West Seattle’s stolen totem pole: Meet the man who carved it

December 21, 2009 at 3:14 pm | In Rotary Club of West Seattle, West Seattle news | 15 Comments

(Photo provided by carver Robin Young(third from left) ‘s daughter Tracy Zimmerman)
No major new developments in the saga of the West Seattle Rotary Viewpoint Park totem pole – stolen three weeks ago tonight, then recovered a week and a half later, after a suspect was arrested. But we do have a new story to tell today – what we’ve learned about the man who carved it: Robin Young, a Native American carver (born in South Dakota at the Cheyenne River Indian Agency, he told us in the course of our interview).

We tracked him down after reading a comment on one of our original reports, in which his daughter Tracy Zimmerman wrote:

I would like to say thank you for all the effort put into finding the totem pole. My father Robin Young is the one that carved it. There is such pride and heart that goes into the craftmanship and our family is very thankful.

We followed up with her to find out more. She replied that he’s still alive and well and living in Federal Way; he taught woodcarving at Highline Community College during the time he created the Rotary pole, which the club donated to the city, along with the park, in 1976 (she also shared the historic photo above). The Rotarians have been in contact with him too and are hopeful that he will be able to participate when the pole is reinstalled; there are still decisions to be made about how and when that will happen, and whether it needs restoration work first.

So how did the family find out about what happened to the totem pole? Tracy explained, “I heard about the pole being missing on the news … I saw the picture they showed and said to myself that looks like the pole my dad carved. I found an old picture and sure enough it was the pole he carved, so I called my mother and let her know. She was funny and said I remember that pole well. It was in our front yard for ever while he worked on it.”

Her dad is battling some health problems but agreed to answer some questions via e-mail – read on:

We asked about the pole’s creation: “I carved it over the summer of 1976 in my front yard. People in the neighborhood out walking would stop by to see what I was carving.” It’s not the only one he worked on, either: “I graduated from UPS in l975 and worked at Highline Community College for 5 years and have helped to create two large poles on campus grounds.”

The Highline connection is interesting, because we learned that another Highline carver made the totem pole that was stolen from the Renton Fred Meyer and found on a trailer in Oregon along with the one that Young created for West Seattle Rotary Viewpoint Park (as shown in the photo police provided last week):

He mentioned that same carver in our e-mail conversation, with more recollections of his achievements: “My boss at the college was Jim Ploegman. I took classes from him over the years. I have carved a number of carvings and two poles that were done for private homes, also a small one that was sent to a sister city in Japan from Federal Way. I have carved a toy box for the Federal Way library many years ago. I was very involved in Little League at the district 10 level and Have carved a 4 ft. small totem pole as a trophy that ended up in Hawaii.”

Young says he’s only been back once to see the West Seattle pole – after it “was damaged by fire” (we haven’t researched that incident yet!). We asked how he found out about the theft: “When I was watching the local news one evening I saw the report that the pole was stolen. Then our daughter Tracy stopped by and told us they found the pole and were going to get it back.”

He hasn’t carved in years, he tells us, because of his health problems, adding, “I had my left leg amputated because of diabetes.” But he hopes to be in West Seattle to see the pole re-installed at Rotary Viewpoint Park.

We will continue following developments closely, including the plan that evolves for making that happen. Meantime, another reminder that the Rotary Club of West Seattle has a Totem Pole Restoration Fund to which you can donate via their website – though they’re hoping restitution will be part of the sentence in an eventual trial, that is a long process.

15 Comments

  1. Is that Wes Uhlmann on the right?

    Comment by Gina — 3:16 pm December 21, 2009 #

  2. Nice pants!

    Comment by on board — 3:17 pm December 21, 2009 #

  3. Photos from the 1970′s always make me smile. I love that plaid pants were just normal attire.

    Comment by glendafrench — 3:17 pm December 21, 2009 #

  4. So that is mayor Wes Ulhman at the far right. Who are the other two in the photo? probably Rotary members…..

    Comment by Jim — 3:47 pm December 21, 2009 #

  5. Great photo. And thanks for the interview with Mr. Young. We wish him the best. I miss the totem pole!

    Comment by jeannie — 3:55 pm December 21, 2009 #

  6. Isn’t it amazing that such a timeless work of art came from the same decade as those dated trousers?

    Comment by KBear — 3:58 pm December 21, 2009 #

  7. Gina, you remember that old James Coburn movie that Wes Ulhman did a cameo in?? I think it was “Harry in your pocket” The theatre crowd roared when Uhlman got his wallet stolen.

    Comment by Jim — 4:00 pm December 21, 2009 #

  8. I love the pants!!!

    Comment by rockergrrrl — 4:15 pm December 21, 2009 #

  9. i think the amazing thing is that those pants were ever in fashion :-)

    Comment by rob — 4:26 pm December 21, 2009 #

  10. I think my Dad had the same pants!

    Comment by k — 5:29 pm December 21, 2009 #

  11. Hoo-boy, Jim. That really takes me back!

    Comment by Gina — 8:14 pm December 21, 2009 #

  12. Thank you for the updates on the history and recognition of native artists in our local. Why is there not more native born arts in our area. Like at Leshi Park. Why is there no recognition of Chief Leshi there? Thanks to the Duwamish Tribe there is a wonderful Longhouse Museum on Marginal Way. I would love to see a totem or dugout at the park across the way from the museum (Herrings House). Thank you Native Artists for enriching our Pacific Northwest culture!

    Comment by Patricia — 10:54 pm December 21, 2009 #

  13. Cool story. Amazing pants!

    Comment by AJP — 10:58 am December 22, 2009 #

  14. I took classes taught by Robin Young while attending HCC in ’75-’76. I still have the small totem and stone sculptures he guided me through to completion, and have since created others for friends and family. Great guy who also talked at length about native culture and reconnecting with the natural world.

    Comment by chilly — 12:15 pm December 22, 2009 #

  15. Such an amazing story about a man who dedicated so much of his live to helping guide his community. Between showing others how to woodwork, sharing Native American culture, and teaching the little ones the value of teamwork and community, I think he deserves many, many thanks for all that he has done to enrich the lives of others. Kudos to you Mr. Young!
    Oh, and like many others here have already noted, I agree that your plaid trousers were simply FABULOUS!

    Comment by Friend O'Dingus — 9:36 am December 23, 2009 #

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