This is a reminiscence of Walt Crowley (1947-2007), founding president and executive director of HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Walt also worked as a journalist, a social services director, a policy planner for the City of Seattle and the Municipal League of King County, a television news commentator, and a freelance writer and communications consultant. Patrick McRoberts (1952-2010) was a Seattle-based writer, founding associate editor and writer for HistoryLink.org, and a public relations consultant.
I have to write down my memories of Walt Crowley so I don’t forget them. And Walt would definitely not approve of that. He didn’t like forgetting one bit. Cities try to forget their past so it won’t embarrass them. Americans, as a whole, are a forgetting people. They like their future freshly served with French fries or bean sprouts or whatever is the newest craze and not to be bothered with yesterday’s news. Walt tried to get people to look at the past and see its inroads into the future.
As far as I can remember, I met Walt and Marie at the Virginia Inn sometime in the mid-1980s. He was already a Seattle legend, having written and illustrated for the leftwing Helix, worked for the City of Seattle as a mediator and community organizer, and written for the Weekly. In the next few years, he would go on to parry blows with John Carlson on KIRO-TVs Point-Counterpoint.
As a newcomer to Seattle, I was to learn this gradually. But for me, then as always, it was all about the conversation. Walt and Marie were and are terrific conversationalists. We talked in the Two Bells and the Blue Moon, La Boheme and Reading Gaol, the Comet and the VI. Their house was also terrific spot for talking and debating.
I recall scenes from our long dialogue. In 1987, for the Spoken Words program directed by Mark McDonald at the Two Bells, we cooked up a play based on Archie and Mehitabel, the early 1900s column by Don Marquis. I played Archie, the cockroach who was a reincarnated vers libre poet. Ann Nofsinger played Mehitabel, the cat who claimed to be Cleopatra in a past life. And my future wife, Kim, played a role in the insect chorus.
Walt sloughed off all dignity to play multiple roles: the columnist, Don Marquis, behind his manual typewriter; a moth drawn to a flame; and an elderly mother spider “grown gaunt and fierce and gray.” The house came down.
Later, Walt, Marie, and a multinational cast, including our East Indian friend Shiva, mounted a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses at Kells in the Pike Place Market. In the great Irish tradition, the conversation went on. As we were setting off with stately plump Buck Mulligan, we learned the first invasion of the Persian Gulf had begun, that the bombs were once again falling on the world. It was also, though we did not plan it, the 50th anniversary of Joyce’s death. We read every week, with the help of the Bloomsday Book as our guide, until we had made our way through all the pages and understood almost half of them. It took us half a year.
Then, in 1992, we were sitting with Walt and Marie and several others in the Virginia Inn after the Democrats had won a tremendous victory, taking the White House, the Governor’s Mansion, and keeping the Congress, and we knew better times were around the corner. I can’t speak for Walt and Marie but, speaking only for myself: how naïve could we be? In 1994, disaster struck with the Gingrich revolution and I think we learned a lesson about hubris based on one measly election.
I remember Walt’s various efforts to save the Blue Moon Tavern, under threat -- variously -- from developers, the City of Seattle, and its own joyous anachronism. In 1990, Walt and owner Gus Hellthaler led the effort to obtain historical status for the time-worn institution. Formal historic status remained elusive but the public outcry forced the developers to reconsider plans and preserve the Blue Moon with a 40-year lease. Then, in 1994, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Moon with a colossal reading and performance party. Tom Robbins was there, as were Jonathan Raban and other assorted personalities. Walt also wrote a book called Forever Blue Moon to cement the memory.
To make the anniversary last even further, we instituted a series of readings and, in response to a dream of mine, a free magazine called Point No Point: A Blue Moon Reader. Bill Heintzleman, the beloved manager of the Moon who died of a brain tumor shortly after, took a role as publisher. Kim sold paid advertising for a free magazine to pay the printing bills. But the real force behind the magazine was Marie, whose design was the driver of the whole affair. Walt decided he would take on a new role, writing a serial murder mystery, “The Ungrateful Dead.”
Point No Point gave us all a chance to do things we wanted -- at no pay of course. We did pay the writers a token because that was how we thought it should work.
Walt was always one to take action and make things happen -- often when you didn’t expect it. One time I jokingly threw out the idea that we should rename the alley next to the Blue Moon after poet Theodore Roethke. Kim and I had just been to San Francisco and toured Jack Kerouac Alley and William Saroyan Street, home of Spec’s, a famous bar. Roethke, my favorite poet, drank at the Blue Moon, so I boozily thought it would be appropriate for the alley to be so renamed.
Walt didn’t settle for it being a joke. He took it and ran. Before long, he had the City Council lined up, and Councilmember Martha Choe was teetering on a ladder to fix the Roethke Mews sign to the brick wall of the Blue Moon. The “Mews” part was Walt’s touch. I thought it was sort of cutesy but you can’t fault his initiative. It got done.
The same tenacity applied to HistoryLink.org. In the late 1990s, I remember sitting around with a group of diverse people that Walt had convened to help him and Marie and Paul Dorpat figure out how the website should work and what it should contain. There were “technologists” like Steve Leith and representatives of the black, Jewish, women’s, Asian, Hispanic, and other communities. Walt didn’t want to start out with only the Denny Party and elite content. He wanted HistoryLink.org to start out deep and continue to run deep.
It did. Over the years, it has been my privilege to continue contributing essays to Historylink.org, and Walt has always been a helpful guide in making these essays work.
But above and below everything else, there was the current of conversation. The annual Christmas Eve parties at the Crowleys became such an institution that many of us couldn’t even think about missing one.
During the ongoing conversation, Walt was notable for his explosive laugh. It was a percussive “Hah!” that could be heard across any living room or bar in Seattle. In the end, when his voice failed, Walt’s sense of humor seemed only to rally. He could use his electronic voice device as Harpo Marx used his horn. He could draw laughs from a scrawl on his Etch-a-Sketch board.
But before he lost his voice, Walt, Marie, and I were having beers at Prost, a new German beer hall near their house on Phinney Ridge, when we learned that the Persian Gulf had once again been invaded. We all had shocked but unsurprised looks on our faces as President Bush intoned serious words onscreen, while the small inset showed fire arcing over Baghdad. Again the world was at war. It was a war that Walt would not outlive, and indeed it goes on even now.
Despite the war, and because of it, the conversation continued. But all conversations are fleeting. We forget what we said and what we were thinking. Walt didn't want us to forget. He thought remembering was important, ergo Historylink. Right now, I'm hoping we won't forget him or what he did -- and that Historylink will continue as his living memorial so that we can all look back at what was said and what was done and maybe learn a little about the future.