to direct a study intended "to help shape policy decisions regarding new bus service, fares, park-and-ride lots, the integration of service with Metro Transit and Everett Transit, the DART service for the elderly and handicapped, and consideration of a future light-rail system between Seattle and Everett" ("Meetings To Consider Future Of Transit ...").

Weather and Water

Munro probably could have continued to make a comfortable living as a transit consultant, but he had an entrepreneurial impulse that needed fulfillment. On December 16, 1981, he filed with the Secretary of State's office Articles of Incorporation for a business called Coastal Climate Company Ltd. The cofounder of the venture was Dr. Michael Reynolds, a former researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a specialist in scientific instrumentation, with degrees in electrical engineering and oceanography and a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences.

As described in the articles, the company would "develop, manufacture and market instruments for the practical and scientific purposes of measuring meteorological and oceanographic data ... " (Articles of Incorporation). It would also offer consultation in data collection and analysis and perform research in meteorology and oceanography. For some period of time Munro split his efforts between building his new business and continuing his transit-consultation work, but it was to be to Coastal Climate that his total attention soon turned.

Over the ensuing years, Coastal Climate would grow and prosper. As described by Bob Royer:

"Originally selling weather buoys for ocean use, then weather stations in the arctic for scientific purposes, Munro found those markets too limiting and began experimenting with other uses for scientific caliber weather systems. Over the years, fire departments began using Don’s weather sensors to make hazardous materials response safer and more effective and, as the software development at Coastal improved and then became the very best, his products found their way to airports to feed excellent weather information to pilots and air traffic controllers. First with the military and then for hundreds of civilian airports across the world, Don’s remote air traffic control weather systems became a standard" (Royer).

In 2001, the name of Coastal Climate was changed to Coastal Environmental Systems Incorporated. By then, the company was supplying a wide range of weather-monitoring equipment for governments, commercial aviation, and the military. Its highly reliable equipment was used in every environment, from the Bering Sea to the South Pole to the desert kingdom of Qatar, and at many leading civilian and military airports around the world.  

In 2004, Don Munro was named "Entrepreneur of the Year" by the international accounting firm Ernst & Young. He won in the Microsoft-sponsored "Realizing Business Potential" category, which recognizes "smaller companies (fewer than 100 employees) that have demonstrated success and growth by leveraging computer related technology in their business" ("Awards Received By Coastal Environmental Systems, Inc."). For seven years in a row, Munro's company also was on the Deloitte "Technology Fast 50" list, which tallied the 50 fastest-growing technology companies in a given geographic area.

Awards are nice, but what probably gave Munro the most professional satisfaction was the fact that during the unprecedented chaos of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and the botched government response, the four Coastal Environmental automated weather stations at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, were the only ones in the area to survive the maelstrom, and they continued to function without a hitch. They proved critical to the safety of military flights landing at the base with relief supplies for the more than 10,000 men, women, and children left homeless in the hurricane's wake.

The Most Important Things

During his life Munro received many accolades for his work in both the public and private sectors, but after his death in 2012 the memories of his many friends that provided a more personal view of the man. His obituary began:

"The thing about Don Munro was that he always made everybody around him feel better. At work, he knew his employees by their first names and treated them like family. At dinner parties he would often take his guests aside to assure them privately that they were his favorite at table that evening. Nobody minded when they discovered that every guest had been Don’s favorite that night"  (Obituary).

Munro described his philosophy of life as "to constantly strive to be at the nexus of beauty and absurdity" (Obituary). He would cite the toucan, with its bizarre but beautiful beak, as occupying that nexus. He admired the acerbic wit of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967), Robert Benchley (1889–1945), Alexander Woolcott (1887–1943), and other members of the famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where writers and critics, many from The New Yorker magazine, congregated and amused one another in well-lubricated bouts of humorous one-upsmanship.

Munro's own sense of humor could run unbridled at times and needed alter egos to accommodate it. These included "the annoyingly pompous Charles T. (Cheeks) Firbolg Esq. and the notorious cross-dressing Dawnie" (Obituary). The Firbolg persona, among other feats, tried to strike up a correspondence with North Korean "supreme leader" Kim Jong-Il (1941-2011). Dawnie was purpose-built and used only once by Munro  -- to crash his wife's "women only" breakfast-club meeting, in full makeup and clad in feminine garb that included appropriate undergarments and custom-made, size-12 heels.

Even after years in the private sector, Munro stayed engaged in matters of public policy. In a 1997 letter to columnist Eric Lacitis of The Seattle Times, he mused on how the benefits reaped by Seattle through the political influence of longtime U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) had largely been replaced by the generosity of Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates (b. 1955) and Paul Allen (b. 1953). Munro was concerned about how this dependence on individual generosity affected the quality of government:

"In the '70s, the word was always when we wanted something to ask Maggie or Scoop. The only debate was which one to ask ... . Now we have Gates and Allen, the country's No. 1 and No. 3 financially most powerful men, whom we ask for whatever we want, and for the most part get it ... .

"The awful part is that now we have our two champions untied to the voters. And the people -- you, me and others, like any spoiled child without deep-set value structures -- scream when we don't get enough.

"Let's ask ourselves what we are going to do when one or both of these guys decides that they want to do something that is really bad ... . Let's figure out a path to the promised land of solid, multi-faceted leadership. I and others will help, if we can" ("Gates and Allen: We Bellyache, But It Could Be Worse").

 A Final Tribute

When Munro retired from Coastal Environmental in 2011, the staff presented him with a plaque, and although it came from the business side of his life, its words capture the qualities that had won him the friendship and admiration of so many:

"Coastal has brought us together from all over the world with various aspirations and hopes of fulfilling the 'American Dream.'

"Your fairness and generosity regardless of faith, color or nationality, were invaluable tools in our quest for meeting personal goals and also becoming a professional team.

"In a final tribute and expression of gratitude you shall be remembered as the guy who meant a lot to us and give practical meaning to the words:

'He's not heavy, he's my brother'" (Royer).

Don Munro died at his home on Vashon Island on his 72nd birthday, April 27, 2012. An experimental drug had kept an aggressive form of prostate cancer at bay for more than seven years, but the disease finally proved stronger. He was survived by Carolyn, his wife of nearly 50 years, and by daughter Kelley, son Ted, and three grandchildren.


Sources: "Donald Frederick Munro (April 27, 1940-April 27, 2012)," Island Funeral Service website accessed May 11, 2013 (http://www.islandfuneral.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=1476434&fh_id=10534); Scott Gutierrez, "No More Ride Free Zone In Downtown Seattle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 12, 2011 (http://www.seattlepi.com/); "Articles of Incorporation for Coastal Climate Company, Ltd.," Washington State Digital Archives accessed May 12, 2013 (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/View/ 8FBA011945F700219762135EE387699B); "Awards Received By Coastal Environmental Systems, Inc.," Coastal Environmental Systems website accessed May 12, 2013 (http://www.coastalenvironmental.com/coastal-awards.shtml); "Who Depends on Coastal? Hurricane Katrina Responders ... ," Coastal Environmental Systems website accessed May 12, 2013 (http://www.coastalenvironmental.com/whodepends.shtml); Sam R. Sperry, "Fare-free Transit Is Voted Unanimously," The Seattle Times, August 7, 1973, p. D-13; Bob Lane, "Dime Shuttles Rattle Into History," Ibid., September 7, 1973, p. A-4; Bob Lane, "Big Changes Coming for Riders, Ibid., August 30, 1973, p. F-5; Bob Lane, "Plan Hit for Shortchanging Transit," Ibid., November 27, 1973, p. A-16; "Personal-Transit Study May End," Ibid., August 4, 1976, p. G-10; Bob Lane, "Business Is Good But ... ," Ibid.,  August 4, 1976, p. G-10; Bob Lane, "Metro Taking a New Route," Ibid., July 10, 1977, p. C-10; Bob Lane, "Metro: A Policy to Fit Special Needs," Ibid., April 23, 1978, p. C-7; "Metro Park-and-Ride Lots To Open To Car Poolers," Ibid., July 26, 1978, p. H-4; Don Duncan, "Stage Group Is Fired Up to Restore 56-year-old Theater," Ibid., August 9, 1979, p. A-14; Wayne Johnson, "Skid Road Scenario: Layoffs and Some Hope," Ibid., June 27, 1981, p. B-5; Ed Newbold (letter), "Metro Transit's Negative Attitude on Rail Alternatives," August 28, 1980, p. A-15; "Actors Want To Use Fire Station," Ibid., September 20, 1981, p. F-10; "Meetings To Consider Future Of Transit -- 1990 Plan Will Study Suburb Service, Light-Rail System," Ibid., February 6, 1985, p. H-2; Eric Lacitis, "Gates and Allen: We Bellyache, But It Could Be Worse," Ibid., August 3, 1997, p. L-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Cirque Playhouse (Seattle, 1950-1981)" by Peter Blecha, and "Don Munro: A Remembrance by Bob Royer," http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 10. 2013); "SeaTac/Airport Station," Sound Transit website accessed May 11, 2013 (http://www.soundtransit.org/Projects-and-Plans/Archived-projects); "BFT History," Ben Franklin Transit website accessed May 12, 2013 (http://www.bft.org/about/bft-history.html).

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