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Chesley, Frank (1929-2010)

HistoryLink.org Essay 9257 : Printer-Friendly Format

Frank Chesley’s long career in journalism put him in the front row of some of the most tumultuous years of the American mid-twentieth century, reporting in the era of the civil rights struggles and the protests of Vietnam War. A product of the University of Washington school of journalism, he reported for The San Francisco Chronicle, and spent five years in Europe while working for Reuters and Stars & Stripes. He was a television critic and reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer during the era (1969-1977) that’s been called the paper’s heyday. Later, he worked at The Everett Herald as a reporter, columnist, and copyeditor. A restless and curious soul, he did a stint in the post-war U.S. Army and worked through school in Alaskan fish canneries. His journalistic career was interspersed with adventuresome world travel and work in media relations, including a stint with King County Executive John Spellman and his 1980 gubernatorial campaign. Frank Chesley spent his years before retiring in late 2009 as a staff historian for www.historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history.

Hardscrabble Childhood

Chesley was born (as Frank Cekovich) on September 7, 1929, in Norwood, Massachusetts, to Frank Cekovich, a Slovenian, and Elizabeth (Pimlott) Cekovich, from Manchester, England. Chesley was the oldest of three boys, followed by Ken, born in 1932 and Clyde, born in 1940. A half-sister, Mary, from Frank Senior's first marriage, also joined the family. It was a childhood deep in the Great Depression. Frank senior, a carpenter, paperhanger, and house painter, was hard working and hard drinking. He is described by his son as “pathologically independent,” and an “old-country tyrant ... worse when he drank, which was regularly.”

Frank's mother, Elizabeth, whose values and work ethic were molded by England’s stratified class structure, made sure her children maintained certain proprieties such as speaking only English at home and attending school and the Episcopal Church.

The family led a hardscrabble life in rural Westwood, 30 miles from Boston, in a decrepit farmhouse with water from a well and no indoor plumbing. The father built a windmill that generated only enough electricity to power a radio. There was a large garden: Elizabeth canned fruits and vegetables and Frank Senior fattened piglets for the table. Since his origins were from an area on the Italian-Slovene border, the family fare included comestibles such as spaghetti, risotto, polenta, and gnocchi as well as the sauerkraut of Slovenia.

In 1939, the family moved up and out of the ancient, drafty farmhouse into digs with running water, electricity, and plumbing in the small eastern Massachusetts towns of Norwood and Walpole. Norwood was an ethnic mix of “Yankee,” Irish, and others -- Italian, Eastern European, Syrian, Lithuanian.

When Frank was 15, his father died of arteriosclerosis. It was 1944. and Elizabeth was forced to sell the house, move the family into a one-bedroom apartment, and work nights as a janitor. Frank and his brother Ken got night and weekend jobs to help the family get by.

Sailing for the Army

Graduating high school at 17, Chesley talked his mother into signing the necessary paper and took the U.S. Army up on its offer of 13 months of GI Bill for an 18-month tour. After boot camp and training as an army supply clerk, he boarded a troop train to Fort Lawton in Seattle’s Magnolia District (now Fort Lawton Historical District, and Discovery Park). He was assigned to the Seattle Port of Embarkation, at Piers 36-39.

The United States was rebuilding post-war Japan, and Seattle was home port for vessels of the Army Transport Service, which shipped soldiers, dependents, and civil service personnel and their belongings for tours in the Pacific, Asia, and Alaska.

Typical of these was the USAT Thistle, a passenger/cargo cum hospital ship recommissioned by the U.S. Army for transport. Chesley made trips on the Thistle and the Gen. H.B. Freeman to Yokohama, Japan, serving as a PX clerk. It was to whet a lifelong taste for travel, and indelibly imprint Seattle into his consciousness -- not only for the scenery, he has written, but “for the more egalitarian feel of the city. Maybe I had felt constrained, restrained, repressed, burdened, whatever, by the stratified, ethnicized culture of Eastern Massachusetts, or by the lessons and interpretations from home” (Chesley). 

The GI Bill and Journalism 

It’s not surprising, then, that Chesley found himself back in Seattle in 1949, a few months after he was discharged. By 1950 had enrolled in the University of Washington, the first in his family to go for higher education. After a flirtation with architecture, he entered the journalism school, a move he was never to regret. He worked on The Daily, and co-edited Columns, then the campus humor magazine (later to become its alumni magazine).

In 1950, the family's name was anglicized to Chesley. 

The GI Bill helped launch his schooling, but the rest was up to him. He worked at a wide-ranging variety of entry-level jobs: graveyard shift at Boeing; as an au pair for a pediatrician’s family; as janitor, grocery clerk, and sorority houseboy. For three summers, he worked at a southeast Alaska salmon cannery.

A few of his friends and roommates were to resound later in his life. One was John Voorhees, who was to become the longtime theater, arts, and television critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times. Another was Gordon Culp (1926-2006), an influential Seattle attorney and philanthropist. 

Typing on the Fast Track

United Press was already a fading news wire service when Chesley, fresh out of journalism school, was hired. It was 1953. His job included some reporting and rewriting stories from the Seattle dailies for radio newscasts. It was high pressure, low pay, and an icy plunge into the craft. He writes in his autobiography:

“It was journalism at a primitive level -- fast, downhold-the-expenses, pressurized, total immersion. Rewriting for the radio wire -- a more colloquial form -- often required typing fast enough to keep up with the clacking teletype machine” ("Some Roads Taken").

Then, as young Washingtonians have long done when embarking on the adventure of life, Frank headed for California. After a year at a Stockton PR-advertising firm, he escaped to San Francisco, where he donned a “gray flannel suit” (the prosaic professional uniform of the 1950s) and spent six years in the hard-drinking, downtown world of public relations and advertising, editing a trade journal, and doing media relations for Matson Lines.

But Chesley grew restless, so when a friend at Reuters wrote suggesting that he come to London’s fabled Fleet Street (news center at the time for Britain and Europe) to work on Reuters’ North American desk, Chesley jumped on a plane. Without knowing much about the job or the circumstances, he landed in London to take an existence wage job as “sub-editor,” translating the English of England into the English of North America. The wage paid was £19 a week, about $50, at the time poverty wages for most North Americans.

He spent 18 months at Reuters. While there he dabbled in freelance writing, careened around the British Isles, flirted with the British ban-the-bomb movement, and hung with fellow itinerant international newsies and London bohemians. Post-Imperial/pre-Beatles Britain was in a state of cultural and political flux. Anti-Americanism was popular and a flood of immigrants from the disintegrating Commonwealth was fueling anti-colored racism.  Chesley writes: 

“In 1961, London not only was one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, reeking in history, culture and energy. It also was roiled in historic upheaval, along with the rest of Britain. The Cold War was approaching another meltdown and Britain was thrashing through an identity crisis. The Empire was gone, Britannia no longer ruled the waves, the pound sterling no longer was the world currency, and London commodity markets no longer set world prices. Britain had emerged from World War II a bombed-out, deeply in-debt shell. Wartime rationing had not completely ended until 1957. There was great ambivalence about joining with the European community, and rents in the national fabric were beginning to show” ("Some Roads Taken").

Cold War Years 

Chesley was pulled to the continent where he landed in Darmstadt, Germany, at Stars & Stripes, the newspaper for U.S. service personnel published under the aegis of the Defense Department. He worked the military and news desks, did copyediting, reporting, and the occasional magazine freelance. He was able to indulge his love of cars by writing an automobile column for Stripes and covering sports car races all over Europe.  

These were Cold War years but Chesley traveled not only in Western Europe -- Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, West Germany -- but to countries in the Soviet bloc: Russia, Hungary, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

Among the Colorful Recalcitrants

In 1965, he went “home” to San Francisco, to a city erupting with the phenomenon of 1960s counter-culture. He landed a job on The San Francisco Chronicle, eventually doing general reportage, and got a front-row seat for the unfolding drama of a cultural upheaval and the large baby boom generation in full throat.  

“The counterculture-antiwar-civil-rights-environmental revolution was at flood stage -- campus demonstrations, ghetto riots, Alan Watts, Betty Friedan, Marshall McLuhan, hippies, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And the Bay Area was its epicenter -- UC Berkeley, the Haight-Ashbury, the Free Speech Movement, the Sexual Freedom League, the Fillmore Auditorium, riots, demonstrations, and the 1967 Summer of Love” (Chesley). 

Chesley found a $100-a-month bungalow in Sausalito and hung out at the legendary No Name Bar. This watering hole was inhabited by artists, assorted Marin County bohemians, and colorful recalcitrants such as Spike Africa, the self-described “President of the Pacific Ocean,” who had attained some notoriety when he took his family off on Sterling Hayden’s yacht when the actor stole his own children from their mother and took them to Tahiti.   

Chesley left the Chronicle in 1968 to work briefly on the short-lived On View magazine for which, among other assignments, he traveled to Madrid to profile actor Geraldine Chaplin, the talented eldest child of silent film’s Charlie and Oona O’Neill Chaplin. 

Heyday at the P-I

A letter arrived that year from his old UW classmate John Voorhees, who was covering the arts at The Seattle Times. Voorhees apprised Chesley that the television editor/critic job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was open. He applied and was hired by managing editor Lou Guzzo (1919-2013) despite what Chesley calls his “superficial knowledge of television or criticism …” The column, which he was to pen from 1969 to 1976, had been, according to Chesley, a “black hole” known for its  revolving door turnover at the P-I. “There was no template or expectations," Chesley said.  "[It was] covering broadcasting in the broadest sense" (Hood interview).

Chesley had walked into what has been called the P-I’s heyday, with supportive editors like Guzzo and Jack Doughty; political reporters like Mike Layton and Shelby Scates (1932?-2013); cartoonist Ray Collins, and controversial religion editor Earl Hansen. A reporter at the time, Jean Godden (b. 1931) -- later a P-I editor, Seattle Times columnist, and City Councilmember -- has written:  “Names still resonate: novelist Tom Robbins who sat on the rim and wrote memorable headlines; Frank Herbert, famed for the Dune series; columnist Emmett Watson, who invented Lesser Seattle; copy desk chief Darrell Bob Houston, who styled himself as “D.B.” after writing about D.B. Cooper, the guy who hijacked an airliner, extorted a ransom and parachuted into the unknown” (Crosscut). 

Scates said, “Guzzo and Doughty were hellaciously good editors and real newsmen.” They were tough and demanding, but Chesley says, “As long as we produced, we had incredible freedom” (Hood interview). Along with publisher Dan Starr, the editors deflected the heat from the community and advertisers when reporters or editorialists got into controversial territory. Chesley’s work, according to Scates, needed such defense on occasion.

Saving the World From TV

Unlike much TV (and radio) coverage at the time, Chesley’s column was not mere celebrity gossip or regurgitated press handouts from the networks and stations. He took TV criticism seriously and called out the popular medium for its repetitive tedium, commercialism, violence, poverty of pith, and its growing failure to fulfill the mandate of the Federal Communications Act of 1934 (later amended to include television) to “work in the public’s interest, convenience, and necessity.” Not even public television, a sacred cow in Seattle, escaped his scrutiny. Scates: “Frank was ruthless and he was telling it straight. The TV people didn’t like him. I’m not sure any other newspaper would have tolerated his criticism of TV, and the blow-back that ensued” (Hood interview).  

It wasn’t all hardball journalism. Chesley freelanced for TV Guide and The Washington Post about such local television oddities as a televised Miss Nude Northwest contest or Dick Balch, the wildly successful advertising car dealer who, dressed in a devil’s suit, maniacally smashed his own automotive inventory with a sledgehammer in front of cameras.   

“I was trying to save the world from TV and I failed,” Chesley says. So in 1976, after 10,000 hours of viewing, and more than a million words written, Chesley turned the television column over to reporter Susan Paynter and escaped for seven months to Port Moller, a fish camp on the Alaska Peninsula, which was, as he wrote in his last column, “200 miles from the nearest TV signal.” He went to work as a winter watchman and recalls, “I was going to write the great American novel” (Hood interview). 

From News to Politics

A year later, Chesley returned to Seattle without a novel and reinvented himself once again, this time in politics. He got a job doing media relations and speech writing for County Executive John Spellman (b. 1926), a moderate Republican in his third term. Although he’d lost in 1976, Spellman took a second run for governor in 1980. He edged out Burlington legislator Duane Berentson (b. 1928) in the primary. It was expected that the triumphant Republican would have a good chance running against the idiosyncratic incumbent Democrat, Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), but she was soundly defeated by State Senator (later congressman) Jim McDermott (b. 1936). This forced Spellman’s campaign to pivot quickly to run against a more formidable opponent.

A progressive, Chesley said, “I rationalized working for a Republican thinking he would run against [the very conservative] Dixy.” The Spellman campaign, with Chesley on board, was able to paint McDermott as a liberal Seattle psychiatrist who flip-flopped on issues. Spellman even pulled a real waffle from his pocket in debates to demonstrate his opponent’s “waffling” on issues. Chesley winced at some of the campaign rhetoric and gimmicks and later said, “The experience didn’t endear me to politics” (Hood interview). 

Back to News, Forward to History

Spellman won easily, but Chesley did not follow him to Olympia. After the campaign ended in the spring of 1981, he spent three months as a deckhand on the tug Jeremy Fisher, towing a barge from Mobile to San Francisco.

Then he went to The Everett Herald, where he was to work for the next 19 years. He worked on the news desk; did restaurant and book reviews; wrote columns and features on subjects that appealed to his disparate interests or that tweaked his curiosity. He spent two months touring Malaysia, including a trip into the jungles of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo, where he witnessed and wrote about a rare inter-tribal wedding. He recounted the story of his old Sausalito friend Spike Africa, who had moved to Kirkland to finish his days. He interviewed the founders of Fundamentalists Anonymous, a group that attempted to save people from far-right Christianity. He analyzed the cultish Oregon followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Chesley, said Shelby Scates, "was a real reporter working in an era when reporting was taken very seriously.”

For eight years before retiring in 2009, Chesley used his research and reportorial skills as a staff historian at HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. At HistoryLink he specialized in biographies of such figures as Homer Bone, Ruby Chow, Saul Haas, Julia Butler Hanson, and many others, and he tackled such intricacies as the Washington state tax laws.

Chesley had a son, Theo, whom he adopted while married to his third wife, Justine. Frank Chesley died on April 22, 2010.

Sources:
Frank Chesley, "Some Roads Taken," unpublished memoir in possession of Frank Chesley; Jean Godden “Best of 2009: Jean Godden Recalls Madcap Days at 'The P-I’” Crosscut, December 24, 2009 (http://crosscut.com/2009/12/24/seattle-newspapers/18783/); Michael Hood interview of Frank Chesley, November 25, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Michael Hood interview of Shelby Scates, December 29, 2009, Seattle, Washington; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Spellman, John D. (b. 1926)” (by Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org/; Frank Chesley, “Spike Africa” Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 5, 1974; Frank Chesley, “Jungle Wedding Gives Visitor Thrilling Look At Cultural Mix,” The Everett Herald, January 26, 1993; Frank Chesley, Fundamentalists Anonymous See Threat in Rigid Beliefs, The Everett Herald, April 30, 1988; Frank Chesley, “Indians and TV,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, April 10 1970; Frank Chesley, “Major Media Role for Channel 9” Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 30, 1973; Frank Chesley, “Bert Parks Skipped This One” TV Guide, March 10 1973;  Frank Chesley, “Heritage Conflict: Indian Poet Dies After Life on ’Skid Road,’” The Washington Post, May 25, 1977.  


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Frank Chesley (1929-2010), Hood Canal, 1979



Frank Chesley in the University of Washington Columns office, Seattle, 1952
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley in Tokyo, 1958
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley on his 26-foot Ranger sailboat Dharma
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley, Cozumel, Mexico, 1967
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley, San Juan Island, 1974
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley swimming off the tugboat Jeremy Fisher off Cozumel, Mexico, 1981
Courtesy Frank Chesley


Frank Chesley as a deckhand on the tugboat Jeremy Fisher, Panama Canal, 1981
Courtesy Frank Chesley


 
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