Seattle Artifacts: A Man of History, Walt Crowley, Influenced Seattle’s Future and Preserved Its Past
Crowley worked tirelessly to promote civil liberties for people of all backgrounds and wasn’t afraid to reach across the political aisle for solutions
By Brad Holden
November 11, 2022
Nestled slightly above the hustle and bustle of Pike Place Market sits the office headquarters for HistoryLink, which has provided Washington state history for online readers since 1998. It predates Wikipedia by more than three years.
My first visit there happened after a chance lunch encounter with Marie McCaffrey, the site’s cofounder and executive director. Always the cordial host, Marie gave me a quick tour of the small space and as soon as we walked into her office my attention was immediately grabbed by an object sitting on her windowsill. It had belonged to Marie’s late husband, who was also one of the site’s cofounders. I was familiar with his story, so seeing the keepsake in its original habitat gave it a visceral quality that made it especially captivating.
It was a trusty old tool that played an important role in producing countless magazine and newspaper articles and several books, as well as planting the seeds for HistoryLink itself. It helped dispense valuable discourse during some of Seattle’s most tumultuous times, changing the course of local politics and influencing the character of the city itself. It was Walt Crowley’s typewriter.
Crowley’s journey as a writer began in the late 1960s, amid the turbulent backdrop of a divided nation. Protests against the Vietnam War were becoming increasingly volatile, a growing civil rights movement was in full swing and there were several high-profile political assassinations. Here in Seattle, a civil rights activist by the name of Aaron Dixon started a local chapter of the Black Panther Party and would later be jailed for “unlawful assembly” at Franklin High School, triggering riots in the city’s Central District.
During this same period, thousands of anti-war protestors shut down I-5; a leftist activist group, whom the local press dubbed “The Seattle Seven,” would face trial for inciting a riot; and members of the Minutemen, a right-wing paramilitary organization, were arrested after the FBI discovered their plans to rob local banks and blow up Redmond City Hall. It was a social landscape that certainly bears a resemblance to the one we live in today.
During this era, Crowley helped kickstart “The Helix,” an underground newspaper intended for Seattle’s growing hippie population. It featured a mishmash of left-leaning politics, underground drug culture and rock music reviews. “The Helix” paved the way for such future alt-weeklies as “The Stranger,” and was published from 1967 through 1970.
Walt’s role at “The Helix” included everything from writing columns to drawing cartoons, with occasional stints as editor. He was known for being eloquent and well-spoken, so would frequently serve as the paper’s spokesperson. Marie still recalls her late husband’s impressive vocabulary, and anytime the local media needed a statement from the city’s hippie contingent, they would often seek out Crowley at the paper’s University District headquarters.
A year later, in 1968, Crowley decided to run for state representative as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party. He espoused the values of the so-called New Left, which virulently opposed the war and campaigned for a broad range of social issues such as civil rights, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. Despite being a representative of what many at the time viewed as liberal extremism, Walt tempered his political beliefs with a hefty dose of moderate pragmatism.
Speaking to reporters at the time, Crowley described himself as, “Not a dogmatist, not a communist, [but] the son of solid citizens, a person who would not dream of burning the American flag.” His campaign slogan was “Community Not Chaos,” and the “Seattle Times” hailed the 21-year-old candidate as a “man of candor and intelligence.”
After his bid for political office proved unsuccessful, he continued working at “The Helix” in various capacities until the paper folded in 1970. Afterward, Crowley continued to be engaged in various political causes, including helping to defeat Seattle Initiative 13 in 1978, which would have repealed ordinances that prohibited housing and employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.
While Crowley worked tirelessly to promote civil liberties for people of all backgrounds, he was not afraid to reach across the political aisle in search of solutions to various issues. “If you are really serious about social change, you’ve got to work with all people, not just campus revolutionaries,” he once remarked to the “Seattle P-I.” He organized community conferences that included panels composed of people from all belief systems, ranging from Christian conservatives to anarchists and everyone in between.
As an activist, he believed that direct community involvement was always more effective than shouting about such issues from the sidelines. As he would later comment, “Throwing a rock through a window or yelling ‘pig’ or living in a commune didn’t make any sense to me.”
He cut his long hair, traded his hippie couture for button-up shirts and ties (often of the bow tie variety) and began working as a community coordinator for the City of Seattle’s neighborhood-action division, and later the city’s Office of Policy Planning. He was now an involved bureaucrat.
As the ’70s gave way to the Reagan era of the 1980s, Crowley entered the local media landscape when he began cohosting a local KIRO-TV political debate program called “Point-Counterpoint” with local conservative personality John Carlson. During each episode, the two men would engage in a back-and-forth verbal jousting on various issues of the day. Despite acting as Carlson’s political foil on the show, there was always a large degree of mutual respect between the two men, with Crowley describing Carlson as “attractive, personable, smart, a true believer.”
The duo sparred more than 700 times on the air before the show was canceled in 1993. Looking back on that time, Carlson would recall that despite their disagreement on virtually everything, things always remained amicable between the two men. “It never decayed into name calling. I enjoyed Walt’s company enormously. He was sharp. We remained friends.”
In 1997, Crowley discussed preparing a Seattle historical encyclopedia to celebrate the upcoming sesquicentennial of the city’s founding. Marie suggested that they publish such a project on the internet and with assistance from Paul Dorpat (who ran “The Helix” with Crowley back in the ’60s), HistoryLink made its online debut on May 1, 1998. It later expanded its content to cover Washington state history.
Sadly, in 2007 – a decade after HistoryLink’s start-up – Crowley passed away after a two-year battle with laryngeal cancer. Tributes from all corners of the social sphere poured in for the man who, through decades of service as a community planner, television commentator, columnist and historian, represented a moderate voice of reason during times of social upheaval.
His typewriter on display at the HistoryLink office now serves as an important symbol of this legacy. Marie points out that while Walt was always an old lefty, he had a profound respect for the establishment when it got things done and wasn’t hesitant to work with people of different beliefs in the interest of reaching reasonable solutions and achieving the greater good.
Indeed, many of Crowley’s compositions that were written on this typewriter carry a timeless wisdom, and his practical approach to problem-solving remains applicable to this day. The question in today’s noisy digital age is: Are we too busy shouting at each other from our social media accounts to bother listening?