Lynn Huff is a longtime resident of Seattle's University District who worked for Safeco for 36 years. In this oral history transcript he describes growing up in the University District and his career as a first-generation computer programmer for the insurance giant. Huff was interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009. The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.
I'm a Depression-era kid, so the Ave was the focus of anything you really wanted to do. And you had the likes of the early Nordstrom's, which was just a very small shoe store on the Ave. There was Dolly McCassey, a very elegant women's store. There was Martin & Eckman, for men's clothing. My parents, on the rare occasions when they went out with neighbors to celebrate some grand occasion, always did it at the Wilsonian. That was the elegant place to eat. Then along came, I dunno what they call it now but, the Meany Hotel. It's always Meany Hotel to us old-timers. And that was the hub of activity.
For me, on Saturdays when I was growing up, we all went to -- "we all," my friends and I -- we all went to Guggenheim Hall on the University of Washington campus and watched the nickel movies. The likes of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy and dinosaurs and what have you, and then we would go re-enact the storyline in the woods where now the women's dorms are located.
So I grew up on the UW campus as a kid. I'm gonna sound like a real old-timer, 'cause things are always better when you grew up than they are today. I rebel at the -- for example, kids' sports today, with the uniforms and the nutty parents on the sidelines and referees in uniforms. I played six-man football for the University Heights Playfield. And we played on Saturdays against other teams from other playfields that we negotiated with when we were in high school. There were no referees, and the team that won usually had those that argued best, and I was considered very proficient, and we got a lot of penalties, many of which we probably didn't deserve. But that was a great time.
Thirty-six years at Safeco
My first job right out of college was at a small insurance company that was located in a replica of Mount Vernon. And that was right where the pancake house that was on the south end of the Safeco building. I can't remember the name right now. Anyway, after a while I moved downtown, and I was with that company for nine years, and then we got swallowed up in a merger. And I figured out who the mergee was, and that was not a happy thought, so I joined Safeco as -- my official title was an electronic research specialist, which means I was a first-generation computer programmer. And I was there for 36 years. Great career, I really enjoyed it. Immensely. But that put me in the University District every day for 36 years. Well, every day except weekends, and then I was at church up here.
The sixties were a time of great ferment. The campus was alive with dissent. There was all kinds of protest. Students were everywhere, doing things that they were out of their mind to be doing. I recall one march up the Ave where they trashed what is now -- across the street -- Jack in the Box. And when a reporter asked them, "Why did you do that?" it was on grounds of, and I quote, "visual blight." That was the alleged reason.
In the early sixties we showcased new computer equipment in our lobby. Big glass encasement, people would come in and wonder at the modern technology. And then, when it began to heat up on the campus, we got a little smarter and moved it out of the lobby. And during the worst part of the sixties we had bullet holes in our computer room. I mean, it was not a happy time. I think it was 1970 that 6,000 students decided to march down I-5 and block traffic and -- all the ferment over on campus and professors and the president hiding from students and that sort of thing. So it was a hard time.
I immensely enjoyed my Safeco career. I'm still amused by what appeared to be the public perception of these white-shirted, dark-suited automatons who inhabited the place. The Times once did a series on corporate culture. And they (laughs) had their minds made up what it was before they wrote the article. They used for contrast Microsoft, or the new generation, and then the stuffy old guys at Safeco. And by that time I had moved to the top floor and the executive quarters, and we had low partitions so you could hear over the top of them. And the vice president for public relations was in the office next to mine. So I heard the Times interview. And it was all I could do to keep from going over the wall and strangling that lady, 'cause she had it all wrong. And when the article was published, she clearly had not listened at all to what she had been told. She just wrote what she had her mind made up was the case.
The Light Side of Data Processing
When I did retire -- the year before I retired, Safeco published a little magazine. Not a magazine, a book actually. A booklet, I guess is what I should say. On 35 years of automation leadership. And I remember fondly that it had pictures of and listed the accomplishments of six so-called pioneers. And I was one of them. So that was a very pleasurable time, but I read that and said, "This is pretty stuffy, and it altogether ignores the subculture of data processing, which is far more lighthearted, beyond the wildest imaginings of most people." So I approached the director of data processing and said, "You oughta publish another companion book: The Light Side of Data Processing at Safeco." And he pooh-poohed me. "You don't know what you're talking about. Today things are pretty stable -- staid culture." "And you don't know what's going on in your own backyard!"
So my crowning achievement is the editor and writer of the light side of Safeco. And I got him to promise amnesty, and we had a contest for the most outrageous stories, true, that people would submit. And the winner would go with a partner for a night on the town, wherever you wanted to go. Even did a crossword puzzle, all oriented to Safeco. And had a great time. And I consider that, despite everything else, my crowning achievement.
After a while they did office -- I'll just call them what they were -- cubicles. And there was a set of tools that they put together. And there was actually a home office department that made sure that they all fit specification. They had to be the right size and certain configuration. Of course, the programmers stole the set of tools. And the official people would come through and set everything up properly. Then they would leave, they would break out the tools, take them apart, and put them together the way they wanted to. Once a young lady went on vacation. And they took her cubicle apart -- think of this (gestures) as the elevator shaft. And her office is here (gestures). And they took her office and moved it on the other side of the elevator shaft. They'd taken pictures, so they knew just exactly what it looked like. Put it back together -- it looked exactly -- just the wrong side! Somehow or another they republished the office telephone directory with a new telephone number for her, and then just waited. She came back, she went to where her office used to be, and said, "Where's my office?" Everybody looked at her. "It's where it's always been." "What do you mean, 'where it's always been'?" "Where. It's always. Been." "You're kidding me!" And I took her around the corner and the other side of the elevator shaft -- here is her office. Just exactly as it always had been. That young lady almost went nuts. She thought she'd lost it. And nobody would tell her.
I could go on like this for the rest of our hour, but I won't. But you kind of get the flavor.