C. David Hughbanks was a force in Seattle's civic community for much of the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. His energy and enthusiasm knew no bounds, and though he was never a politician, there was a time when his name recognition rivaled that of some of the city's best-known leaders. He got his start as a volunteer at Seafair in the 1950s, was an events coordinator at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, and subsequently worked at Seattle Center for more than a decade. He is further remembered for his volunteer service and leadership in more than 50 civic organizations in the city. In 2021 HistoryLink interviewed Hughbanks about his life and work, and his thoughts and reflections follow.
Clarence David Hughbanks (he has always been known as David or C. David) was born on May 23, 1936, in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. He was the third, and last, child of Clarence Francis Hughbanks (1894-1955) and Ruth Ouilette Hughbanks (1904-2001); his older siblings were James (1932-2013) and Nancy (1933-1980). Hughbanks was a third generation Seattlelite; his grandfather, George A. Hughbanks (1861-1933), moved from Kentucky to Ballard in 1890. There he met Clorinda Borzone (1874-1960), an Italian immigrant, and they married on New Year's Day, 1894. David's father was born that December.
Clarence Hughbanks married Ruth Ouilette of Bellingham in 1928, and their children followed during the 1930s. Shortly after David was born, the family moved to a home with a commanding view of Shilshole Bay in Ballard's Sunset Hills neighborhood. His childhood memories include tending 40 chickens on the property (and mucking out the chicken coop) and picking 100 feet of raspberries, when they were in season, every second day in their two-lot vegetable garden. He enjoyed watching the ferry runs between Ballard and Port Ludlow. (The ferry docked just south of what is today Ray's Boathouse restaurant, but what in the 1940s was primarily a small boat rental and bait store, with a coffeehouse added in 1945.)
Clarence and Ruth were active in community groups -- Ruth served in the PTA and in a variety of civic organizations, including the board of the Cornish College of Arts. Clarence was active in the Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, and his favorite, the Kiwanis Club. (He was also well known in Ballard's business community. Between about 1925 and 1950, he and his partner, Reuben Jasperson, ran a successful 24-7 gas station on the corner of Leary Avenue NW and NW Market Street.) The family connections and David's affability and zeal won him an invitation to serve as president for a day at Rhodes department store in downtown Seattle on Junior Manager's Day in 1951. This was a prestigious opportunity offered once a year to up-and-coming students in the city who were completing ninth grade, and a picture in The Seattle Times shows Hughbanks holding court with some junior managers at a meeting in the president's office. It was a week after his 15th birthday.
He graduated from Ballard High School in 1954 and went to the University of Washington that fall, where he joined Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. He described himself as a "Hub jock," a reference to the Husky Union Building, a student gathering place, and was involved in a wide range of student activities. By 1956 he was chairman of the National Student Association for the university, and during his final year (1957-58) he was regional president of the Great Northwest Region of the U.S. National Student Association.
Hughbanks volunteered in Seafair during his college years and served in the annual event in various capacities between 1956 and 1960. He chaired the reviewing stand for both the Torchlight and Grand parades for three years, and he was vice chair of the Coronation Ball for the entire five years he volunteered at Seafair. "Seafair was a much bigger deal then," he said, adding, "It was my trip into the civic part of the city. That's how I got started" (interview).
The World's Fair
Hughbanks left college in 1958 without getting a degree. "I majored in coffee and school activities," he joked. "I was so busy with my outside activities by then I just quit going to school" (interview). He spent the next four years doing various odd jobs. He worked at The Boeing Company handling material control, and he drove a truck for the Ballard Blossom Shop. He later became a professional florist who specialized in handling the floral arrangements at large civic events and weddings. During the 1960s he began housesitting, at no charge, for friends and neighbors. What started out as an occasional thing expanded into an ongoing thing, sometimes with individual stints lasting for weeks at a time. Some years, he housesat for as many as 10 months out of the year. In between, he maintained quarters in the family home in Ballard.
Nevertheless, Hughbanks found himself adrift as the 1960s got underway, unable to decide what to do with his life. Then, in 1962, someone from the Century 21 Exposition (commonly referred to as the Seattle World's Fair) called. "I never had any plans of working at the World's Fair or at Seattle Center," Hughbanks recalled (interview). But someone suggested his name with the fair's vice president, Willis Camp (1913-1993). Camp invited Hughbanks in for an interview, and he liked the young man in the penny loafers. About a week after the fair opened, Camp hired Hughbanks to be Louis Larsen's (b. 1924) staff assistant in the fair's newly created Special Events Division.
Hughbanks coordinated many of the special events at the 74-acre fair, but the one that stood out for him nearly 60 years later was the closing ceremony at Memorial Stadium. He explained, "Five weeks before the fair closed, there were still no plans for the closing ceremony. The Special Events Division created a proposal, and I was given a crash assignment in coordinating it. Then I was told to produce it" (interview). He pulled it off: It was a memorable ceremony, and its ending -- with the World's Fair Band playing "Auld Lang Syne," and Metropolitan Opera Star Patrice Munsel (1925-2016) singing the words -- moved many in the crowd to tears.
Soon after the fair ended, a non-profit corporation, Century 21 Center, Inc., was formed to manage the parts of the Century 21 Center (for example, many of the buildings near the Armory) that were not managed by the City of Seattle or leased by private parties. Ewen Dingwall was named vice president and executive director of the new center, and in January 1963 Hughbanks was appointed as his administrative assistant. His duties were more complex than his title suggests. He handled special events and worked to attract people to the center. But the new corporation struggled, and by the end of the year Dingwall had accepted a new position in San Antonio as executive vice president to HemisFair '68 (San Antonio's world's fair). In 1964, Hughbanks left the center to work on the staff of the (Joe) "Gandy for Governor" campaign.
In 1965, the City of Seattle took over management of the entire center (with the exception of privately owned structures, such as the Space Needle) and renamed it Seattle Center. The city also created a city department, aptly named Seattle Center, to handle the managerial tasks. In a rather complicated arrangement, Hughbanks was rehired by the center as a paid employee but was simultaneously appointed by Mayor James "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) to a special task force of five professionals to reorganize the center staff into the new city department. He also became a staff member on the Seattle Center Advisory Commission, which was formed to function as a liaison between the public, the Seattle Center, and the City of Seattle. At the center, he continued to handle special events and additionally served as its long-range project manager. "It became a year-long, seven-day a week job," recalled Hughbanks. "[But] it was pretty damn exciting. It was the most important part of my professional civic work" (interview).
He explained further. "In its first 15 years, [Seattle Center] became the center for the greatest collection of Seattle's performing and visual arts, civic festivals, traveling stage shows, and popular national and international performing artists. The success of Seattle Center drove the ultimate building of the convention center, the [Kingdome], the renewal of the few remaining downtown theater buildings, and a new arts museum and a symphony hall. All of these activities were at Seattle Center for its first 15 years" (e-mail). Other arts attractions which were formed at the center stayed at the center, such as the opera, the Pacific Science Center, and the Seattle's Children's Museum. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the center's early role in providing a springboard to make the arts what they are today in Seattle.
In 1970 the center "loaned" Hughbanks part-time to the Department of Community Development, where he handled the publicity surrounding an upcoming vote on a proposal to build a domed stadium at Seattle Center. However, voters rejected the proposal. He returned to Seattle Center full time in early 1971, this time with the title of assistant director to the new director, Jack Fearey (1923-2007). "By this time, Seafair was starting to become a little old hat," Hughbanks said. "A new, young population was coming up with new ideas" (interview). At the same time, Seattle was suffering from the economic effects of the Boeing Bust of the preceding two years, which resulted in the loss of more than 67,000 jobs at the company. A new summer celebration was needed for the city.
Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) had recently attended the Mayor's Convention in New York City and had been impressed by the Mayor's Art Festival he had seen there. There was a feeling that something similar could be done in Seattle, and Hughbanks (and others) created not one but two arts and music festivals at Seattle Center to reflect a newer, more modern city. "The emphasis was originally to be more arts-focused as opposed to music, but it kind of evolved that way [with an emphasis on music]," he said (interview). The first festival, now known as Bumbershoot, was held in August 1971 and is held annually at the end of the summer; the annual Northwest Folklife Festival followed in May 1972 and is held in the late spring.
In 1971 and 1972, the late-summer festival was known simply as Festival '71 and Festival '72. After the 1972 event, there was a growing feeling that a catchier name was called for. Hughbanks recalled that he and others were debating a new name for the festival at a meeting with Mayor Uhlman when Retha Rockey, the wife of Jay Rockey (Director of Public Relations at the 1962 fair), suggested "Bumbershoot." Hughbanks explained, "She said 'it's sort of an umbrella of what went on across the region all summer long. Why don't we just call it Bumbershoot, like the English term for umbrella?'" (interview).
Making a Difference, Making an Impression
During the 1970s Hughbanks became increasingly active as a volunteer leader in PONCHO, and served as its president for the 1979-1980 term. PONCHO, an acronym for Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations, was one of Seattle's premier fundraising organizations for the arts for 50 years. Though Hughbanks is especially remembered for his work in this organization, his volunteer work in the arts was hardly limited to PONCHO. Among other arts organizations, he also served as a chair or president of A Contemporary Theatre, the King County Arts Commission, and the world-renowned Pilchuck Glass School, a position he said he especially enjoyed.
Hughbanks left Seattle Center in February 1976, saying it was "time to make a change" ("Friday's Fragments"). The center threw a huge farewell party for him which, despite a driving rainstorm, attracted hundreds of guests. There were big names from Seattle's civic community -- Morris (Morrie) and Joan Alhadeff, T. Evans and Ann Wyckoff, Stewart and Rosemary Ballinger -- and friends from the City of Seattle and Seattle Center. But the event was hardly limited to big names. Friends from Ballard High School and the University of Washington were there, as were his mother, siblings, and other relatives. In a reflection of Hughbanks's popularity, tenants from Seattle Center also were at the party. The Post-Intelligencer identified them simply by their job descriptions: "the perfume man," "the pottery lady," and "the Belgian waffle lady" ("Party of Farewell").
Later that year Hughbanks went to work for The Rockey Company, a leading public relations firm in the Pacific Northwest, which was founded by Jay Rockey (1928-2018) after his stint at the World's Fair. It was a natural position for the gregarious Hughbanks to take. Though he modestly maintained in his interview that he was "not a PR guy," he was indeed that. "[He's] the life of every party," declared a 1976 Post-Intelligencer article ("Party of Farewell"), while a 1978 article in the same paper added, "David is the quintessential public relations man. People like him. He likes them" ("The Moveable Feaster"). Hughbanks held this job for 12 years. Among other projects, he handled the public relations surrounding the 1977 opening of the Seattle Aquarium, the remodeling and reopening of Seattle's Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in the early 1980s, and the opening of the Kitsap Mall in Silverdale (Kitsap County) in 1985.
In March 1988, Hughbanks left The Rockey Company to serve as the interim director of Seattle Center. The assignment ended in late August, and afterward he launched his own community affairs firm, C. David Hughbanks and Associates. He considered himself not a PR man but a community affairs consultant whose job was to "help institutions, non-profits, and profit makers introduce and establish themselves in the community. Sometimes I worked with PR firms, sometimes not" (interview). Some of his more well-known clients during the nearly 11 years he managed the company included the Bellevue Art Museum, Brooks Brothers, and the City of Bremerton. Among other projects, he organized and managed the "Moscow: Treasures and Traditions" arts exhibition at the Convention Center for Seattle's Goodwill Games in 1990, while one of his final projects came in 1998 and 1999 when he worked with the community to press ahead with the Washington State Convention and Trade Center expansion, which was completed in 2001.
In 1999 Hughbanks left his company to serve as executive director of Magnuson Park, Seattle's second largest in terms of acreage, in the city's Sand Point neighborhood. There, he oversaw the beginnings of the park's expansion and development into an urban park. He left there in 2002 and worked on various projects for the next seven years. In 2009, at age 73, he was hired as the executive director of the 150-acre Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island (Kitsap County). His term ended in 2010, but he stayed on its board until 2020. He explained, "Bloedel had been considered a toy for the rich people from Seattle" (interview), but he worked to change that, and involved the reserve more in the Bainbridge Island community. This included planting trees and other landscaping at the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island at the old Eagledale ferry dock, located on the other side of Eagle Harbor from the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal. Hughbanks said it was the first time Bloedel had ever been involved in any off-site volunteer civic projects. And he changed of the reservation system at the reserve, making it easier for the public to visit.
In the summer of 2021, the 85-year-old Hughbanks was living quietly in the family home in Ballard. He was slowly downsizing: He had donated his collection of the first 25 years of Bumbershoot posters to MOHAI, and he had more recently shed something even more dear to him -- his cherry-red 1966 Mustang convertible, his pride and joy for 55 years. ("It had nearly 1,100,000 miles on the speedometer," he added proudly.) He still had his mustache, a Hughbanks trademark since the early 1970s, but even that was trimmed back from its earlier, fuller version. He described himself as "sort of fully retired ... I'm still involved with several city-wide non-profit boards" (interview), but it was a far more placid life.
Hughbanks served in more than 50 civic organizations and served on at least two dozen boards. In addition to those already mentioned, a few of the more well-known boards he sat on included the boards of the Rotary Club of Seattle, the Seattle Parks Foundation, the University of Washington National Alumni Board, and the Woodland Park Zoological Society. He received numerous noteworthy honors, including being awarded the 1989 Seattle Center Legion of Honor, being named Citizen of the Year by Seattle's Municipal League in 1996, and being named the 50th Seafair Prime Minister in 1999.
As his interview wound down, he was asked for his thoughts about the dramatic changes in Seattle during the preceding few years -- months of protests and riots in 2020, an enormous surge of homeless that threatened public safety, and a startling deterioration downtown. He gave a classic Hughbanks response. "We've got to reactivate downtown," he said emphatically. "It will never be what it was, but retail isn't what it was. That doesn't mean you don't move on ... I don't think the [Seattle] spirit's battered, but we need to take better care of the city, take better care of ourselves, and stop making excuses."