Pelly, Thomas M. (1902-1973)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/04/2005
  • Essay 7199
See Additional Media

Thomas Minor Pelly was a Seattle civic leader and a 10-term Congressional Representative for the 1st District (King and Kitsap counties). He fought to protect Puget Sound fishing interests. He was a strong proponent of environmental protection, introducing a bill to create the North Cascades National Park and pressing for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Thomas Pelly First Citizen of 1950.

Early Life

He was born in Seattle on August 22, 1902. His father was Bernard Pelly, the British vice-Consul and then Consul to Seattle. His mother was Elizabeth Montgomery Minor Pelly, a member of one of Seattle's prominent families. Her father, Thomas T. Minor, was Mayor of Seattle from 1887 to 1889.

Thomas Pelly attended Summit School in Seattle and graduated from the University School in Victoria, British Columbia. He later took specialized courses at the Hoosac School in Hoosick, New York. Until he reached the age of 21, Thomas Pelly held dual British and American citizenship. At age 21, Pelly renounced his British citizenship.

He began his long and illustrious career putting up "For Sale" signs for the West and Wheeler Real Estate Company. In 1921 he became a foot messenger for the Seattle National Bank. By the late 1920s Pelly had worked his way up through the ranks and become a trust officer for Seattle National Bank. In 1930 he resigned from the bank and took a position with Lowman and Handford Stationery Company, a Seattle stationers and printing company. In 1935 he was named Lowman and Handford president.

In he 1927 Thomas Pelly married Mary Virginia Taylor. The couple met when Mary, a Washington, D.C. native, was visiting an uncle on Bainbridge Island following the death of her father. Thomas Pelly's family lived nearby. Thomas and Mary (Taylor) Pelly had a daughter, Marion Elizabeth, and a son, Thomas Minor Pelly Jr.

During Pelly's years at Lowman and Hanford he wrote and published several books: Judgement, and other poems; North-Westward; The Story of Restoration Point and Country Club; and Dr. Minor: A Sketch of the Background and Life of Thos. T. Minor, M.D.

A Life in Politics

Pelly's first brush with politics was fleeting and unsuccessful: In 1932 he ran for a seat in the State Legislature from Kitsap County. His opponent went to court in attempt to qualify Pelly as a British subject. Pelly won the case handily. But, in the Democratic sweep of 1932, he lost the election just as handily The Seattle Times, February 20, 1966).

During World War II, Pelly worked on the Seattle United Service Organization (USO) Council. The USO is an organization chartered by Congress to organize recreation for military personnel. The Seattle USO sponsored a servicemen's canteen at 1011 2nd Avenue, among many other services. Pelly served as vice-chair of the Seattle Community Chest and held seats on the boards of directors of the Seattle Symphony, the Seattle Art Museum, the Lakeside School, and the Helen Bush School. He was a director of the Seattle Trust and Savings Bank, the Olympia State Bank and Trust Company, the Shaw and Borden Company in Spokane, and Johnson's Inc. of Spokane. He was also an active lay worker at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Seattle Chamber of Commerce

In 1949 Thomas Pelly was elected president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He scaled back all of his other civic commitments in order to concentrate on the Chamber. He stated, "I dropped everything but my Chamber work and one hour a day for my business" (The Seattle Times, April 29, 1951). Pelly facilitated a long-sought purchase agreement between city officials and Puget Sound Power and Light. He appointed a committee that  finally brought the Black Ball Line and Governor Arthur R. Langlie together on the purchase of the ferryboat system -- after the two factions had broken off negotiations (The Seattle Times, April 29, 1951). During his terms as president he was an ambassador of all things Seattle throughout the rest of the state. The Seattle Times reported that "Pelly has visited every county in the state to 'sell' his home city and to achieve closer co-operation between it and other Washington communities" (December 24, 1950).

Summing up Pelly's Chamber work, Times, reporter Margaret Strachan stated, "Possibly Seattle has learned more than Pelly during this term of his presidency, for the city is finding out how valuable a man a chamber president can be when he actually works at the job. It is said of Pelly that he is always dependable. If he promises to make a speech, he shows up. Even if he resents the fact that the president is supposed to be that 'official greeter,' still he meets every ship that docks with an important personage aboard. He attended most of the sessions of the Legislature and when in Seattle he never misses the noon meeting of the Chamber (April 29, 1951).

First Citizen

On January 24, 1951, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Thomas Pelly "First Citizen of the Year." Real Estate Board president Leslie W. Eastman said, "This award is one which we are proud to bestow on a man of Mr. Pelly's stature and accomplishments in the community, not only during the past year but for his many contributions through many years" (The Seattle Times, December 24, 1950).

Pelly was at the time serving his second term as the president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. "The award was made because of 'the fine job' Pelly has done in 'selling Seattle' and its accomplishments to the entire state" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 1950). The awards ceremony, attended by more than 500 people, was held in the Spanish Ballroom of The Olympic Hotel.

Congressional Career

Pelly's work representing Seattle throughout the state for the City Council was only a warm-up act for what would be his greater legacy: 10 terms as the 1st District Congressional Representative to the United States Congress. Pelly was a member of the Republican Party. On November 4, 1952, he won the 1st District Congressional election with a 51.37 percent majority. He was re-elected nine more times, eventually holding the seat for 20 years. He won his first election by the closest margin. His strongest race was in 1966, when he won with a majority of 80.27 percent. In that election Pelly became the first Republican candidate for Congress to win official endorsement from the King County Central Labor Council.

Pelly's task as a freshman congressman was formidable. According to his obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"When Pelly, still naive in the ways of politics, was elected to Congress in the Eisenhower sweep of 1952 the state's 1st District contained all of King and Kitsap counties. Not only was it the largest district, by population, but in those early 'cold war' days it harbored most of the state's key defense industries -- Boeing, the shipyards, Pier 91 Naval Supply Depot, Sand Point Naval Air Station, and Ft. Lawton in Seattle and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Keyport Torpedo Station, and the Bangor Ammunition Depot in Kitsap County. Representing those diverse and often conflicting interests called for adroitness if Pelly was to survive politically. It also brought him into almost daily contact with every major business, military and labor leader in the Puget Sound area. By the time Pelly was facing his first test for reelection in 1954 the first-term congressman was as much at home in labor temples as he was in the Rainier Club" (November 23, 1973).

Maritime Issues

Fisheries and the rights of fishermen was one of Pelly's primary areas of concern. He served on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Again, according to the lengthy P-I obit,  "He repeatedly introduced and worked for legislation to improve merchant marine working conditions, to ban foreign fish imports which were devastating American markets, and develop homeport elements of the U.S. Navy in the Puget Sound area ... he strongly supported a 12-mile fishing reserve ... he and Sen. Magnuson were at the forefront of the battle to get this country to impose sanctions on South American nations who impounded U.S. fishing vessels for 'violating' their claimed 200-mile limit" (November 23, 1973).

Pelly fought vigorously against United States shipbuilding contracts abroad. Puget Sound shipbuilding firms, he protested, had a proven track record of best-quality work. Toward this goal he introduced legislation making the U.S. Maritime Administration an independent agency.

He supported Seattle's burgeoning oceanographic research industry, facilitating the establishment of the Joint Oceanographic Research Group in Seattle in July 1965. The Joint Oceanographic Research Group was an arm of the federal Environmental Science Services Administration.

Pelly was the only Northwest congressman to serve on the House Science and Astronautics Committee during the buildup to 1960s lunar exploration. This was key for Seattle's aerospace industry. Boeing was intimately involved with the development of the manned space program. Pelly also helped establish Seattle as an important gateway city for airline routes.

The Environment and the Elderly

Pelly voted repeatedly to support environmental resource conservation. He voted against, among other things, H.R. 4671, a 1966 proposal to build two dams near the Grand Canyon. In addition to altruistic motives about maintaining the Grand Canyon's integrity, Pelly also feared the project would negatively impact the Columbia basin if the Columbia River was used to supplement the Colorado River as part of the dam plans.

Thomas Pelly called for inflationary adjustments to social security benefits to the elderly, introducing H.R. 16551, a bill to amend the Social Security Act. In 1966, he told the House of Representatives, "We cannot expect the elderly to be able to satisfy their physical or spiritual needs until and unless they are assured of an adequate minimum income, nor should we deny them the right to increase their incomes as they are able. ... Inflation hurts most those retired persons living on a fixed income. ... Senior citizens right now are our forgotten citizens" (U.S. Congressional Record, August 1, 1966). Pelly also supported an income tax credit for tuition and tax relief for college students and their parents.

In 1972 Pelly introduced H.R. 17202 establishing the North Cascades National Park. He introduced into the Congressional Record petitions with more than 30,000 signatures supporting the park. The Mountaineers, the Sierra Club, and the North Cascades Conservation Council had gathered the signatures.

Over the years Pelly's name was floated for other elected positions: In 1966 Washington Republicans hoped that he would be chosen as Richard Nixon's running mate in the Presidential election. In 1963 The Seattle Times reported that Pelly was "giving serious consideration to seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 1964" (June 11, 1963). In the end Pelly continued to seek and win re-election to his Congressional seat.

Last Days

In 1972 Pelly made the difficult decision not to seek an 11th term. Despite a mild heart attack that caused him to miss the Seattle testimonial dinner that honored his long career, Pelly appeared to be in fairly good health. An avid golfer and outdoorsman, he looked forward to a long retirement. It was not to be.

Thomas Pelly died November 21, 1973, while on vacation in Ojai, California. He was 71 years old. His successor in the 1st Congressional seat, Representative Joel Pritchard, said of Pelly, "He had a host of friends in Congress. He was highly respected because he not only was an excellent public servant but always a gentleman. At a time when people are talking about the integrity of public officials, Tom's record stands beyond reproach" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 23, 1973).


"Thomas M. Pelly Dies at Age 71," The Seattle Times, November 22, 1973; Richard W. Larsen, "Pelly Decision Tough But Not Unexpected," Ibid., December 8, 1971; Richard W. Larsen, "Rep. Pelly Decides Not to Run For Re-Election," Ibid., December 7, 1971; Paul Staples, "Union Committee Will Aid Pelly," Ibid., October 22, 1968; "Tom Pelly -- He Keeps An Eye of the Budget And The Lion," Ibid., February 20, 1966; "Pelly Ponders Entering Race For Governor," Ibid., June 11, 1963; "Delegation Departs: Lodge In Lead as Nixon's Running Mate, Says Pelly," Ibid., July 23, 1960; "State Offers Pelly For Second Spot," Ibid., July 20, 1960; "Your Congressman: Lawmaking is Only Part of Their Work," Ibid., June 21, 1959; Margaret Pitcairn Straichan, "Thomas M. Pelly; Man Who Gets Things Done," Ibid., April 29, 1951; "A Bit OF History -- And Everlasting Appreciation to Congressman Thomas M. Pelly," The Wild Cascades, January 1972-January 1973; "Candidates Speak Out: An Interview With Thomas Pelly," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 8, 1970; "Pelly Urges State Department to Back Alaska Pipeline," Ibid., March 24, 1971; "Tom Pelly Misses a Grand Testimonial Party," Ibid., December 5, 1972; "Ex-Rep. Pelly Is Dead," Ibid., November 23, 1973; Maxine Cushing Gray, "Tom Pelly Says He'll Vote For Arts Money Again," Argus, January 9, 1970; "Pelly Presses for Environmental Protection Agency: Speech of Hon. Thomas M. Pelly of Washington in the House of Representatives," Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 91st Congress, Second Session, July 9, 1970; "Progress With Pelly," pamphlet, University of Washington Special Collections Biographical Pamphlet file (Pelly for Congress Committee, ca. 1968); Thomas M. Pelly, "Labor and Management," The Seattle Times, September 2, 1951; "Pelly Would Present Bill For Civil Rights," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 22, 1956; "Our Senior Citizens: Our Forgotten Citizens," extension of remarks of Hon. Thomas M. Pelly, U.S. Congressional Record, August 1, 1966; "Speech of Thomas M. Pelly of Washington in the House of Representatives," U.S. Congressional Record, June 2, 1966; "Speech of Hon. Thomas M. Pelly: Alaska's Rampart Dam is Wanton and Unnecessary," U.S. Congressional Record, October 12, 1965; "Pelly Named As Seattle's First Citizen," The Seattle Times, December 24, 1950; "Thomas Pelly Chosen City's First Citizen," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 1950; "Thomas Pelly Is Named 'First Citizen,'" The Seattle Times, January 25, 1951; "Realtors Fete Thomas Pelly," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 25, 1951; "Thomas M. Pelly Candidate Details," Our Campaigns Website accessed August 24, 2004 (; "Pelly, Thomas Minor, 1902-1973," Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress website accessed August 24, 2004 (; Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washingto Vol. 3 (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing Company, 1929), 534; "Mary Pelly, Congressman's Wife And Convert to Western Outdoors," The Seattle Times, July 16, 1994; T. M. Pelly, Judgement, and Other Poems (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1925); T. M. Pelly, North-Westward (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1930); T. M. Pelly, The Story of Restoration Point and Country Club (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1931); T. M. Pelly, Dr. Minor: A Sketch of the Background and Life of Thos. T. Minor, M.D (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1933).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You