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University of Washington President Emeritus Henry Schmitz drowns in Dungeness Bay on January 30, 1965.

HistoryLink.org Essay 10035 : Printer-Friendly Format

On January 30, 1965, University of Washington President Emeritus Henry Schmitz (1892-1965) drowns in an accident in Dungeness Bay (Clallam County). Schmitz was a successful teacher, author, and administrator. Born in 1892 to immigrant parents who made their mark on Seattle history (as did Schmitz's brother, Dietrich), Schmitz likewise made his mark, most notably when he served as president of the University of Washington between 1952 and 1958. 

A Full, Successful Life

Henry Schmitz was born in Seattle on March 25, 1892, the son of immigrants Ferdinand and Emma Schmitz, who had arrived from Germany in 1887 and settled in West Seattle's Alki neighborhood. Ferdinand, a banker and realtor, acquired prime properties in the area, part of which were later turned over to the City of Seattle and became a park and marine preserve.

Henry Schmitz attended the University of Washington (UW) and graduated with a bachelor's degree in forestry in 1915 and a master's degree in botany in 1916. He took a break from his studies when the United States entered World War I the following year and served as an ensign aboard a Navy submarine chaser in the Atlantic Ocean during the war. After the war Schmitz returned to civilian life and in 1919 received a doctorate in botany from Washington University in St. Louis.

But forestry was his passion.  From 1919 to 1925 he taught forestry at the University of Idaho, then became chief of the Division of Forestry at the University of Minnesota. He won national recognition for his efforts in raising the standards of forestry education. He authored more than 50 research papers on forestry, and from 1937 to 1942 was editor of the Journal of Forestry. In 1944 he was named dean of Minnesota's School of Agriculture, Forestry, Home Economics, and Veterinary Medicine.

On July 16, 1952, Schmitz took the reins as the 24th president of the University of Washington. Some ado has been made that he was the first UW graduate to become president. This is partially correct: Schmitz succeeded acting president H. P. Everest (1893-1967), who was also a UW graduate. Schmitz's tenure occurred during a time of growth at the university, with an emphasis on research and graduate education that was supported by federal and state dollars. When his retirement date came up in 1957 he served one more year at the request of the Board of Regents, finally stepping down on August 1, 1958. He was named president emeritus of the UW later that year.

Schmitz continued his work with the university after retiring as its president. He became director of the UW's Council of Gifts, Trusts, and Bequests, and served in this position until 1962. "In that role he assisted countless young people in reaching educational goals that in many cases would otherwise have been unattainable," eulogized an editorial in The Seattle Times in 1965 ("Dr. Henry Schmitz").

A Tragic Ending

On January 30, 1965, Schmitz was hunting brant (small dark geese) on Dungeness Spit with his brother, Dietrich Schmitz (1890-1970), chairman of the board at Washington Mutual; Dean Joseph McCarthy (d. 2000) of the UW Graduate School; Walter Straley (1913-1999), president of Pacific Northwest Bell; and William Street (d. 2000), former president of Frederick & Nelson.  As they were walking to a clubhouse shortly after 1 p.m., Henry Schmitz decided to cut across a 150-foot-wide inlet.  But southerly winds that day were running 40 to 60 m.p.h., and the waves in the bay were at least five feet high. Dressed in heavy clothes, Schmitz grew tired as he slogged across the inlet and paused momentarily. Straley and Street, onshore and ahead of Schmitz at that point, looked back and saw him fall, knocked off his feet by either a wave or a gust of wind.

Straley and Street ran to Schmitz. Straley grabbed him and they were both swept out into Dungeness Bay. Street raced back to shore and found a small flat-bottomed boat and tried to row out to the pair as they were pulled farther into the bay. The wind was so strong that it simply pushed him past Schmitz and Straley. Though he fought the current for nearly half an hour, Street was unable to make it back to the two men. Straley valiantly held on to Schmitz for the entire half hour they were in the water, until a Coast Guard plane swept onto the scene and its crew rescued the two about 300 yards offshore. Straley was barely conscious by the time the rescuers arrived, but survived. Schmitz, however, was pronounced dead; the P-I reported that he had apparently drowned before Straley was able to reach him. (One account suggests that Schmitz suffered a heart attack while Straley was keeping him afloat; however, all of the other sources this writer has seen say that Schmitz drowned.)

The University of Washington's administration building, completed in 1970, is named Schmitz Hall in honor of Henry Schmitz. The Schmitz name also lives on in other parts of Seattle: Schmitz Park, named after Schmitz's parents, is near Alki Point in West Seattle, and nearby Schmitz Park Elementary School also carries the family name. Schmitz's mother, Emma, is memorialized by the Emma Schmitz Memorial Marine Preserve located on the Puget Sound shoreline near Me-Kwa-Mooks Park.

Sources:
Dee Norton, "Dr. Schmitz Ex-U. Head Drowns," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 31, 1965, p. 1;  "Dr. Schmitz Services 2 p.m. Tuesday," Ibid., February 1, 1965, p. 4; "Henry Schmitz Drowns While On Hunting Trip," The Seattle Times, January 31, 1965, p. 1; "Dr. Schmitz First Alumnus To Become President Of U.W.," Ibid., January 31, 1965, p. 18; "Dr. Henry Schmitz," Ibid., February 1, 1965, p. 10; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Schmitz, Dietrich" (by Louis Fiset) and "Straley, Walter William" (by Frank Chesley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 3, 2012); "The 1950s: A New Normal & A Significant Election," UW's 150th Story Bank, University of Washington website accessed February 6, 2012 (http://depts.washington.edu/timeline/storybank/the-1950s-a-new-normal-a-significant-election); "University of Washington Presidents," University of Washington website accessed February 6, 2012  (http://www.lib.washington.edu/specialcollections/collections/exhibits/presidents).


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Henry Schmitz (1892-1965), University of Washington president, 1952-1958
Courtesy UW Special Collections


 
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