Reid, John H. (1873-1960)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 1/04/2005
  • Essay 7197
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John H. Reid came to the United States as a 4-year-old, was orphaned twice, and overcame a harsh, lonely boyhood to create a full, rich life as a Seattle newspaper publisher, civic activist, and paterfamilias of a large, close family. He founded the University District Herald in 1917 and used his newspaper to foster development of the University District. He was deeply aware of "the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship" and devoted enormous energy to public service, particularly in education. He and his wife Harriet raised their nine children in "a closeness that few could match" (Tom McKenna). All nine children graduated from the University of Washington, for which the school in 1941 awarded John and Harriet Reid an honorary degree, "Parentes Extraordinarii," only the third honorary degree awarded by the university up to that time. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named John Reid First Citizen of 1948 in honor of his many civic accomplishments.

Scandinavian Stock

John Reid was born in Oslo, Norway, on June 27, 1873, and was brought to the United States at age 4 by his foster parents, Peter and Kristine Rodal. Peter Rodal, a house painter and interior decorator, had been a colleague of John's father, who had been impoverished by the early-1870s worldwide depression. The Rodals Americanized their name to "Reid."

They homesteaded 160 acres in the Red River Valley, joining other immigrants struggling to scratch a life out of the prairie and their first dwelling was a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. It was on the Buffalo River, a tributary of the Red River of the North, the Minnesota-North Dakota boundary. The frontier life was harsh, unforgiving, and their first crop of oats was destroyed by a hail storm. It was an isolated, lonely life for the shy boy, and his difficulties were compounded by his limited English.

There were some benefits, however. He learned survival skills to help supplement the family's meager larder -- trapping, fishing, and salting down his catch for winter. And then there was Miss Carrie Deming, his first schoolteacher. "She was the first person in my life to plant the seeds of love and affection ... she taught courtesy, good manners, respect for others, morals and right living," John Reid wrote in his autobiography, Adopted by the United States. But he was needed on the farm and his formal education, such as it was, abruptly ended.

Orphaned Again

Tragedy struck six years after their arrival when his foster father Peter succumbed to tuberculosis. Kristine, in failing health from the same disease, died shortly thereafter. He was taken in by the Dinsmores, a neighboring farm family with two children, and a few months later was invited to live with the family of Captain Luther Osborn, though the Osborns already had eight children.

Osborn published the weekly Red River Valley News in Glyndon, a thriving town founded by immigrants from New England. In this upper-middle-class environment, a world away from the homestead, he was introduced to "culture, education and refinement" as well as to Osborn's library and his Republican politics. He began working as a printer's devil -- an apprentice -- at the newspaper, with Osborn as his "mentor and inspiration." His life stabilized further when he attended an evangelist's revival services and "I was led to profess my desire to lead a Christian life" (Reid).

A Quick Read

He must have learned the newspaper trade quickly because Osborn left 18-year-old John in charge of the newspaper for a few months in 1892, when Osborn accepted a political post in Washington, D.C. Reid remained at the News until he was 25, when he started his own paper, the Clay County Herald, in the nearby town of Hawley.

The paper thrived and in 1902 he married Harriet Shave. They would bear nine children: Beatrice Laura, born in 1903; Frances Harriet, 1904; Alice Mildred, 1906; Kenneth Sebley, 1908; Margaret Elaine, 1910; Dorothy May, 1911; Ethel Jean, 1913; Walter John, 1916, and Elinor Rose, 1918.

He used his newspaper's bully pulpit to lobby for board sidewalks, paved streets, and other municipal improvements. As further measure of his adaptation to his new land, he became manager of Hawley's baseball team and a Sunday school teacher.

Depression Victim Again

The good life in Hawley ended, however, when drought, disease, hailstorms, and a looming depression ruined Minnesota farmers. Reid was forced to abandon the paper, but he found work as a printer in Duluth, Minnesota. It was an open (nonunion) shop, however, and after a few months John began looking elsewhere. He had found that Typographical Union printers had "the greatest skill and dependability." Letters from an old Glyndon friend, C. B. Kittredge, had extolled the virtues of Seattle and in November 1906 John, Harriet, and their three daughters headed west.

They arrived on a Sunday and Reid found work the next day at The Seattle Times. "In contrast with the drab prairies of the Midwest, Seattle was nothing short of the end of the rainbow" (Reid).

In 1907, he bought The Vashon Island News, supplementing his income by dabbling in real estate. He later wrote, "The years on Vashon were golden years" (Reid).

The University District Herald

He purchased a printing plant in Seattle's University District in 1912 and five years later founded the weekly, University District Herald. The first edition -- 3,500 copies -- was published on July 6, 1917, and it was distributed free, supported solely by advertising. A free weekly newspaper was a revolutionary concept at the time. His philosophy: "I have always believed that a newspaper should work for the advancement of education, should support all religious effort, should give full publicity to all political issues, should support all efforts toward community betterment, promote business and be loyal to advertisers" (Reid).

As he had in Hawley and on Vashon Island, Reid immersed himself fully in the University District community. Reid generally would include an editorial commentary with the mix of local news and announcements. His editorials focused mostly on local civic projects and concerns, but he occasionally ventured into the national political scene. The editorial policy was unabashedly Republican, but his commentary October 5, 1953, chided President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) for appointing liberal California Governor Earl Warren (1891-1974) ("a middle-of-the-road politician") as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

University District Promoter

Reid promoted "projects essential to the welfare and growth of the entire district" (Reid) and his Herald became a force in the rapidly developing community. He lobbied for the new University Bridge that was built in 1919 and chaired the committee that in 1922 successfully promoted the construction of Roosevelt High School, despite complaints that it was "out in the sticks" and wouldn't attract enough students.

All of the Reid girls and boys worked at the paper or printing plant during their formative years, but only Walter ("Wally") made it a career. After John Reid sold his interest in the newspaper and printing plant in 1958, Wally Reid, with Howard Rosenthal as his partner, ran the business for many years. 

John Reid did not limit his civic energies to the University District. Education was a paramount concern and he won election to the Seattle School Board in 1941, serving 14 years, some of those as vice president and president of the board. "The expenditure of public money is a sacred public trust," he said.

Civic Activism

He was active in the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and served as president of the University Commercial Club, Seattle Civic Theatre Association, Seattle Master Printers, and the Washington State Newspaper Publishers Association. He was a board member of the YMCA and Seattle General Hospital, a trustee of the Municipal League, and a member of the Seattle Historical Society. During World War II, he was a member of the Draft Board in Seattle. He wrote, "I cannot recall a time when I did not sense the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship"  (Reid).

He also was active in the University Congregational Church, serving many years as superintendent of the Sunday school. Said the Rev. Dale Turner, former pastor who retired in 1982: "He was a wonderfully kind and thoughtful man ... one of the best people we ever had in the church."

John Reid was active in the Republican Party, serving as precinct committeeman for the 49th District, and was active in Freemasonry, including the Philalethes (fill-a-LAY-theez) Society, a research lodge devoted to intellectual inquiry and a search for the truth. In addition to the Herald, he founded the Masonic Tribune.

A Large, Close Family

Despite his exhausting schedule, John Reid "always had time for the family." Dinner was a family affair, complete with "tablecloth, napkins with ring holders, a flower arrangement, and our father would say grace .... Friends reminded us constantly about how lucky we kids were to have Momma and Poppa for parents" (Ethel Ralkowski). "After going through difficult times, sometimes living with complete strangers, Gramps [the family nickname] had a tremendous appreciation for family .... This family had a closeness that few could match" (Tom McKenna).

John Reid had retained his Vashon property and it became a family compound and a catalyst, still enjoyed by his heirs. The Fourth of July was a monstrous family fireworks show, "shooting rockets out over Puget Sound" (Tom McKenna). Christmas meant "a huge sitdown dinner at the Meany Hotel in the University District with lots of cousins" (Jan Ralkowski).

The University of Washington in 1941 gave John and Harriet Reid an honorary degree, "Parentes Extraordinarii," for graduating all nine of their children from the school. At the time, it was only the third honorary degree awarded by the university. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors awarded its Citizen of the Year Award to John Reid in January 1948.

Eight months earlier, on May 16, 1947, Harriet Reid had died. In 1948, John married Isobel Reeves.

In 1956, John fulfilled a lifelong dream and sailed for Norway to find his long-lost family. After nearly a month of sleuthing, he discovered that his Danish father, Johan Heinrich Hansen, born in 1838, had married a Norwegian, Ingeborg Gaarder, born in 1845. In addition to John, there were three other children, two of whom had survived and were living in Denmark: widows Johanna Hervik and Harriet Nyborg.

Reid sold his interest in the Herald in 1958. He died on July 29, 1960, after a lengthy illness, leaving 18 grandchildren.


John H. Reid, Adopted By the United States (Seattle: John H. Reid, 1960); Washington Northwest Frontier, Vol. 4, pp. 437; University District Herald, October 1, 1953, October 15, 1953; The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer archives; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: University District -- Thumbnail History (by Paul Dorpat), (accessed July 20, 2003); Frank Chesley interviews with Wally Reid, July 9, 2004; Ethel Ralkowski, July 12, 2004; Jan Ralkowski, July 13, 2004; Tom McKenna, July 14, 2004; Ann Reid, July 14, 2004; the Rev. Dale Turner, July 9, 2004; Ann Reid, email to, October 12, 2015, copy in possession of HistoryLink.
Note: This essay was corrected on November 20, 2015.

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