By Tracy Record and Patrick Sand
West Seattle Blog co-publishers
The Rotary Club of West Seattle‘s weekly meeting today wasn’t just a luncheon, it was a party – 70th-anniversary party, to be specific.
The club was chartered in November 1947.
One of the club’s most prominent members, King County Executive Dow Constantine – who’s on today’s ballot, running for a third term – read a proclamation declaring this “Rotary Club of West Seattle’s 70th Anniversary Day” in King County, and urged all in King County to thank the club for its seven decades of service:
The club currently meets at the Alki Masonic Center in The Junction, and according to the around-the-room introductions, today’s celebration drew guests including representatives of other Rotary Clubs around the area as well as former members.
Featured speaker was Clay Eals, a journalist, author, historian, community advocate, and more, who recently left as executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.
“People keep asking me what retirement is like, and I’m not quite sure yet,” he joked, shortly before declaring that “West Seattle is the best Seattle,” though he admitted growing up on Mercer Island – not in a mansion, but in a 3-bedroom rambler. His mom, though, grew up “across the street from the wading pool at Hiawatha.”
He shared stories told by his mom, including memories of “dancing the cake walk on the stage of the old Portola Theater” and of walking the peninsula in part “to amuse herself.” That included walks down Fairmount Ravine, to Harbor Avenue, around Duwamish Head, to Alki Point, then down to Lincoln Park, and “back up California Avenue to come home.”
That underscores West Seattle’s geography as a peninsula, which, while we’re a part of the city, we are also “apart from the city.” It’s like looking at the back of your right hand, and West Seattle is the thumb.
Because of that, the construction of the “high bridge” was the biggest local story ever. Before that, West Seattle had two bascule bridges – one that went in in 1923, one in 1930. “Each one was four lanes, and they for a long time had streetcars going across. … We had these great bridges but they opened for ship traffic.”
By 1978, people were so frustrated there was a half-serious movement to secede from the rest of the city. If it had done so, it would have been the fifth largest city in the state. People figured if they did that, Eals explained, that they then could at least go to Olympia to campaign for a better bridge, between the largest and fifth-largest cities in the state. Supporters got half the signatures they needed by the time – “the best pun in West Seattle history,” as Eals explained, “the ship hit the span.” That’s the famous tale of how a freighter ran into the open bridge and it was stuck open. “We went from eight lanes to four lanes and that was the emergency that prompted the construction of our high bridge.”
The eastbound lanes opened in November of 1983, the westbound lanes in July 1984. “Think of the symbolism of a bridge – a bridge brings people together .. some would say (now) that it’s brought too many people together.” He brought a page from a mid-’80s special section in the West Seattle Herald, the newspaper he edited at the time, headed “The Secret Is Out.”
He segued to the Rotary Club’s history, including the 1976 installation of the Totem Pole across the street from what at the time was the office of the newspaper he ran, and thanked the club – which now presents the Grand Parade – for honoring him with the Orville Rummel Trophy for Outstanding Service to the Community last year. He recounted the long list of volunteerism and donations that the club has made, as well as what its parent club does internationally. And the seeds it planted – starting Rotary Clubs in Burien, White Center, and SODO, among other places.
Eals recalled some past and present West Seattle legends, including (from the former category) Normie Beers and Earl Cruzen (whose widow Ada Cruzen was in attendance). And of course, speaking of the aforementioned Totem Pole, he noted what he described as one of West Seattle’s greatest capers of all time, its 2009 theft, recovery, and 2010 restoration, and how it brought the community together.
He issued the club an anniversary challenge: “To build upon your sterling foundation and to record your club’s stories while you can.” He quoted Steve Goodman, the musician whose biography he wrote, saying, “You’d better get it while you can” – not “get” as in obtain, but “get it” as in understand. Getting those stories on record could just be a matter of taking a few minutes at each meeting – “you’re doing it not just for yourselves but for the future club members you don’t even know yet … As these stories build up, you will see common threads .. (that) build a better club and build a better West Seattle community.” Even the act of gathering for a lunch like this is “increasingly rare,” he said – if everyone in the room wasn’t there, they would be doubtless “staring at a piece of plastic.” He lauded “the original social media – face to face,” adding, “We’re not meant to be hermits … we’re meant to connect with each other.”
And: “It all comes down to gratitude.” That includes gratitude for what others built before us, and “when we spend time to honor our past … we give vision and passion to our future.”
Speaking of the future: The next big event for the Rotary Club of West Seattle is its annual Christmas Shopping Spree (here’s our coverage from last year), on December 2nd, again this year at Southcenter Sears, with students from local schools arriving via bus early in the morning to shop, dine, and even meet Santa. That’s just one of multiple community-service projects the club is involved with throughout the year.
WS Rotary president Brian Waid said the event costs $140 per child – so a $125 donation to the Rotary Service Foundation will sponsor a child at the event. The club also signs up volunteers to help at the event (there’s a link on its home page) – you don’t have to be a member, Gary Potter of Potter Construction (WSB sponsor) said.
The Rotary Club of West Seattle meets weekly at lunchtime at the Alki Masonic Center in The Junction – find out about membership at westseattlerotary.org.