Patrick McRoberts was a writer, editor, public affairs consultant and political strategist, a biographer, historian, musician, cultural vivant and gadfly, spiritual advisor in the way of the Tao, and an unseen giant in the affairs of Seattle who, perhaps as much as anyone, gave the city its skyline and much of its spirit for the beginning of the twenty-first century. A child of the Vietnam era, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and a contributor to causes that mattered, he used his remarkable gifts for communication and community to shape the issues, campaigns, and leaders that shaped the city and the state.
Iowa -- Our Liberties and Our Rights
McRoberts was born December 23, 1952, in Muscatine, Iowa, to Patrick and Frances Highbarger McRoberts. He grew up near the Heinz Ketchup plant there, an experience he later called a major influence on his thinking.
During high school he "moved from complete social pariah to having a standing" due to his "quirky sarcasm" and ironic wit (McRoberts, Black Armband, 1). His opposition to America's intervention in Vietnam, based partly on the threat of the draft and partly on his understanding of America's values, branded him a "Middle Western Heretic" and a "cynical, sarcastic teen," a "badge [he] wore with pride among [his] peers" (McRoberts, Black Armband, 1).
His political heresy and sarcasm were tempered, though, by his commitment to his values and his attention to facts, both of which came to serve him well. He joined his high school debate team and began to hone the skills on which he would one day build a career.
In 1971 he entered the University of Iowa. Partly because of his opposition to the war, he joined an Iowa City student collective as a "would-be radical" (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 1) but discovered that his thinking had a pragmatic and fact-based underpinning that rendered him more progressive than radical. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1975 with degrees in History and in Film and Broadcasting.
Austin City's Limits
Following graduation, McRoberts moved to Austin, Texas, to "experience the music scene" that was flourishing there and to pursue his passion for writing songs and making music. He took a "stop gap" job as an attendant in the Austin State School for the Mentally Retarded, which he later described as a "closed society" where power and order were maintained through an institutional culture built on something he called "malaganda" -- dishonest propaganda for manipulative ends (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 5-8). Although the work at the school was not what he had trained for, McRoberts was learning important lessons -- especially the difficulty of finding his way through the conflict of his values with more pragmatic issues of survival.
In Austin he produced some songs that according to his wife Kim, a Texan, are still sung in parts of Texas and Iowa -- as well as Seattle. One of his best songs, "Trouble on the Back Roads," proclaimed, "There's trouble on the back roads/and trouble everywhere."
But the music business in Austin proved more competitive than he had expected, and some of the residents of the boarding house where he lived brought unwanted attention from the city, which asked them all to leave town ... so McRoberts packed up his guitar and went home to Muscatine.
To London, To London
In 1977 McRoberts returned to Iowa City, where he enrolled in the university's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. There he discovered the exciting "new journalism" of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer. He spent the summer of 1978 in an internship with the Muscatine Journal, then flew to London, where he spent the autumn semester on an exchange program with London's City University.
While in London he worked as an ABC News intern, in part with Peter Jennings, at that time the Foreign Desk Anchor for ABC Evening News. He also contributed to a newsletter called Times In Lundon. Failing in his quest to "find a rich duchess" (Anonymous, Intern, 2), he returned to Iowa, where he graduated a second time in 1979 with a master's degree in journalism.
Trouble on the Back Roads
With his journalism degree in his hatband, he took a job as a reporter for the Quad City Times of Davenport, Iowa. His job was "day police beat reporter" (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 9), where he soon found that the paper had an ax to grind with the Davenport Police and that his real job was to report whatever made the department look bad -- to be the paper's "hitman" (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 9). Fearing he would never find a place between Mailer and Thompson, he began to lose faith in journalism and soon was fired for failing to prosecute the police department with the vigor the paper wanted. Shortly after his firing he won an Associated Press award, which the paper acknowledged, though "not in their usual self-congratulatory tone" (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 11).
Before he left the paper he had an encounter that influenced his view of the balance of idealism and the pragmatic. A "stunning brunette" he had liked at the Iowa journalism school came to town representing not a news service but the public relations department of a major corporation. At first McRoberts was appalled at this corruption of the craft -- but the seeds of a future career had been planted.
In December, 1979, while McRoberts was still at the paper, his father died from complications of being hit by a truck. A year later, just after his firing, Patrick found his older brother, Jan, dead at home from a drug overdose. Patrick was 28 at the time. Jan's death rattled him deeply; over the rest of his life he attempted several times to write about it in a way that might help him make some sense of that loss.
From Davenport he moved back to Iowa City with hopes of entering the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University, following the path of Flannery O'Connor, one of his literary champions. He worked for a time in a group home for disabled adults, then gained admission to the Workshop in 1981.
Back in school he discovered a passion for the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Seattle's Theodore Roethke. He graduated from The Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1983 with his second master's degree, this one in creative writing.
In 1983 he worked for several months with his sister Pamela Sander and her husband at a pair of food processing plants they owned in Oslo, Minnesota. His duties were many, but included writing press releases, his first venture into the public relations sphere. He tired quickly of life in rural Minnesota, however, and moved early in 1984 to Seattle with no idea what he would do there except write short stories and songs and look for work.
A Writer Becomes a Communicator
Almost as soon as he began his job hunt in Seattle, he met political consultant Wally Toner one evening in Seattle's historic Central Tavern. Toner told him public relations consultant Robert Gogerty was looking for a writer. McRoberts followed the lead, and his career was born.
Working for the firm of Gogerty and Stark, McRoberts used newly acquired computer skills to help transform the business of public relations into the emerging enterprise of public affairs, described in The Seattle Weekly as "the intersection of public and private decision making" (Crowley, Computers, 24). McRoberts developed a program for identifying specific trends in public policy and opinion that was, in Wally Toner's words, "a leap from candles to incandescent light" (Crowley, Computers, 24). This new tool, which they called microtrend analysis, helped Gogerty and Stark become one of the most important public policy consultants in the city.
But far beyond his contribution to trend analysis, McRoberts became Gogerty and Stark's go-to man for anything written. As Project Manager, Research Director, and Writer, he proved to have exceptional insight into the issues Bob Gogerty and Don Stark took on, and showed a unique ability to put those insights into words, often on short notice.
Republicans by Day, Democrats by Night
Many of the clients of Gogerty and Stark were corporations, including Weyerhaeuser, Boeing, and AT&T. McRoberts wrote press releases, position papers, and speeches for those businesses, sometimes in opposition to his own views. In addition to the bread-winning business of the agency, Gogerty and Stark also worked, with substantial assistance from McRoberts, on social and political causes, often pro bono, and often to the consternation of political consultants who would have preferred to do that work for pay. The firm earned a reputation for effective work for both their paying clients and for the causes and people in whom they believed. Colleague Walt Crowley quipped that they had become "Republicans by day and Democrats by night.
It was an ongoing gag in the business that public relations consultants "tell lies for money." McRoberts later described himself as "a public relations consultant specializing in propaganda" (McRoberts, Easter Egg, 13); but early in his career he developed and refined his distinctions between "honest propaganda," the art of persuasion, and "malaganda," the practice of lying to manipulate others (McRoberts, Easter Egg 1). Throughout his career he maintained and argued for a strong sense of ethics and fairness, and a distinction between truth and nonsense.
He was known as Gogerty and Stark's "word man," the one who could capture the essence of an argument in words as no one else in the business could. In his eulogy for Patrick, Bob Gogerty said, "it became a standard joke in the company that I could start a sentence, and Patrick would write the story from there" (Gogerty, Eulogy). Colleague Sue Tupper said that under virtually any circumstances, McRoberts "could write circles around anyone" (Tupper, interview). According to Tupper, he was the firm's "incognito superhero" (Tupper, eulogy).
But he had to learn to tailor his rhetoric to the customer. In one speech he had a client who was experiencing repeated frustration describe himself as "a modern-day Sisyphus," referring to the hopeless figure of Greek mythology. While delivering the speech, the client, a prominent businessman, called himself a "modern-day syphilis." The effect was not what either had wanted.
In a business known for aggressive competition, McRoberts quickly earned a reputation for integrity and honesty, and consistently avoided the "backstabbing" that was common in the trade. According to Sue Tupper, he had a "very kind heart" and a "great capacity to bridge gaps" between opposing points of view (Tupper, interview), a part of his character that was also well known to his friends and his family.
McRoberts addressed many of the "hot" issues of the eighties and nineties and beyond in position papers, speeches (which he wrote for others), and op-ed columns for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The SeattleTimes, and the Bellevue Journal-American. The issues he helped shape included the then-controversial baseball park (now Safeco Field), the Education Reform initiatives of Governor Mike Lowry, the 1998 "Libraries for All" campaign, School Bond levies, and the reopening of Pine Street in 1995. He was also instrumental in helping Weyerhaeuser CEO Jack Creighton lead the company to a more active role in protecting the environment. But the op-ed column was his forte, and many of the issues he influenced through that medium did shape the city and indeed its skyline.
Among the political leaders for whom McRoberts served as speechwriter were Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Washington Governor Mike Lowry. Lowry has credited McRoberts in part for his success in reaching the Governor's mansion in 1993, and acknowledges setting up the chairs at McRoberts's wedding during that campaign.
Music, Marriage, and Mehitabel the Cat
During the early years of his career with Gogery and Stark, McRoberts became involved in the "Spkn Wrds" reading series at Belltown's Two Bells Tavern, a popular hangout for artists and poets. The brainchild of the Two Bells' Mark McDonald, the series featured performance literature of various kinds. McRoberts read "Beat" Shakespeare to live jazz and took part in readings of Euripides and Strindberg.
From December 1987 to February 1988, McRoberts played Archy in a Spkn Wrds dramatization of "Archy and Mehitabel," based on Don Marquis' 1910s and 1920s newspaper column about a free-verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach. The production was directed by McDonald. Other members of the cast included McRoberts's friend Ann Nofsinger as Archy's cat friend Mehitabel; activist, journalist, historian, and HistoryLink.org founder-to-be Walt Crowley, and Kim Harper Holcomb, who would become McRoberts's wife.
About that time the Spkn Wrds series expanded to include music, to which McRoberts happily contributed his singing, guitar playing, and his songs.
Sometime around 1986 he joined local musicians Andy Dellon, Nick Vroman, John Hawkley, and "a woman named Jake" to form a "post-populist folk-punk band" called the DelVros. They sang regularly at the Five Point Café, the Two Bells, the Rendezvous, the Tractor, and other popular clubs. They played informally at the Folklife Festival, and in 1989 had their own show at Seattle's Bumbershoot Arts Festival.
One of McRoberts's earliest Seattle sidekicks described him as "a most prodigious drinker" (Vroman). Drinking and making friends, usually at the same time, was a large and colorful if sometimes troublesome part of McRoberts's life. He could drink as much as three ordinary mortals and make more friends than almost anyone alive, usually with the result of thoughtful causerie. The same friend described him as "A good friend. A great man" (Vroman).
Also in 1988, under the pseudonym PM Roguespierre, McRoberts launched a slight literary publication called Placebo. He produced only two issues, Autumn 1988 and Winter 1989, while he was also involved in the Spkn Wrds series and the DelVros and was courting his wife-to-be. It was an exciting time for this still-young transplant, who was making irreparable impressions on his new city even then.
In 1992 McRoberts married Kim Harper Holcomb, a sometime stockbroker and political campaign aide originally from Lubbock, Texas. They were married in Salmon Bay Park by their friend Walt Crowley, whom McRoberts had met through Bob Gogerty. They spent their honeymoon in San Francisco, using Gogerty's convertible to make their getaway, apparently with Gogerty's permission.
Kim McRoberts brought two young sons to the marriage, Jeremy and Sterling Holcomb. According to Kim, Patrick was a devoted father to the boys, who are now grown men, still living in Seattle. And he was a devoted grandfather to Twyla Ann Van Dyke III, age 6 at the time of his death, and Isabella Rose Holcomb, then age 4, daughters of Sterling Holcomb and his partner, Twyla Van Dyke.
Early in the 1990s McRoberts founded the Moribund Writers' Society, a writers' group that met monthly (or not) at the Two Bells, whether (or not) group members had written a thing. Early members included McRoberts, Vera DeTour, and Ann Nofsinger Dempsey, and over the next 17 or 18 years, Dana Hufford, John Byrne, Paulette Hopke, Texanna Casey, Sky Callaghan, John Spurrell, and Blue Moon Tavern's Novelist-in-Residence James Knisely. McRoberts died on the day of a scheduled Moribund Writers meeting, which became instead a stunned and unbelieving wake -- still at the Bells.
Some Nights the Wolves Are Silent
McRoberts's impact on the cultural life of 80s and 90s Belltown was considerable. But he didn't confine himself to that part of town.
In 1989 and 1990 he lent his moral weight to Walt Crowley, Bob Gogerty, and Gus Hellthaler of the Blue Moon Tavern in their effort to save the venerable bohemian University District watering hole from the developer's ax by having it declared an historical site. Though they failed to get the historical designation, they impressed the owners so much, the tavern was given a series of leases allowing it to operate unmolested until at least 2034. Crowley subsequently wrote a history of the tavern called Forever Blue Moon, which reported the ill-kept secret that "some nights the wolves are silent and the Moon howls" (Crowley, Forever Blue Moon, 22). When Crowley and HistoryLink.org reissued the book in 2004 for the Moon's 70th anniversary, McRoberts wrote the book's "Backword," his appendix to Crowley's history.
The Moon, the first public house in the University District following the 1934 repeal of Prohibition, turned 60 in 1994. A celebration of that anniversary included a "mammoth" reading by sometime Moon patrons Tom Robbins and Jonathan Raban and "myriad" others. Two outgrowths of the celebration were the Blue Moon "Words on Wednesday" (or "First Wednesdays") reading series, and the literary journal Point No Point: A Blue Moon Reader, both of which were shaped in large part by McRoberts's energy and experience. Readers on First Wednesdays included Robbins, Dan Savage, David Shields, and other authors from the pages of Point No Point, and came to include "The Deaf Poets Society" created and produced by McRoberts's future band member Hal Smith and featuring poetry read in sign language.
Is There a Point?
The journal Point No Point was named at once for a sandy spit in Puget Sound, a poem by Richard Hugo, and the simultaneous urgency and futility of human discourse. It was the result of a dream of McRoberts's since his days at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and took shape through the creative and managerial input of Blue Moon manager Bill Heintzelman, who became its publisher, graphic designer Marie McCaffrey, and Walt Crowley (McCaffrey's husband). Gus Hellthaler of the Blue Moon contributed financial support, and McRoberts's wife Kim took the important role of Advertising Manager.
McRoberts edited the magazine and its fiction. Over its five-year, nine-issue life (Autumn, 1994 - Winter, 1999), it published work by established writers Tom Robbins, Belle Randall, and Judith Roche, and such local favorites as Charles Mudede, Walt Crowley, and Paul Dorpat. McRoberts also conducted most of its interviews, notably with Jonathan Raban, Rebecca Wells, poet Colleen McElroy, Thom Jones, and Rebecca Brown.
In 1995 McRoberts and Point No Point received a grant from the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, along with an invitation to have a booth at the May 1995, concert that proved to be the band's last Seattle show, just three months before the death of Dead founder Jerry Garcia. Kim McRoberts describes the event as one of the highlights of her life but adds that living with Patrick was like "an ongoing Dead concert" (Kim McRoberts, interview, 6/16/10).
McRoberts At Large
Lured by the adventure of working for himself, McRoberts left Gogerty and Stark in 1996 to start his own agency, McRoberts At Large, which he manned and operated for five years. Finding that he preferred writing to managing a business, in 2000 he began to ramp down his own business and took a position as Vice President for Communications at APCO Worldwide with his old colleagues Sue Tupper and Wally Toner. Among the firm's clients was Jordan's Queen Rania, for whom McRoberts wrote an op-ed column about vaccinating the world's children. From McRoberts's descriptions at the time, it was a return to the life of a daytime Republican while remaining a nighttime Dem.
Still yearning for adventure, McRoberts fell in with friends Gus Hellthaler, Petra Hellthaler, well-known medical researcher John "Jack" Oram, Jeremy Tupper, Kathy Severn, Kathy Braun, Monera Loutfi, and Mike Nease in 1999 to help found the inimitable Blue Moon Urban Hiking Club, a weekly outing he described as a "combination pub crawl, volksmarch, and group therapy session ... a kind of 16,000-step program" (McRoberts in Crowley, Forever Blue Moon, 60). The club, described a little differently by member Petra Hellthaler as "a drinking club with a hiking problem," continued uninterrupted until the deaths of both Oram and McRoberts in 2010 ... and likely beyond.
When Paul Dorpat, Walt Crowley, and Marie McCaffrey started HistoryLink.org in 1997, McRoberts was involved in the planning and execution with his always insightful bent for analysis and turn of phrase. From 1998 to 2001 he served as Associate Editor with Senior Editor Priscilla Long, and during the ensuing 13 years contributed more than 85 essays, including a personal reflection on Crowley's life following his death in 2007.
In 2003 McRoberts left APCO Worldwide and went home to Gogerty Stark & Merriott, where he became Chief Writer and Project Manager. He followed Don Stark in 2009 to Stark's new agency, Smith and Stark, where he remained until shortly before his death.
He continued to write and convene the Moribund Writers' Society, but returned as well to his "second" career as a musician. In 2004 he joined Jack Oram and Doug Parker to form a fledgling group called The Shmucks, a send-up on the Blue Moon house band The Shmoes. When Oram's wife, Renée LeBoeuf, joined the band as its drummer, the group changed its name to The Pep Tides. They played their own songs as well as popular favorites at the Blue Moon, The Two Bells, the Seattle Peace Concert, and at the annual Skagit River blowout known as the "Maltby Party" until the untimely deaths of Doug Parker in 2008 and Jack Oram in 2010.
Patrick McRoberts was a large man, but never imposing, a shrewd student of the world but never intimidating, a caring friend, husband, and father, and an engaging Samuel Johnson-like intellectual with a big heart and remarkable integrity who persuaded others to his thinking as much by his wit and his puckish smile as by argument. He helped keep Seattle's bohemian artistic and intellectual traditions alive while working behind the scenes to mold the issues that molded the city as we know it.
Patrick McRoberts died in his sleep early in the morning of May 26, 2010.