Pritchard, Joel M. (1925-1997)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 11/11/2016
  • Essay 20194
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Joel Pritchard was a Washington state legislator, U.S. representative, and Washington lieutenant governor during a 45-year political career. He grew up in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood and was an infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II. He ran successfully for state representative in 1958. He was a key element in Washington's Republican resurgence, along with his friends and colleagues Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) and Slade Gorton (b. 1928). In 1966, he ran successfully for state senator. He considered himself a moderate-to-progressive Republican and was known for backing civil-rights and abortion-rights legislation. In 1970 he left the legislature and ran for U.S. Representative in the state's First District representing Seattle. He lost, but ran again in 1972 and won, and was then re-elected five times. He declined to run in 1984, keeping his promise not to stay in office more than 12 years. In 1988, he was elected lieutenant governor and served two terms. Among his many accomplishments is an unusual one: He is credited with co-inventing the racket sport of pickleball at his Bainbridge Island cabin.

Queen Anne to Japan

Joel McFee Pritchard was born to Frank and Jean Pritchard on May 25, 1925, in Seattle. His parents came from longtime Seattle families -- both had attended high school in Seattle and the University of Washington. They lived in the Queen Anne neighborhood and Frank Pritchard managed a printing company. Joel and his older brother Frank Pritchard Jr. (1920-2016) grew up loving sports, and Joel played football, basketball, and tennis at Queen Anne High School. Joel said he grew up "a nut on sports" ("Oral History," 5).

Pritchard's parents were involved in community and charitable affairs -- and in politics on a modest local level. His father served as a Republican precinct committeeman, but Pritchard recalled that in the 1940 election his father voted for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (1881-1945) while his mother voted for Republican Wendell Wilkie (1892-1944). Political historian John C. Hughes called it "an intellectually feisty family" (Hughes, 28). The Pritchards were also active supporters of the YMCA and Pritchard spent many hours of his youth playing sports at the YMCA. During summers, Joel and his brother attended the YMCA's Camp Orkila on Orcas Island, as campers and later as counselors.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Pritchard remembered, his mother took food to the Japanese internment camp in Puyallup, saying "They've got to be protected" ("Oral History," 9). His father served on the war-rationing board in the neighborhood, and Joel recalled participating in metal drives. In 1943, when he turned 18, Pritchard was drafted. His only fear was that the army wouldn't let him in because his eyes were too bad. He made it into the infantry and was sent to Camp Roberts in California. On weekends, he would take the train to San Francisco and visit friends. His outfit was I Company, 132nd Regiment, Americal Division. They were sent to Bougainville in the South Pacific in late 1944, after the island had been liberated from Japanese forces. From there, he went to Leyte Gulf and Cebu, where he saw combat. Pritchard was on the advanced scouting detail for his battalion. He later said, "I was a good soldier -- physically, I'd played high school football and I fit in pretty well" ("Oral History," 17).

His division was scheduled to be in the forefront of a planned invasion of Japan. When Japan surrendered, Pritchard was instead in the forefront of the postwar occupation. He recalled "block after block of nothing" in bombed-out Tokyo. He remained in Japan for about six months, helping build an airfield and traveling as part of an army basketball team. It spawned a lifelong interest in Japan and its culture. In 1946 he was discharged, with the final rank of sergeant, and returned home at the age of 20. His brother Frank, with whom Joel was very close, said Joel came back more focused. Joel described his army experience as very good for him: "I gained a lot of experience in dealing with all kinds of people" ("Oral History," 21).

Taste for Politics

When Pritchard arrived back in Seattle, he intended to go to the University of Washington -- where he had registered three weeks before he was drafted -- but instead decided to attend a small Ohio school, Marietta College. An acquaintance was the athletic director and Pritchard could play football. He was at Marietta for less than two years when he decided to marry Joan Sutton, who he had met at Marietta. In 1948, they returned to Seattle and started a family. Pritchard embarked on a career as a salesman and manager in the printing business. He got a job with the Griffin Envelope Company, an affiliate of the North Pacific Banknote Company, where his father was general manager. Joel would work for Griffin for 25 years, eventually retiring as president. His brother Frank would become general manager of the North Pacific Banknote Company.

Joel and Joan moved into an apartment in Queen Anne, then as their family started growing moved to house in the Magnolia neighborhood. They eventually had four children: Peggy, Frank, Anne, and Jeanie. Joel was involved in several organizations, including the YMCA, Toastmasters, and his Methodist Church. He was also a member of the Town Criers, the speakers' branch of the Municipal League, a non-partisan good-government organization that in 1956 was advocating for Metro, the massive public-works campaign to clean up Lake Washington. He discovered he had a talent for public speaking -- and a taste for politics. He became a member of the Evergreen Republican Club and the Republican Discussion Club, and in 1952 he was a Dwight Eisenhower delegate in the state Republican convention. That year he also worked on the unsuccessful re-election campaign of Seattle mayor William Devin (1898-1982).

Joel and Frank Pritchard had become two of "Seattle's leading young Republicans" and "organizational wizards" (Hughes, 28). Joel Pritchard was now part of what he described as a "fresh, new group" of young Seattle-area Republicans ("Oral History," 37). "We were, I guess, part of the Eisenhower attitude. Progressive, you could say moderate" ("Oral History," 38). They were dead serious about wresting control of the state's Republican Party from the aging party establishment. At one meeting of the young Republicans, someone asked what "they" -- the old Republican guard -- would think about an issue. "There is no they," answered Pritchard. "It's what we want to do. We're the change agents" (Hughes, 29). Slade Gorton, a future U.S. Senator, later said, "I'll never forget the way Joel said it" (Hughes, 29).

Pritchard was certainly not a fan of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), Eisenhower's running mate, and believed that red-baiting Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was "very, very wrong" ("Oral History," 38). In fact one of his first forays into state-level campaigning was in a successful effort to boot out a Republican state senator who Pritchard believed had McCarthyite tendencies. In that 1954 race, Pritchard helped orchestrate a primary challenge by Ted Peterson. Pritchard came up with the idea of distributing hundreds of pot-holders door-to-door, printed with the message, "You can trust Ted Peterson." "People hang on to them. They only cost us a nickel apiece, but they do not throw them away" ("Oral History," 48). Joel, along with his brother Frank, worked on campaigns for U.S. Representative Thomas Pelly (1902-1973) in 1954, Gordon Clinton's (1920-2011) mayoral win in 1956, and Phil Evans's congressional race in 1956.

Into the Legislature

Pritchard was such an effective political organizer that it seems inevitable that he himself would run for office. However, it didn't seem that way to him at the time. When he was approached about running for the legislature, he was reluctant. For one thing, he worried that it would take too much time from his business career, although in that era the legislature met only 60 days every two years. In 1958, a redistricting change shifted his thinking. His Magnolia neighborhood was cut out of the 44th District and attached to the 36th, which he called "a solid Republican district" ("Oral History," 55). Several incumbent state senators approached him to run and he finally said he would. Yet he still did not think of himself as a politician:

"I had no idea it would be full-time. I didn't look ahead. I didn't have a plan. We were interested in the political process and helping people run for office. We didn't want it to be our life's work" ("Oral History," 83).

The true race was in the crowded Republican primary. Pritchard campaigned hard all summer and the press referred to him as a "real sparkplug" ("Oral History," 57). However, on primary election night he thought his career in politics was over. He walked into a polling place and asked the poll volunteer how the election had gone. She replied, "It didn't go well at all," and his heart sank -- then she added, "I just can't understand how that Joel Pritchard won this election," and he said to himself "Who-oo-oo," and returned to his election-night party, exhilarated ("Oral History," 58).

For his inaugural 1959 session, he and fellow legislator Charles Moriarty rented a house in Olympia along with two other young Republican up-and-comers, Dan Evans, returning for his second session, and Slade Gorton, a fellow freshman. Pritchard, Evans, and Gorton would become an influential triumvirate in Washington politics for decades, but in 1959 they were still anonymous. Pritchard said:

"We were just freshmen in the back, learning the ropes. But they were bright. Both of them -- Slade and Dan -- were exceedingly bright and I liked them because there was never any question about their honesty, or drinking, or anything at all" ("Oral History," 59).

Sally Gorton, Slade's wife, recalled that they all spent their evenings talking politics together, and she noted something Pritchard said during one of those sessions: "You can get a lot done if you don't worry about who's getting credit" (Hughes, 35). This would become a theme of Pritchard's political career.

Republicans were in the minority in the legislature. Pritchard called it a dull session, yet it confirmed in the minds of Pritchard, Evans, and Gorton that the Republicans needed a change in leadership in the legislature. They believed that the old guard in both parties was too beholden to special interests. Gorton recalled sitting in back with Pritchard, watching the lobbyists working on the members: "Joel turned to me one day and observed, 'He who can be pressured, will be pressured.' No one ever put it better" (Hughes, 36). In 1960, Pritchard nominated Evans to become the House Republican leader in what Pritchard would later call "one of the most important elections of all, in the long run" ("Oral History," 97). Evans narrowly won that leadership contest -- a key victory for the young Evans-Pritchard-Gorton Republican group over the old guard. It was, Pritchard said in hindsight, "the first brick" in what would lead to the governorship for Evans and eventually a Republican resurgence throughout the state. Yet at the the time he felt he was still bucking an entrenched system. As a freshman, he was a co-sponsor of several progressive civil-rights bills, including one that banned racial discrimination in housing. He believed in an "even playing field" ("Oral History," 74). Yet the real estate industry opposed it and the bill died in the state Senate.

Helping Elect Dan Evans

Pritchard was easily re-elected in 1960 and 1962. He never really had to campaign for his state House seat after that first election. He became an influential member of the Republican House caucus. "Everybody liked Joel," said fellow Republican House member Don Eldridge, "He could kind of joke his way into almost any circumstance" (Hughes, 34). Pritchard also, according to Hughes, "possessed uncanny political intuition," which served him well in 1963 (Hughes, 34). That year, Pritchard was part of a group of Republicans and dissident conservative Democrats who formed a secret plan to oust Democratic Speaker of the House John O'Brien (1911-2007) and elect Democrat William S. Day (1923-1984) as the Speaker. It was a risky move, largely engineered by Evans with guidance from Pritchard and others. It paid off handsomely, as the coalition took control of the House. The coalition session put Republicans in leadership positions, setting the stage for what would become a high point of Pritchard's career: helping elect Dan Evans governor in 1964.

Joel and his brother Frank became two of the key architects of Evans's campaign. Evans and Pritchard had long chafed under the regime of Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), who was running for his third term. Pritchard started laying the groundwork for an Evans run in June 1963. He and six or seven other people began to organize and line up support from legislators. At first, Evans was the darkest of dark horses. An early poll at a Republican meeting showed two other Republican contenders trouncing Evans, who only garnered 4 percent support. But this only made Joel and Frank Pritchard work harder -- "full-tilt, all-out," said Joel, for a year and half until the November 1964 election ("Oral History," 112). Joel headed up the extensive doorbelling campaign, lining up volunteers from all over the state. He also had papers printed up with the hopeful headline, "Evans Beats Rosellini, Wins Governor's Race," and handed them out at bus stops all over Seattle and Tacoma. After a year of campaigning, they got Evans up to 10 percent in the polls. Then the campaign began to take off. The newspapers were taking notice. Evans, an engineer, issued his "Blueprint for Progress," about how to lead the state into the future. With 30 days to go to the primary, Evans took the lead and won the primary going away.

Then they began to tackle Rosellini -- practically a state institution. "Oh yes, this was a big deal. And we were pretty young, and we were taking on giants" ("Oral History," 115). Evans said that Pritchard was his chief political strategist, "the one who could really figure out how to get the most out of volunteers, in a campaign that depended heavily on volunteers" ("Oral History," 138). It was a presidential election year and, nationally, Republicans were in trouble. However, when the votes were finally counted, Evans became one of the few Republicans to oust a Democrat in that election. Pritchard -- who would go on to win many of his own races -- called the Evans victory a highlight of his political life.

Pritchard immediately became a crucial part of what Evans called his "Kitchen Cabinet," although declining any official appointment. The young Republicans now had political clout, and they used it in a contentious redistricting battle that re-drew the lines for state legislative seats. For the next 12 years, Pritchard would be one of Evans's chief lieutenants in the legislature.

State Senate, Lofty Goals, and Pickleball

In 1966, a state Senate seat opened up in Pritchard's district. He decided to make the switch after being in the House for eight years, mainly because a Senate seat was a four-year term instead of two. He won the Senate election that year the same way he had won the last three House races, with virtually no opposition in his largely Republican district.

Evans called the legislative session of 1970 "a joyous time -- one of the rarest and most productive sessions that I have ever seen" ("Oral History," 141). Pritchard helped Evans shepherd several important bills through the legislature, including several key environmental bills and creation of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Also, said Evans, Pritchard "led the fight for women's right-of-choice" on abortion, an issue Pritchard was particularly adamant about ("Oral History," 141). Pritchard first became interested in the abortion issue after having dinner with an obstetrician who told him about problems women were having with botched illegal abortions. In the late 1960s, abortion was more of a religious issue than a partisan political issue: "mainly a Catholic-Protestant issue," said Pritchard ("Oral History," 161). Yet Pritchard looked at it differently, "as a medical issue," and from that standpoint he believed that something had to be done to make abortion legal and safe in the first trimester ("Oral History," 161). It took Pritchard two legislative sessions before it passed in 1970 by one vote. He would later take political heat for his stance, but that never bothered him: "I just thought it was right" ("Oral History," 163).

During this time, Evans and Pritchard also set their sights on other lofty goals -- climbing Washington's highest peaks. Pritchard accompanied Evans to the tops of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Olympus, but altitude sickness stopped Pritchard short of the top of Mount Rainier (a year later, however, he made it the summit). They would continue to climb and backpack together, activities that would feed their interest in environmental causes.

Meanwhile, Pritchard and his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum were busy inventing a brand new sport: pickleball (sometimes written Pickle-Ball). One summer afternoon in 1965 at Pritchard's Bainbridge Island cabin, the kids were bored so Pritchard said he'd create a new game for them. He lowered the net on his backyard badminton court, got out two old paddleball rackets, and borrowed a plastic whiffle-type ball from a neighbor boy. Over the next weeks Pritchard, Bell, and McCallum invented rules and designed better paddles, creating a sport that was fast and fun, but easy enough for people of all ages to play. It soon began to spread, and over the years became popular at community centers and retirement facilities. By 1990 the sport was being played on courts in all 50 states.

A Momentous Step

In March 1970, Pritchard took a momentous step -- he decided to quit the state legislature and run for U.S. Congress in the state's First Congressional District, representing much of Seattle. Some Seattle Republicans had concluded that Republican incumbent Tom Pelly had been in office long enough -- 18 years -- and they asked Pritchard if he would challenge Pelly. Pritchard told them, "I don't know," but by the time he drove home he was saying to himself, "I think I will" ("Oral History," 171). He later said he was "going into a midlife crisis" and it was "time to move on" ("Oral History," 184). This was not a particularly popular decision with many Republicans, who still backed Pelly. Pritchard mounted the kind of campaign he had become known for, with hundreds of doorbellers and volunteers. Pritchard called it a "wow of a campaign" ("Oral History," 184), but the "wow" factor wasn't quite enough. Pritchard drew only 46 percent of the primary vote and Pelly went on to win another term. Pritchard, however, was encouraged, seeing 46 percent as a good showing against an incumbent.

In 1972, Pelly announced that he would not run for health reasons. Pritchard was the natural choice to step in as the Republican candidate and easily won the primary. Yet he had a tough fight on his hands against Democrat John Hempelmann, in what was considered a good district for Democrats in 1972. Pritchard, in a rare stance for candidates of either party, was against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Pritchard had recently traveled to Vietnam, as a private citizen, talked to soldiers, and concluded that the U.S. should get out. On the morning after the election, Hempelmann led, late returns reversed the numbers and Pritchard squeaked out a one-percentage-point win. He was the sole Republican to win in Washington's U.S. House races. He retired from the envelope business and he and his family headed to Washington, D.C.

The Other Washington

In Congress, Pritchard gained a reputation as a maverick Republican for, among other things, refusing to back President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) during the Watergate scandal. Pritchard would later say he "thoroughly enjoyed Congress" and compared it to moving up to the baseball big leagues, in which everything is faster and tougher: "It's more competitive and I'm a very competitive person" ("Oral History," 191). He believed in bipartisan cooperation and had good relationships with the rest of the Washington State caucus, including the Democrats. He found he was surprisingly "simpatico," to use Pritchard's word ("Oral History," 197), with Democratic Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989). Pritchard and the other members of the delegation secured wilderness designation for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and the William O. Douglas Wilderness Area in Washington's Cascade Mountains. Pritchard, always an avid reader of history, also helped create the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

He was one of the few Republicans to vote against the bombing of Cambodia. He vigorously denied being "some kind of peacenik," yet his experience in combat taught him that "wars are just awful and you have to be very careful" ("Oral History," 225). Pritchard would go on to win Congressional elections five more times, usually by comfortable margins. After five years, he was appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- his first choice from the beginning. His marriage to Joan did not survive the move to the national capital. They divorced soon after he became a U.S. Representative. He later said she "didn't like politics particularly" ("Oral History," 193). He met and married his second wife, Demaris Brightman, in 1987 in Washington, D.C. That marriage lasted only a brief time.

When Pritchard first ran for Congress, he pledged not to serve more than 12 years. In 1984, those 12 years were up. "I wanted very much for him to forget about his twelve-year pledge and run again, but that was something he would not do," said Slade Gorton, by then a U.S. Senator ("Oral History," 152). Pritchard retired from Congress and worked briefly as a commentator on KIRO-TV in Seattle.

Lieutenant Governor

Then in 1988 he set his sights on a different elected position: lieutenant governor. Pritchard liked the fact that it was a relatively undefined position -- you could mold the office to whatever you wanted it to be. The lieutenant governor is president of the state Senate, a body he respected and knew well. His strong name recognition helped him win by a comfortable margin in the same election in which incumbent Democratic Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) was easily re-elected. (In Washington candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately, not as a team, and the positions have frequently been held by members of different parties). Pritchard used the office of lieutenant governor to promote literacy, and also promoted literacy on a personal level, volunteering as a tutor at Beacon Hill Elementary School in Seattle.

Pritchard was reelected in 1992. However, at the end of his second term, he discovered he had cancer and retired. He remained involved in community affairs, serving as a board member for TVW, the state's public-affairs television network. His illness progressed, however, and he died of lymphoma in Olympia on October 9, 1997, at age 72. Tributes poured in. The Associated Press called Pritchard "one of the lions of Washington's modern Republican Party" and former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley (1929-2013) called him "the cement that bonded us together" (Ammons). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said Pritchard "made Congress a better institution" ("Role Model"). At a jammed memorial service, Evans recited a list of well-known Pritchard sayings, including "Never look past the next election," and "This guy's got a bigger propeller than rudder" ("Oral History," 145-146).

Shortly before his death, Pritchard received a particularly touching tribute from his legislative colleagues -- one ensuring that his name will live on in Olympia. On April 26, 1997, the legislature renamed the Washington State Library the Joel M. Pritchard State Library. The renaming resolution cited his long record of public service and his "contributions to further the cause of literacy, to promote libraries and to encourage all Washington citizens to read" (Senate Concurrent Resolution 8417). The building is no longer used as a library -- it was later converted to a state office building -- but it retains the name the Joel M. Pritchard Building.


"Joel M. Pritchard, An Oral History," Washington State Legislature website accessed November 7, 2016 (; "Nancy Evans: First-rate First Lady," Washington Secretary of State website accessed November 7, 2016 (; John C. Hughes, Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics (Olympia: Office of the Secretary of State, 2011), copy available at Washington Secretary of State website accessed November 7, 2016 (; "History of the Game," USA Pickleball Association website accessed November 7, 2016 (; Jerry Large, "Pritchard Proves No Man's an Island," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1997; David Ammons, "State Political Giant Joel Pritchard Dies at 72," The Spokesman-Review, October 10, 1997, p. B-1; "Joel Pritchard Was a Political Role Model," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 11, 1997.

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