Gruhn, Robert (1920-2008)

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 4/14/2011
  • Essay 9795

Robert Gruhn was a Seattle-based attorney who was involved in many Northwest non-profit organizations as both volunteer and legal counsel. Gruhn drafted and shepherded to passage landmark legislation in Washington that provided a mechanism for museums to acquire title to property donated or otherwise obtained without proper ownership paperwork. He was also known for his work on what became known as the Volunteer Protection Act, which defined the rights of people who gave their time to nonprofit organizations or government entities. He chaired the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission, was a member and counsel for the Washington Museum Association, and provided legal advice and support to numerous small museums and historical societies. He served pro-bono as legal counsel for, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. In addition, he helped found KFAE-FM, a public radio station based in Richland, Washington. Gruhn worked for the United States Atomic Energy Commission as legal counsel and attorney beginning in 1956. He joined Rockwell International in 1962, and became chief of the Hanford contract division. He specialized in contract and employment law. He died in Seattle in 2008.

Growing Up into War

Robert Gruhn was born in Racine, Wisconsin, on April 16, 1920, to Mae and Alvah Gruhn. Gruhn's father was the president of the American Mutual Alliance of Insurance Companies; his mother was a housewife. 

In 1939, Gruhn began his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. He was there for two years before enrolling in the army on December 8, 1941 -- the morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  

"He was a true patriot," his widow, Eileen Gruhn, said in a 2011 interview. "Many people waited to be drafted, but he was down in that recruiting office Monday morning" (Kershner interview).

In World War II, Gruhn spent four years in Europe. His company took part in the Battle of the Bulge and various other campaigns. Sent overseas as a lieutenant, he was promoted to captain. He led his company of men across the English Channel just days after D-Day.  

Scheduled to go to Japan in 1945, his duty ended when the American forces dropped the atomic bomb. He returned to Chicago in 1946, and eventually retired as a full colonel, as part of the Judge Advocate General Corps, after 27 years of combined active and retired reserves service.  

Atomic Energy and Legal Work

After returning to Chicago, Gruhn received his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1948. 

After law school, Gruhn joined the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, which sought to redevelop, reorganize, and renovate parts of the city, after the substantial influx and changes of population after the war. Gruhn served as the assistant director of the organization for two years. 

He left the Chicago Land Clearance Commission in 1956, and joined the United States Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) in 1957, as assistant general counsel in its Chicago operations office, which was operating the Argonne National Laboratory jointly with the University of Chicago. Gruhn was primarily responsible for contract law, and oversaw the negotiation and execution of research contracts with various universities and laboratories throughout the country.  

At the Atomic Energy Commission, he met his wife Eileen, who was working as the secretary of his boss. They married in 1959, and moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he worked for a year at a local television station in the legal department.

His former boss at USAEC offered him a job at the contract division of Rockwell International, a defense-oriented manufacturer. In 1962, Gruhn and his family moved to Palos Verdes, California, for the job.  

At Rockwell, Gruhn's work largely dealt with Rockwell's USAEC contracts, as well as their work with the Hanford Nuclear Reactor, and other government laboratories.

For the Community    

While in Rancho Palos Verdes, Gruhn began his lifelong involvement in community causes. Gruhn joined the group Save Our Coastline, which was dedicated to "maintaining and preserving the semi-rural community" of Palos Verdes and the surrounding area's coastlines (Kershner interview). 

Gruhn's passion for this cause was evident, as he said in a 1973 interview regarding incorporation. He said that "[p]owerful economic interests organized and presented a campaign to political figures at the County level, hoping to delay incorporation by this means ... . [O]pposition forces have arisen, backed by the large landowner/developer who has opposed our movement since the founding of Save Our Coastline ... . These people have a vested, monied interest in overdevelopment" (Lo). 

"He was always something of a do-gooder," Eileen recalls. "And there were always good causes that could use free legal services" (Kershner interview). 

His free legal counsel wasn't for naught; Rancho Palos Verdes was successfully incorporated in 1973, and Gruhn went on to manage the successful campaign of Barbara Hein, an early mayor of the city. He also served on the Planning Advisory Committee of the General Plan of Rancho Palos Verdes in 1975.

To the Pacific Northwest

Rockwell's work with Hanford brought Gruhn and his family to the Northwest in 1967, when he became the chief counsel of Rockwell Hanford. While his work involved all aspects of the law, an early emphasis on contract law gradually evolved to include a large portion of employment-related legal issues.  

Eileen Gruhn says that Gruhn's career with Rockwell was low-profile, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing:  "Being a good attorney is keeping your boss out of the courts," she pointed out of her husband's legal record (Kershner interview).  

But Gruhn's involvement in the community reached well beyond his professional interests. 

Richland Public Radio

While driving the 15 or so miles from Richland to Hanford every day, Gruhn and his fellow carpoolers couldn't help but notice the lack of variety on their local radio stations -- or, on the other hand, the abundance of "cowboy music" (Kershner interview). 

One of his fellow riders had begun organizing a group interested in starting a public radio station in Richland, and although they were fortunate to receive seed money from the Battelle Memorial Institute, the foundation couldn’t give them funding without the formation of a legal entity. 

Gruhn stepped in as legal counsel, and incorporated the group into Fine Arts Radio, a nonprofit organization that provided the legal means to fund and develop the station. They became partners with Washington State University, which would provide both professional radio expertise and licensing.  

KFAE-FM Richland went on air in 1980, and still operates in Richland as part of Northwest Public Radio, a public news and radio source for the area.  

In 1987, Gruhn retired from Rockwell, but continued to act on behalf of Rockwell for several years with the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, as Rockwell transitioned out of its work with Hanford.

Moving to the Big City

Gruhn always "regarded himself as a big city boy," Eileen Gruhn said (Kershner interview). With his retirement, he and Eileen moved to Seattle, lured by the promise of a thriving cultural community, of which he would become an integral part.   

Gruhn had a keen interest in both military and regional history, and in 1987 he began attending meetings of the Washington Museum Association (WMA).  

"At first they seemed suspicious," Eileen recalls of her husband's initial attendance at annual meetings and events. "What did the guy want?  What they didn't understand was this was a guy who wanted to do something interesting ... . [Gruhn] was not a 'retiring' person' " (Kershner interview). 

Gruhn became a go-to resource for museums and other small cultural historical societies with legal questions. "Robert's little old ladies," Eileen Gruhn said, recalling the phone calls and advice Gruhn dispensed over ownership issues or general counsel. 

In 1988, Gruhn worked with the Washington Museum Association to draft the 1988 Abandoned Property Legislation. The legislation states "any property held by a museum or historical society within the state, other than by terms of a loan agreement, that has been held for five years or more and has remained unclaimed shall be deemed to be abandoned. Such property shall become the property of the museum or historical society if the museum or society has given notice pursuant to RCW 63.26.040 and no assertion of title has been filed for the property within ninety days from the date of the second published notice" (1988 Wash. Laws). 

Essentially, the legislation provided that a donation to a museum had a paper trail that guaranteed the museum's ownership. Before the legislation, people could donate to a museum without any paperwork, opening the gate for heirs to make claims. The law established a legal ownership and possession for museum and historical societies.  

Roxana Augusztiny, a museum association board member who collaborated with Gruhn, stated to the WMA Museum Messenger, "Bob was instrumental in getting legislation passed which set the procedure for returning, or gaining title to, loan materials reposing in museums across the state. The legislation was a broadening of an earlier piece of legislation that pertained only to the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum at the University of Washington" (Marshall).

"Law Notes"

After becoming involved with the Washington Museum Association, Gruhn began writing "Law Notes" for the WMA's Museum Messenger newsletter. Gruhn covered a variety of legal topics as they pertained to both museum, copyright, and property law. Karen Marshall, former president of the association, says these writings  "provided WMA members with clear, concise and timely information museum volunteers or staff could not find anywhere else. Years later, these documents remain incredibly useful to all of us in the museum community" (Marshall).    

In 2001, Gruhn drafted the legislation that became known as the Volunteer Protection Act, and testified on it to the State Senate. The bill limited the liability of volunteers beyond the federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 by stating that a volunteer is not liable personally under the following conditions: if they were acting within their scope of responsibility, were authorized or certified to engage in the activity, harm was not willfully or negligently caused, harm was not caused by a volunteer who was operating vehicle with which the state requires an operator's license or insurance, or if the nonprofit organization carries public liability insurance.    

In 2000, the Washington Museum Association awarded Gruhn the Board Award for Individual Achievement, citing "his tireless work, on behalf of the Association, with legal and legislative issues pertaining to museums and cultural organizations. His willingness to share his knowledge of the legal system and his dedication to educate heritage advocates about legislative issues has provided a valuable resource to all of Washington State’s cultural organizations" ("Washington State Award Winners").

King County Landmarks and Heritage

In 1992, Gruhn became a member of the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission (KCLHC), whose mission was to preserve and protect the landmark status of buildings in King County. He was later elected chair. His primary roles were to set the policy of the Commission, and determine what activities the commission  would be involved with.   

Gruhn was KCLHC chairman in 1993, when it designated its first archaeological landmark in the county: a 10-acre site outside Woodinville. Gruhn called the area valuable to the history of the Northwest.

"This may be the only good site where we can get some good information on the early Sammamish band of the Duwamish Indians. We may learn about their diet and who they were," said Gruhn (Wong).

In 1997, the Association of King County Historical Organizations (AKCHO) presented Gruhn with the Willard Jue Memorial Award, which recognizes an outstanding volunteer. Gruhn was noted for his work for the Woodinville Historical Society, King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission, and his consultation to members of AKCHO.   

Teaching and Counseling

Gruhn also spent time teaching others the value of museum law and knowledge.   

“For several years, I invited Bob to be a guest lecturer at the University of Washington Museum Studies Collection Management Course that I teach during winter quarter," said Seattle museum curator Lisa Hill-Festa. "He was always so excited and willing to share his knowledge with budding museum professionals. He generally spoke on his ‘baby’ -- the Abandoned Property Legislation -- as well as copyright issues. I remember several years ago one of my students was really skeptical about what of relevance this ‘old guy,’ as he put it, had to say. Well, as always, Bob ‘blew the class away’ with his vast knowledge, wit, humor and charm. They loved Bob and learned so much from him in the two hours that he spoke" (Marshall).

Gruhn's cultural activity was not limited to his work on boards or organizations. founder Walt Crowley (1947-2007) cited the "patient coaching of Robert Gruhn" in a 1999 piece in The Seattle Times, noting Gruhn's participation "in a group that formed for the purpose of utilizing the Naval Reserve Armory Building on Lake Union as a regional Maritime Museum" (Crowley).

According to Eileen Gruhn, "he donated many hours of legal work to various legal issues involved in establishing and qualifying the group for IRS-exempt status, perfecting their organizational structure (bylaws, etc.), and working with the Navy, the City of Seattle, and King County organizations on their behalf" (Eileen Gruhn email).

Gruhn was also involved with, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, from its inception, and was an early legal counsel for the organization.

Death and Legacy  

Gruhn died on April 3, 2008, and left many of his papers to DePaul University, in the name of the Robert S. Gruhn Collection. According to DePaul's catalog, "many of the materials in [the] collection relate to the preparation, planning, and analysis of 'blighted areas' land redevelopment projects in Chicago between 1949 and 1951, namely the Lake Meadows Project located on the near South Side and subject of the Redevelopment Documents," along with periodicals Gruhn collected related to Chicago articles and architecture (McCoy).  

Calling his service "irreplaceable," the Washington Museum Association said it was "a privilege and an honor" to work with Gruhn throughout his life (Marshall).

Sources: Kate Kershner interview with Eileen Gruhn, March 30, 2011, Seattle, transcript in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; Eileen Gruhn, email to Kate Kershner, April 5, 2011, in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; Karen Marshall, "Tribute in Honor of Robert Gruhn," Washington Museum Association Museum Messenger (newsletter), Vol. 19, No. 1 (Fall 2008); Walt Crowley, "The Future Of History -- Sesquicentennial Offers Opportunity To Examine Forces That Shaped Region, Its Culture," The Seattle Times, August 8, 1999 (; Wylie Wong, "Saving Archaeological Relics -- Lush Site Outside Woodinville Could Earn Landmark Status," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1993 (; Eric Nalder and Jim Simon, "Rockwell Rushed to Alert Lawmakers to Story on Hanford," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1986 (; 1988 Wash. Laws, Ch. 63.26; General Plan/Environmental Impact Report -- Rancho Palos Verdes, adopted June 26, 1975, available at (; Clarence Y. H. Lo, Small Property Versus Big Government: Social Origins of the Property Tax Revolt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 63; "History of the Metropolitan Planning Council," Metropolitan Planning Council, website accessed March 25, 2011 (; "Association of King County Historical Organizations Awards Past Winners (pdf)," Association of King County Historical Organizations, website accessed March 25, 2011 (; Muriel Oliver Winterscheid, "The Fiske Genealogical Foundation Library: The Move to Pioneer Hall," Pioneer Presences: Newsletter of the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington. Vol. 26, No. 2. March 2003; 2001 Wash. Laws, Ch. 4.24, sec. 670; "Washington State Award Winners," Washington Museum Association website accessed March 25, 2011 (; "Colonel Robert Scott Gruhn, Sr. (obituary)," The Seattle Times, April 13, 2008 (; Michelle McCoy, "Gruhn Chicago Materials," DePaul University Archives, February 2008.

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