Seattle Artifact

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

Image-2 copy 2 cropped-min

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

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.

Brad Holden

Arthur Mount

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?

Join The Must List

Sign up and get Seattle's best events delivered to your inbox every week.

Follow Us

Letter to Seattle: Bank Statement

Letter to Seattle: Bank Statement

YWCA opens door to financial career

This is a letter from Tameka Siplin, a program graduate at YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish, the region’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization focused on the needs of women; providing services and advocacy to support stable homes and economic advancement; reduce violence and improve health; and promote racial equity and social justice. Dear YWCA…

Back Page: History Repeats

Back Page: History Repeats

Seattle Police Chief cited "accessibility of guns" as the reason for record violence in 1968

Much as it is now, gun control and street violence were controversial topics back in 1968. Seattle magazine tackled the subject head on with a series of articles exploring violence across the city. One article notes that Seattle’s reputation as an “outpost of placidity in a country of growing turmoil” was a “delusion.” “Every category…

Pride in Place: Why Seattle Architecture Shines

Pride in Place: Why Seattle Architecture Shines

Seattle's Past Influences its Modern-Day and Future Architecture

George Suyama has had an outsized influence on much of what we know as modern-day Seattle, but he never planned on a career in architecture. Suyama, a Seattle native who has been practicing architecture in the region for more than six decades, founded his award-winning firm, George Suyama Architects (now Suyama Peterson Deguchi), in 1971….

Real Society: FareStart's Shining Stars

Real Society: FareStart’s Shining Stars

FareStart stands out for its comprehensive support for those in need.

Image caption: Clockwise from upper left: FareStart Production Kitchen Trainer Eric Klein; auctioneer Fred Northrup; volunteers, from left, Christina Woelz, Pam Powers and Amy Hall; volunteer Cynthia Tran, left, and unidentified attendee. Photography by Grant Hindsley. “Real Society” is a regular installment to create space for those who are quietly doing the good work to…