Lamphere, Phyllis Hagmoe (1922-2018)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 4/30/2013
  • Essay 10380
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Phyllis Hagmoe Lamphere was a longtime prominent Seattle civic leader and, from 1967 to 1978, a member of the Seattle City Council. She was born and raised in Seattle and graduated from Barnard College in New York City in 1943. Lamphere worked for The Boeing Company and IBM and became active in the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party. In the 1960s she lobbied successfully to change Seattle's form of government from the weak-mayor to the strong-mayor system. In 1967, Lamphere was elected by an overwhelming margin to the Seattle City Council, where she was instrumental in making city government more open and efficient. She was re-elected by large margins in 1971 and 1975, and was also elected the first woman president of the National League of Cities. In 1977 Lamphere ran for Seattle mayor, but was defeated in the primary. She went on to work for the federal government and later formed her own public-affairs consulting firm. She was one of the driving forces behind the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and served on its board for more than 20 years. She outlived five husbands and remained active in Seattle civic, arts, and parks issues into her 90s.

A Seattle Native

Phyllis Lee Hagmoe was born on February 9, 1922, at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, the daughter of Wilhelmina (Minnie) Emily Smith Hagmoe (1894-1995) and Ernest Archibald Hagmoe (1895-1942). Her father worked in the City's water department, but was an alcoholic who, in Lamphere's words, got caught up with a "bad crowd" (Lamphere, 36). He lost his job and the family's Wallingford home and would often disappear for days, leaving Minnie to raise Phyllis and her older sister, Eve (1919-1993), mostly on her own.

After the Great Depression struck, the little family moved around from apartment to apartment in Wallingford. Minnie took a series of jobs in the State welfare office, the City's voter registration office, the Works Progress Administration, the Seattle War Commission, the City license department, and eventually the King County Tax Department. She was an energetic, athletic, and capable woman who set a high bar for her daughters despite the family's "humble circumstances" (Interview). She taught them self-reliance and independence at a young age. "Mother didn't believe in corporal punishment, but boy, could she deliver a lecture," wrote Lamphere in her memoir, The Life of a City Girl (Lamphere, 8).

The family spent summers at Lamphere's grandfather's cabin on Lake Washington near O. O. Denny Park in Kirkland, which in that era was still out in the country. The cabin had no running water or electricity. During the rest of the year, young Phyllis attended Interlake Grade School and then Lincoln High School, where she was an honor-roll student and played a gun moll in a student production of Anything Goes. She was also a fine ballet dancer and choreographed dance numbers for school operas.

An Eastern Education

In 1939 Lamphere received a scholarship to Barnard College, following in the footsteps of her sister Eve. She thrived at Barnard, an all-women liberal-arts school affiliated with Columbia University in New York City, and she was elected a class officer and president of the residence halls. She also had the opportunity to study modern dance with the legendary Martha Graham (1894-1991). Lamphere reveled in New York's cultural scene and called it "transformative in every way" (Interview).

"When we weren't hearing opera, we were soaking up live Shakespeare or taking in a Broadway play -- a heady experience for a country girl" (Lamphere, 69).

She would later say that the all-women school was crucial to developing the "confidence that emboldened me to tackle greater and greater challenges as I moved forward in life" (Lamphere, 378).

Lamphere's father died in Seattle when she was a junior at Barnard. She later recalled, "I adored my father, and I looked like him and I acted like him, the happy-go-lucky sort" (Interview). But Ernest Hagmoe's life had spiraled downward because of alcoholism. He died a vagrant, of pneumonia. "I had promised myself that when I graduated I would try to save him, but alas, it was too late," his daughter later wrote (Lamphere, 75). She was not even able to return home for his funeral.

Home to Seattle

Lamphere graduated from Barnard with a mathematics degree in 1943. She came back to Seattle and immediately landed a job at The Boeing Company. In fact, she inaugurated a brand new position, Director of Women's Activities, which was designed to help the thousands of women wartime factory recruits adapt to their new lives in a strange city. Lamphere organized variety shows, sports activities, volunteer work, and cigarette drives for servicemen.

Meanwhile, she had met a handsome young Army cargo officer, David Grady Arnold, who worked on a Navy transport ship out of Seattle. They fell in love and on July 28, 1944, were married at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst. Arnold had to ship out again five weeks after the wedding -- and Phyllis never saw him again. There were unsubstantiated reports that his ship had been hit by a kamikaze attack, but no official word came as to her husband's fate.

When Arnold failed to return to Seattle, Lamphere was resigned to the sad truth; he had died during a kamikaze attack, and she was a widow at age 22. Still, the Army still did not officially list him as a casualty, and Lamphere was in the strange position of informing the Army of her husband's fate, rather than the other way around. "In desperation, I quit Boeing and went to Washington, D.C., to confront the Army brass myself," she wrote (Lamphere, 90). It took her months to recover from the shock of losing her husband, yet, she later said, "I don't stand still very long" (Interview).

In 1945, IBM hired her, and after training in Seattle Lamphere was transferred to New York City, where she worked first on Wall Street and then in IBM's Pure Science Lab. In October 1947 she married an IBM salesman, Walter Jackson Cowan. Because IBM would not then employ married women, she lost her job. However, Lamphere was able to work one more year in the Pure Science Lab, under a contract with Yale University.

Expecting a child, the couple moved to Seattle, where Deborah Evelyn Cowan was born in 1949. The family stayed with Minnie until the marriage soured and Phyllis and daughter moved in with her sister Eve and Eve's husband, Curt Green, in West Seattle. Single again, Phyllis was able to return to IBM, working in its Seattle office on the Weyerhaeuser and Boeing accounts. She and her daughter soon moved to their own apartment on Mercer Island.

Political Stirrings

In 1952, Phyllis's political instincts began to stir. She attended a campaign luncheon in Seattle for Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), the Democratic candidate competing against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) for the presidency (her family were lifelong Democrats), and then an election-night party with friends. Stevenson lost, but it was a fortunate night for Phyllis in another way: She met Arthur (Art) Valentine Lamphere (1920-1987), who was working on a Ph.D. in psychology, and they hit it off right away. On March 30, 1953, they were married in a civil ceremony, a low-key beginning to a marriage that would last until Art's death in 1987. They moved into a house on California Avenue in West Seattle and soon had two more children, Barbara Ann, born January 13, 1954, and Claudia Marie, born December 30, 1954. Lamphere later wrote:

"I think I took the prize for having two babies in the same year ... . We were satisfied that we now had a complete family" (Lamphere, 111).

As the babies grew, Lamphere began to get more deeply involved in the League of Women Voters. She became one of the league's "hardest workers," according to a reporter for The Seattle Times, who wrote in 1967, "You could almost say, in recent years, that the words 'league' and 'Lamphere' are synonymous" (Almquist). Lamphere also became involved with the Democratic Club of the 34th District, where she was part of a group of "young Turks" who wanted to bring the Democratic Party up to date (Lamphere, 127).

Through her work with the League of Women Voters, Lamphere became especially interested in City government and chaired several campaigns to amend the City charter. In the early 1960s, the league and several other organizations launched a campaign to advocate for the "strong mayor" form of government for Seattle.

"Seattle couldn't go on being a small town, not after a successful World's Fair -- they had to get serious about being a city ... . It was so inefficient" (Lamphere email and interview).

Lamphere became one of the lobbyists for a group called Citizens for a Strengthened Seattle Government. She lobbied in Olympia nearly every day during the 1965 legislative session to get budget authority in Seattle moved from the council to the mayor's office. The group came away empty-handed that year, but succeeded during the next session, in 1967. Lamphere later explained:

"In order to succeed, you have to have the right structure and financing. So I've worked on structure at every level of government. And I'm a fanatic about it" (Interview).

In the meantime, Lamphere was making a name for herself as an ambitious and energetic civic leader. Early in 1967, Seattle Mayor J. D. (Dorm) Braman (1921-1980) appointed her to the organizing committee of Forward Thrust, a massive King County-wide improvement drive. She later became Forward Thrust's first vice-president and subsequently recalled, "When I started dabbling in it [politics], it was clear I didn't have many inhibitions about it. It didn't scare me a bit" (Interview).

A Seat on the Council

In 1967, Lamphere decided that "running for public office seemed to be the next step" (Lamphere, 135). Her name was already familiar from her work with the Municipal League and Forward Thrust, and from a series of opinion pieces she wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer advocating the strong-mayor system. One old pro advised her to wait for the "woman's seat" on the council to open up -- the seat then occupied by Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969) -- but Lamphere decided the city council, which had been characterized by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "musty" and "crusty," was ripe for a shakeup (Lamphere, 135).

Her campaign slogan was "She's Bright, She's Knowledgeable, She Cares" (Lamphere, 140). The campaign, waged for less than $15,000, was "a blast -- lots of coffee hours in friends' homes" (Lamphere, 138). She ran on a platform of reorganizing and streamlining city government. The Municipal League rated her "Outstanding;" none of the incumbents were rated even as high as the next lowest category, "Superior" (Robinson). Lamphere also was backed by Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC), an energetic coalition of young Democrats and young Republicans dedicated to change at city hall. Lamphere trounced incumbent Ed Riley in the September primary by better than a four-to-one ratio. In the general election on November 7, 1967, she swamped primary runner-up George Cooley by a vote of 76,964 votes to 29,371.

Now there were two women on the city council -- along with its first African American, Sam Smith (1922-1995), who was also swept into office that year. A Seattle Argus headline declared, "New Blood Will Shake up City Council" (Argus). "The mood changed," said Lamphere (Interview). The "new kids" pushed through several reforms, including open-meeting rules (Lamphere, 144). She later wrote:

"Until we came along, there were no open meetings -- public testimony, if any, was 'invited' at the discretion of the committee chair. Most decisions were reached in council offices and merely ratified at the official Monday City Council meeting" (Lamphere, 144).

The most contentious reform was an open-housing ordinance, brought to the council by people in the Central District and backed by Lamphere. Its aim was to put to an end the widespread practice of red-lining, by which minority homebuyers and renters were steered to certain sections of town and effectively locked out of white neighborhoods. "That was a break between the old and the new council," Lamphere later said (Interview). The council eventually passed the open-housing ordinance, prompting one opponent to shout as he exited, "This is the darkest day in Seattle's history" (Lamphere email).

Losing a Fight, and an Ally

Lamphere was chair of the council's planning committee, and in 1969 became embroiled in a controversial plan for urban renewal around Pike Place Market. The idea originated as a redevelopment project to modernize the area, yet opponents saw it as jeopardizing the market's historical charm, its low-income housing, even its very existence. The opposition to the renewal plans, led by University of Washington architecture professor Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), coalesced under the banner of "Save the Market."

Lamphere maintained that she, too, was a friend of the market, and that the urban-renewal project she backed would save it in the long run. The market's core would be maintained, she said, but with new modern development around it. Yet she and Steinbrueck -- who had worked on Lamphere's campaign committee -- came to represent different attitudes about this emotional issue. Said The Seattle Times:

"Steinbrueck and Mrs. Lamphere have become symbols of opposing points of view on preservation of that rare bit of Americana Seattleites call 'The Market'" ("Real Friends").

Lamphere recalled:

"I was torn ... . I was very unhappy. Because I didn't want to desert the people I had been working with on a professional level, and didn't want to disappoint the citizens who had always been my supporters. So I worked my wonders and alienated some people" (Interview).

She "tried in vain to develop a compromise" (Lamphere, 147). Yet, on November 2, 1971, voters resoundingly approved an initiative creating a seven-acre historic district centered around the market, killing the urban-renewal plan supported by Lamphere. Steinbrueck called it "a victory of the people" (Lane). Lamphere would later write:

"It was the first time I realized how difficult it is to try to find a compromise between a carefully developed professional (albeit bureaucratic) position and an equally carefully developed popular position. There was no accommodating both" (Lamphere, 147).

A Productive Second Term

There was a significant silver lining for Lamphere on that 1971 election day -- she won her second term on the council, smothering W. L. (Bill) Harrington by a vote of 76,905 to 42,558. She was particularly proud of her work to acquire a central-waterfront site for the new Seattle Aquarium and helping spearhead the drive to establish what would become Myrtle Edwards Park, also on the waterfront.

On the personal side of her life, Lamphere and her family were now living in their "dream home" overlooking Puget Sound in West Seattle -- a seven-level house built into the side of a steep bank. It briefly became a campaign issue in 1971 when a newspaper story described it as "The House that Variances Built" (Lamphere, 153), even though the variances had been granted long before Lamphere was on the council. The Lampheres lived in the house for the next 22 years.

One of Lamphere's initiatives in her second term was to advocate building roundabouts -- traffic circles -- in many Seattle neighborhoods, to slow down drivers in residential areas. The fire department was against the idea, but the circles proved popular with residents and are now ubiquitous throughout the city. As chair of the council's planning committee, Lamphere also went after the billboard industry, believing that unfettered signage was blocking the views of the city she loved. She pushed through a sign-control ordinance, but would later say that one of her "major regrets is that I didn't get rid of all the billboards in the city" (Lamphere, 383).

Lamphere was also a driving force for a new West Seattle bridge. She once took Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson (1912-1983) on a tugboat ride up the Duwamish River to show him the dangers of the old drawbridge. After many delays, a new bridge was eventually built, with significant federal help. When Lamphere ran for a third term, in 1975, she had even less trouble getting elected, and defeated John O. McKee by a lopsided vote of 116,669 to 38,788.

National Recognition, Local Loss

Lamphere had meanwhile become deeply involved with the National League of Cities. In 1974, she was named the organization's second vice-president. Then, in November 1976, she became the first woman to be elected president (and the first non-mayor). This put Lamphere on the national stage, and in 1977 she appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle getting "a big smooch" from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (1929-1978) (Lamphere, 170). The New York Times ran a feature on her and said she "bantered easily with mayors" and "showed the assurance of one who has run many meetings" (Holsendolph). As head of the league, she met with both President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) and President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924).

But Lamphere would pay a price for the time and energy she put into this national post. It cut into the time she could devote to running for mayor of Seattle, the one office she wanted above all others:

"My whole path was leading that direction. There wasn't any question that I was going to run for mayor" (Interview).

Lamphere was one of an astonishing 15 candidates who stepped forward to run for mayor in 1977, a parade of hopefuls that included four other city council members. Yet Lamphere's extensive experience, her track record in elections, and her national prominence made her the early front-runner. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer endorsed her, saying "We have concluded that Ms. Lamphere's name must lead all the rest" (Thompson). The editorial also pointed out that she was the only one of the candidates that the paper considered qualified who was born and raised in Seattle.

So it was ironic that one of the main criticisms of her during the campaign was that she was out of town so much on National League of Cities business. It also became clear that the election was coming down to a race pitting city "outsiders" against city "insiders," the latter a group Lamphere now was lumped into. The morning of the primary election, The New York Times wrote that Lamphere "was considered the front-runner at first, but her campaign appears to have stalled in the last few weeks" (Ledbetter).

In the primary on September 20, 1977, voters chose Charles Royer (b. 1939) and Paul Schell (1937-2014) to advance to the general election. Lamphere landed in fourth place, with only about half the votes she needed to advance. The "outsiders" had emerged on top. Lamphere would in part attribute the defeat to the fact that she was presiding over meetings "all around the globe, just when I should have been concentrating on my mayoral campaign" (Lamphere, 381). Royer went on to win the 1977 general election; Schell would eventually become mayor in 1997.

More than three decades after her defeat, in a commentary titled "Why Hasn't Seattle Had a Woman Mayor?" Lamphere wrote that "the non-stop schedule" of campaign appearances was particularly grueling for women public officials in that era, because they were "expected to be perfectly coifed, groomed, attired and poised on all occasions" and that "any misstep" by one woman candidate raised questions about all woman candidates (Crosscut). "Chalk me up as a little old lady whose bubble burst when she failed to become mayor of the city she loved," she wrote (Crosscut). She considered it to be the "major regret" of her life (Lamphere, p. 381-383).

Lamphere was "crushed" (Interview), and decided to leave the city council entirely in 1978 to take a federal job in Seattle as regional director for the Economic Development Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. She saw the job, which she assumed in August 1978, as a way to help local communities create employment through public-works projects. Her region included Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas.

Lamphere's stint at the Economic Development Administration proved to be relatively short-lived. When President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was inaugurated in 1981, the agency's budget was slashed, and in 1982 she was asked to transfer to Denver. She had no intention of leaving her beloved hometown and resigned in the spring of that year. Her resignation letter doubled as a stern lecture to a Reagan official about making a "mockery" of the Civil Service Reform Act (Lamphere, 205).

A New Role in Seattle

In 1981, Lamphere began an affiliation that would fill the next 20 years when she was appointed to the board of the newly conceived Washington State Convention & Trade Center. She later would say, "Our charge was to locate, build, and operate the convention center. ... I loved that" (Interview).

Lamphere was an early advocate of the site eventually chosen -- above the Interstate 5 freeway in downtown Seattle -- because she believed the convention center must be near downtown hotels. She had been to many convention centers around the country and had come to "hate the idea of having to have buses take people from downtown hotels to some prairie, where they plunked down a huge convention center" (Interview). She later wrote that there were "many crises accompanying the construction, which was challenged enough by the difficulty of spanning a twelve-lane freeway without ever closing it, and designing an expansive grand lobby with no supporting columns" (Lamphere, 223-224).

She encouraged the architect to design the space without pillars "because you can't have grand space and have pillars running through it" (Interview). The board dedicated the new building, complete with pillar-less grand lobby, in May 1988. An expansion was dedicated in July 2001.

Lamphere was also the convention-center board's art chair, and she oversaw what would become one of the most spectacular public art collections in the state. Lamphere believed that the convention center "set a new standard for public art -- not just for the enjoyment of visitors from out of town, but also for the myriad of locals using the galleria daily as a public pedestrian link between First Hill and downtown" (Lamphere, 234).

Lamphere served on the convention center's board until 2002. In the meantime, she had started her own public affairs consulting firm. She worked under contract to CH2M Hill, an engineering firm, for 10 years. She also chaired a Municipal League study on regional governance, which recommended a merger between Metro and King County.

Private Loss, Public Service

Throughout this period, Lamphere's personal life went through major changes. In January 1987, while the Lampheres were on vacation on Kauai, Art Lamphere suffered a fatal heart attack. Lamphere continued her consulting work as well as her volunteer activities with the Municipal League, where one of her colleagues was Philip Barlow Swain (1915-1998), a Boeing vice president and former president of the Seattle School Board and the National School Boards Association. After Swain's wife died, he and Lamphere grew closer and ultimately married at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle on December 4, 1988. They continued their community efforts and traveled extensively until Swain's death on January 20, 1998.

Another of Lamphere's colleagues was James L. Wilson (1919-2003), a Seattle internist, cardiologist, and community leader, who served with her on the board of the convention center. After both lost their spouses within months of each other, they were "naturally drawn together," and married on July 26, 1998 (Lamphere email). They celebrated their reception in the Grand Atrium of the Convention Center. "Dr. Jim," as he was known, died in 2003.

Earlier, the most important person in Lamphere's life, her mother, Minnie Hagmoe, had died at age 100 in 1995. Lamphere said that after her mother's death she "felt a vacuum that is almost indescribable" (Lamphere, 289).

In 2000, Lamphere moved into Horizon House, a large retirement complex in downtown Seattle next to the Virginia Mason Medical Center, on whose Board of Governors she sat as of 2013. Even in her 80s and 90s, she had no interest in standing still. She served on the Seattle Parks Foundation board and was deeply involved in the development of Lake Union Park at South Lake Union, dedicated in 2010, and in the subsequent move of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) from the Montlake neighborhood to a new location at the old Armory Building located adjacent to the park. Lamphere called the entire South Lake Union project "a dramatic example of what a public/private/nonprofit partnership can achieve" (Lamphere, 341). She was also on MOHAI's board, and in 2001 MOHAI honored her as one of its "History Makers."

In 2013, past her 91st birthday, Lamphere reflected on her legacy. She said that she was most proud of helping to transform the structure of Seattle's city government. She believed "it had served the city well, and it was critical" to the city's progress (Interview). Under minor accomplishments, she listed the traffic roundabout, calling herself the "Roundabout Queen" (Interview).

Meanwhile, she could gaze out on another part of her legacy: The Washington State Convention & Trade Center spread out right below her Horizon House window.

"It's a tremendous asset to the city. And I'm so thrilled with our having nestled it down like that in the city, instead of having some big blob somewhere. It was a challenge. But look at it! It just looks so natural there" (Interview).

Phyllis Lamphere died on November 13, 2018, at 96.



Phyllis Hagmoe Lamphere, The Life of a City Girl (Seattle: self-published, 2010); Jim Kershner interview with Phyllis Lamphere, April 15, 2013, Seattle, Washington; Phyllis Lamphere, email to Jim Kershner, April 19, 2013, in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Phyllis Lamphere, "Why Hasn't Seattle Had a Woman Mayor?", Crosscut, February 24, 2013 (; Herb Robinson, "Good Council Field Gets Faint Praise," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1967, p. A; "New Blood Will Shake up City Council," Argus, November 10, 1967, p. 1; June Anderson Almquist, "Phyllis Lamphere Has Many Facets," The Seattle Times, December 3, 1967, p. 6-S; "Who Are the Real Friends of the Market?" The Seattle Times, April 9, 1971, p. A-13; Bob Lane, "Pike Market Vote Called 'Victory of People'," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1971, p. B-6; "Cities Get Together," San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 1977, p. 1; Ernest Holsendolph, "Seattle Woman Heads the National League of Cities," The New York Times, December 4, 1976 (; Les Ledbetter, "15 Would-Be Mayors Vie in Seattle Primary Today," The New York Times, September 20, 1977 (; Robert E. Thompson, "One Whose Name Must Lead All the Rest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1977; Richard W. Larsen, "Outsider vs. Outsider For Mayor," The Seattle Times, September 21, 1977, p. 23; Joel Connelly, "A Classy Longtime Seattle Civic Leader: Phyllis Lamphere Dies at 96," SeattlePI, November 16, 2018 ( Note: This entry was updated on November 18, 2018.

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