W. Walter Williams was born in Iowa in 1894, but came to the Pacific Coast as a boy when his father, a civil engineer, became assistant chief of construction on the White Pass and Yukon railway lines in Alaska. Although the Williams family settled for a time in Skagway, they eventually relocated to Seattle.
Following graduation from Broadway High School, W. Walter Williams enrolled in the University of Washington to study chemical engineering. His father died before Williams could graduate, forcing the young man to fund much of his own education through a variety of odd jobs. One, he recalled, was to ring the campus chimes -- a duty that became hectic during football season when a ring was required for each point scored by the Husky squad. Of a particular contest in 1915, when the Huskies defeated California by a score of 72-0, Williams remarked, “‘I almost wore my arm off’” (Crowley, p. 4).
The Winds of War
W. Walter Williams was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Washington, where he also managed to pull down a varsity letter in wrestling. Shortly after graduation he married Anna Baker, another Phi Beta Kappa graduate, and briefly taught school in Kirkland before departing for California and another teaching position.
When World War I broke out, W. Walter Williams responded to the call to arms. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, but given his background in chemical engineering was instead assigned to the Chemical Corps. The assignment kept him stateside for The Great War -- his official “tour of duty” only took him as far as Cleveland, Ohio.
From Bombs to Banking
The Williams family returned to Seattle after the war, eventually settling down in the University District. Williams gave up teaching for a job in an iron foundry, but later joined the staff of the King County State Bank. Anna, in the meantime, spent time raising their son Walter B., born to the couple in 1918.
W. Walter Williams distinguished himself as an employee of the King County State Bank, so much so that when vice president Ralph Green established the tiny lending firm of Continental Mortgage and Loan Company in 1921, he put Williams in charge. Continental’s goal was to provide capital for local commercial and housing starts, and from a small one-room office on 45th Street NE, Williams set to the task of carrying out Green’s vision.
Starting with a salary of $100 per month, the operation began as a modest enterprise, and one that came under immediate scrutiny -- regulators were uncomfortable with the close ties between Continental and the King County State Bank. Nonetheless, business grew steadily as Continental sold bonds to help finance apartment properties in the University District and in the Denny Regrade area.
Despite the topsy-turvy nature of the lending business during the 1920s, Continental moved forward and so did W. Walter Williams. He quickly became known for his cautious innovation, putting a high price on investor confidence while moving the company into new lending areas. And the Trustees of Continental had high confidence in Williams, its Secretary/Treasurer since 1922, when they named him President of the company in 1927. (Williams took over for Charles May, who was elevated to the Chairmanship of the Continental Board. Founder Ralph Green left the organization in 1923.) Shortly before he became the company’s President, Williams forged an important business tie with Travelers Insurance of Hartford, Connecticut; by becoming Travelers’ regional contact, Continental opened itself up to a broad new array of business opportunities.
Things looked promising for W. Walter Williams and Continental in the late 1920s, but troubling times lay just ahead. On a sad personal note, Anna Williams passed away unexpectedly in 1928. In 1929 the stock market crash brought new challenges to Williams and to Continental. Like many Depression-era businesses, Continental was forced to cut or postpone several projects until the economy was righted.
Worse, due to the nature of its business, the company found itself stuck with several defaulted and foreclosed mortgages. The crash, a shaky banking system, and a sharp decline in building projects combined to hit Continental hard.
But, despite gloomy economic times, W. Walter Williams was a figure on the rise. In 1932 he was elected President of the Seattle Mortgage Men’s Association, and that same year he was named to the Board of Governors of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. He became President of the Mortgage Bankers Association in 1933.
Williams’ term as Association President placed him in the middle of a delicate time in the history of the lending industry. Several of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal measures had a great impact on the mortgage banking industry: The Federal Home Loan Act of 1932, for instance, brought the government into the mortgage business by enabling it to purchase failed mortgages through the Home Owners Loan Corporation. The creation of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 extended that reach.
Williams was an outspoken critic of the Home Owners Loan Association and the FHA, arguing that both programs put the government in direct competition with private lenders. Following consultations with former President Herbert Hoover, Williams even visited the White House in October 1934 for a private meeting with Roosevelt. The pair remained far apart in their views.
Changes were also afoot for Continental during the 1930s. In 1933 the Company formally changed its name to Continental, Inc. -- dropping the “mortgage and loan” portion of the name better reflected Continental’s diverse business interests. Later, in 1937, Continental won FHA certification. Despite Williams’ concerns about the program, the company became a significant FHA lender in the late 1930s, which provided a significant boost to Continental’s bottom line. (The creation of the Federal National Mortgage Association -- or “Fannie Mae” -- in 1938 was yet another government program that would benefit the company.
Ironically, several of the government programs that Williams and others in the mortgage banking industry had opposed actually provided new, and sometimes unforeseen business opportunities.) Coupled with an improving local and national economy, Continental moved ever closer to regaining its footing.
Into the Spotlight
With the fortunes of Continental on the mend, W. Walter Williams was able to devote more of his time to civic endeavors. In 1938, he served as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Later, as war loomed in Europe, Governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) tapped Williams to chair the Washington State Defense Council, which assessed available civil resources for a possible war effort. Williams accepted the post shortly before Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, and he remained in the position for the remainder of World War II.
In part due to Williams’ work on the Defense Council, plus his success as a business and community leader, in 1945 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named him First Citizen of the Year.
Williams left the Defense Council shortly after World War II, but was soon hard at work again, this time chairing the Committee for Economic Development. Like the Defense Council, this was another high-profile position, which found him trumpeting Washington’s economic potential both at home and abroad. The work Williams performed for the committee raised his profile considerably, putting him in touch with lawmakers from around the country and providing him with first-hand experience in the various economic and and trade issues facing the state of Washington.
In part due to this experience, Williams jumped into the 1950 Senate race. He bested four other Republican challengers in the primary (including Albert F. Canwell, famous for investigating un-American activities in Washington state), each battling for the opportunity to take on incumbent Warren Magnuson (1905-1989).
It was Magnuson’s first campaign since becoming Washington’s junior Senator in 1944, and Williams gave him a fight. The Korean War had just started, for one, and Williams -- campaigning as a liberal Republican -- railed against what he saw as a “socialistic” trend in Truman Administration’s policies. Yet despite being a Republican year in 1950, not to mention waging a strong campaign, Williams still lost to Maggie by 55,000 votes.
It was a temporary setback for his political ambitions. Williams became chairman of the Washington State Republican Party shortly after his election loss, and in 1952 broke with many GOP stalwarts by openly supporting the presidential nomination of General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) over Senator Robert Taft (1889-1953). Williams was instrumental in wooing Ike into the Republican fold -- he served as the national co-chair of the “draft Eisenhower” campaign, and was one of several leading Republicans who visited the General in Paris to help persuade Eisenhower to run.
The early support of Eisenhower paid off: Not only did Ike run and win in 1952, but then he tapped W. Walter Williams for Undersecretary of Commerce shortly after the election. Thus Williams took a leave of absence with Continental in January 1953 and found himself leaving one Washington behind for the other.
W. Walter Williams stayed a trusted member of the Eisenhower administration until 1958, when he resigned from the Commerce Department and returned to Seattle. In responding to Williams’ formal resignation, President Eisenhower noted “the fine contributions you have made both the administration and to the [Commerce] department.” (“Walter Williams Resigns as Undersecretary”).
A Sort of Homecoming
Williams may have had an ulterior motive for leaving the Washington, D.C. Just two months prior to his resignation, on July 7, 1958, he wed Ruth Meisnest in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was Williams’ third marriage; his second, to Ethel Tobey, whom he wed in the early 1930s, ended with her death in 1953.
After arriving back in Seattle with his bride, Williams returned to Continental and was named the company’s Chairman of the Board. (Charles May, the former Chairman, was elevated to Chairman emeritus.) He came back to a company that had vastly changed over the previous decade. Although Continental was very active in the post-war housing boom, their biggest and most daring project in late 1940s and early 1950s was in a new type of commercial development -- suburban shopping centers such as Northgate and University Village in Seattle.
Back in the Saddle
W. Walter Williams may have left Washington, D.C., in 1958, but he continued to be a major political figure at home in the other Washington. In 1960, in fact, Williams briefly considered challenging Democrat Albert Rosellini (b. 1910) in a run for the governor’s office, but opted out of the race and instead turned his efforts to supporting the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon (1913-1994).
Although Williams remained active in Republican politics, he spent much of his time and effort after Nixon’s 1960 election loss on business and civic endeavors. In the early 1960s, for instance, Williams served on the board of the Century 21 World’s Fair. Interestingly, his first job as a boy had been selling postcards at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, Seattle’s previous major fair. Williams had gone from hawking merchandise 50 years previous to helping organize the city’s latest international attraction.
A Lifetime of Service
Williams also continued to distinguish himself with his ongoing community service. By the end of his life, Williams had served at least one term as president in a mind-boggling number of Seattle organizations: the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Real Estate Board, YMCA, Mortgage Banker’s Association, and chair of the annual Community Chest (later known as the United Way) fundraising campaign. This is not to mention the numerous boards and organizations to which he belonged.
The YMCA, in particular, was a long-time Williams interest; Williams maintained that when he arrived in Seattle as a young boy, he made his first local friend at the YMCA on Capitol Hill. Not only did he serve as president of the National Council of the YMCA, but sat on the Board of Trustees of the International YMCA.
Williams also served terms on the boards of the USO, the Near East Foundation, and Radio Free Europe. In addition to being honored in 1945 as Seattle’s “First Citizen” by the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors, in 1966 he received the Brotherhood Citation of the Washington Region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Although the details Continental’s day-to-day work had long been handed off to his son, Walter B. Williams, the elder Williams continued to serve as Continental’s Chairman of the Board until his retirement in 1972.
W. Walter Williams died at age 88 on December 19, 1983, following a period of ill health. He was survived by his third wife Ruth, son Walter B. Williams, two daughters, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Remembrances at the funeral were directed to the Seattle YMCA Fund and University Congregational Church.