Dotty Beum DeCoster was a longtime community activist, researcher, writer, and historian based in Seattle. Over her lifetime she turned her considerable organizational and administrative skills to the causes of peace, radical feminism, child development and publicly supported daycare, the environment, neighborhood and urban planning, historic preservation, and community gardening. Within agencies and organizations she often served as administrator, researcher, or executive secretary and from that position would become an essential driver of the mission. She was an avid reader, including science, spurred in part by a three-year job at San Francisco's Exploratorium. She wrote neighborhood-history and architecture articles for The Capitol Hill Times and Jet City Maven, contributed to Historic Seattle's book Tradition and Change on Seattle's First Hill, and wrote essays for HistoryLink.org, focusing on historic buildings. An indefatigable researcher, in 2006 she turned her attention to a quest for her lost maternal Kansas relatives. She was also a prime mover in creating the P-Patch Unpaving Paradise. She raised a daughter, Tara DeCoster (b. 1967), and son, Tristan DeCoster (b. 1968), and helped raise her granddaughter (Tara's daughter), Esmé DeCoster (b. 2000).
Dorothy "Dotty" Beum was born on February 1, 1944, in Washington, D.C., to Corlin Oga Beum Jr. (1913-1984) and Mildred Arline Benjamin Beum (1914-1969). Her father, an engineer from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, served in the United States Air Force during World War II, and later worked for both Lockheed and Boeing. He was often described as an aerospace engineer, but, in his granddaughter's words, "much of his work was in developing, testing, and modeling systems for weaponry for the armed forces. [He] was an early proponent of systems analysis and had a long consulting career in that field" (Tara DeCoster to Priscilla Long, February 13, 2015). Her mother was raised by an adoptive family in Lawrence, Kansas.
DeCoster was the oldest of four children. Her siblings were Helen Beum (b. 1948), Corlin Beum III (b. 1952), and Elizabeth "Betsy" Domike (b. 1954). Growing up, DeCoster lived with her family in Stamford, Connecticut (1950-1953), Columbus, Ohio (1953), Los Angeles (1954-1960), and Seattle, with the family relocating in response to their father's defense-industry contracts. Both parents, according to Helen Beum, were socially liberal. In 1961 they started the West Seattle Unitarian Fellowship, Dotty becoming a member of the affiliated Liberal Religious Youth. Corlin Beum belonged to the World Future Society and as an engineer enjoyed designing the city of the future, a likely influence on DeCoster's interest in urban planning. According to Helen Beum, "Our Mother was creative and artistic and played records, watched all those variety shows with singers and dancers. She took us to concerts and ballet performances. I remember that she read us poetry. Dotty wrote poetry in high school ..." (Helen Beum to Long, March 6, 2015).
In early childhood Dotty Beum contracted both polio and meningitis, and spent much time in the hospital. Her sister recalled, "I think her early illnesses helped form her as such a practical and resourceful person later in life. She just pushed through whatever she needed to do -- raising her kids by herself and working and taking on all kinds of activist projects" (Helen Beum to Long, March 6, 2015).
She was active in the Girl Scouts, participating in (her words) "considerable camping experience in California habitats (mountains, beaches, deserts)," and received leadership training and experience (Dotty DeCoster, "Work Experience"). She studied classical ballet from 1951 to 1958. Helen Beum recalled that she was a very good dancer. Although she did not expect to become a professional dancer, because her ankles were too weak, "she loved the spectacle of ballet and valued how it felt to dance" (Helen Beum to Long, March 12, 2015).
In 1961 Dotty Beum graduated with honors from West Seattle High School. She entered Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1961. At Antioch she was active in the Student Peace Union, which initially agitated to bring nuclear testing to a halt. History was the focus of her studies.
Dot Beum withdrew from Antioch College after the fall of 1963 and moved to Chicago. She and Lawrence DeCoster (b. 1942) were married in July 1964 in Seattle. Over the next few years Dotty and Larry DeCoster crisscrossed the country numbers of times -- traveling in vehicles that were perhaps less than entirely road-worthy -- and living in both Seattle and Chicago. In both cities, she participated in the civil rights organization CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
In Chicago Dotty DeCoster also helped to staff the Solidarity Bookshop, which produced the periodical Rebel Worker. According to Bernard Marszalek (b. 1941), a co-founder of Solidarity Bookshop, Solidarity was run as a collective with everyone volunteering hours and participating in publishing ventures, which consisted mainly of anarchist and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) pamphlets. The bookshop produced a radical history calendar and "a large catalog of books that the bookstore promoted" (Marszalek to Long, February 24, 2015).
"Dotty also participated in the publication of Solidarity's journal Rebel Worker. Ostensibly a publication of the Chicago Branch of the IWW, RW covered a wide range of themes beyond those of a typical Wobbly publication: the 60s youth rebellion (including poetry and music), anarchism, wildcat strikes, council communism, situationism, and a fiery brand of surrealism. For RW Dotty translated the first Situationist text in the United States: Unitary Urbanism by Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem" (Marszalek to Long, February 24, 2015).
Situationist? In Marszalek's words, "The Situationists were a small international group, based in France, who opposed, in theory and in their everyday lives, the extensive decanting of real, lived life into a facsimile of 'life' dominated by media in the service of consumerism" (Marszalek to Long, February 25, 2015).
The philosophy and spirit of the Solidarity group is captured in a 2009 article by Michael Lowy:
"Solidarity Bookshop [was] an Anarcho/Marxist, Surrealist/IWW circle which published Rebel Worker. Their influence was limited, but one of their buttons did make a splash: 'Make love, not war.' Their favorite one was a bit sharper: 'I'm an enemy of the State.'
"Unlike other revolutionary groups, who enjoyed interminable discussions on the nature of the Soviet Union -- 'degenerated workers' state' or 'state-capitalist'? -- the Bookshop gang was also interested in poetry, art, culture and above all Surrealism, which they interpreted, in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation, as a synthesis of anthropology, Freud and Marxism" ("A Magical Moment").
Even while traveling or living elsewhere, Dotty and Larry DeCoster continued to work, at times long-distance, with the Solidarity Group in Chicago. Their daughter, Tara DeCoster, was born in 1967 in Chicago. For a year in 1967-1968 Dotty DeCoster worked for the California state Peace and Freedom Party in Oakland. She was the state secretary/office manager. DeCoster was an extremely competent administrator who typed 90 words a minute.
She returned to Seattle in 1968, and their son, Tristan DeCoster, was born that year. Dotty and Larry DeCoster separated in July 1968 (their divorce was finalized in 1975).
During the first decade after her return to Seattle, DeCoster became active in the women's liberation movement and in various (often successful) campaigns for childcare facilities and programs, as well as other progressive causes. She became close and lifelong friends with Louise (1920-1984) and George Crowley (1920-1981), whom she had met a few years earlier when she and Larry lived briefly in Seattle. The Crowley household was a center of progressive activism in Seattle, and they provided an extended family network for the children. The Crowleys formed the center of what was known as "The Seattle Group," which corresponded and worked with the IWW/Solidarity Bookstore people in Chicago.
In a 2000 interview DeCoster remembered the Crowleys:
"We happened to go to a CORE meeting here in the Central Area over on Cherry. At the end of the meeting, another woman came up to me to bum a cigarette. Her name was Louise, and she was interested in the book I was reading and invited us to meet "George." He turned out to be her husband.
"They were George and Louise Crowley who lived here on Capitol Hill for many years. They lived in a big old beat-up house with four kids, any number of cats, and eventually dogs and many people, and they kept an open house for folks who were interested in anarchism or people they liked or people who were in trouble, and needed a place to stay. Like an ongoing floating crash pad. There weren't many amenities but there was food and heat and it was an institution in its own way. It was on 18th and Denny and the house is still there ..." ("The Women's Movement ...")
DeCoster became a participant in the local welfare-rights organization, became a compositor and contributor to the alternative newspaper Helix, and began taking courses at Seattle Central Community College. The courses mirrored who she was and ranged from early-childhood education to math to oceanography. She would enter Antioch University Seattle in the fall of 1990 to continue her interests in urban planning, history, the sociology of the family, and science, completing her Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1992.
For Children and for Childcare
As the single parent of two children, DeCoster understood acutely the need for childcare services and put her own organizational skills to the wheel of this cause. The situation was plainly laid out in the title of a 1970 article she co-wrote in the newspaper The City Collegian: "Seattle Displays Outrageous Lack of Daycare Facilities." In 1970 she became cofounder and chair of the Seattle Central Community College Childcare Coordinating Committee.
About the same time, she worked as a planner-expeditor for King County Community Coordinated Childcare, whose director was Betsy McGuire. David Petersen (b. 1941), a writer who worked for the Early Childhood Development Department of North Seattle Community College, remembered a meeting that he, his boss Betsy McGuire, and DeCoster attended. "It was clear all through that meeting that Dotty knew what she was talking about and that Betsy relied on her. I would learn later that was not unusual" (David Petersen, "A Memory of Dotty").
A year or so later, Petersen was hired to direct the new campus childcare office at the University of Washington. He recalled:
"The first thing I did was call Dotty and tell her she had a job. Luckily for everyone, she took it. We took on the project, and got funding to expand our operation four-fold. We accomplished a lot, wrote and published most of the material available at that time on campus-based child care, created a statewide organization of campus child care people, introduced a bill in the state legislature and went to Olympia to lobby for it, and ran the first comprehensive survey on child care. They told us we were wasting our time, that no one would care. We put IBM cards with the survey questions in the enrollment packets everyone got. Instead of the 1-2% returns they predicted, we got over 31%. It became the provable basis for establishing need in campus communities. Every step of the way, in everything that we did over that year and the next, Dotty was a major force driving our efforts" (David Petersen, "A Memory of Dotty").
In 1973 and 1974 DeCoster continued her childcare advocacy as a writer at Washington's Office of Community Development's Child Development Planning Project. Later (1975-1976) she worked as an administrator at Seattle Central Community College's Early Childhood Education Program.
DeCoster had returned to Seattle from Oakland and her Peace and Freedom Party work in the spring of 1968 with toddler Tara and pregnant with Tristan. It was a time when blatant discrimination against women, justified with gender stereotypes, was standard. There were few women doctors, lawyers, professors, newscasters, bus drivers, electricians. In an interview DeCoster said, "the restrictions put upon women at that time were very different than they are now. Fortunately people have forgotten them, and I think that's wonderful. But I had to live with them" ("The Women's Movement ...").
As activists in the burgeoning civil rights and anti-war movements, women tended to play secondary roles whereas men tended to articulate positions at meetings and speak at podiums and rallies. But the preceding decade of civil rights protests and anti-Vietnam War activism had set the stage for the women's liberation movement, which now burst forth in full force. In Oakland DeCoster had been part of the women's caucus of the Peace and Freedom Party and in the George and Louise Crowley household, she found Louise to be involved in women's issues. DeCoster said:
"She'd [Louise Crowley] been involved with a lot of other women from other organizations and walks of life in the Free University class. They called it the 'Woman Question,' and began to work with a group of women I hadn't met, and organized something called the Women's Majority Union. This is a group of women who recognized that women were in the majority and yet were second-class citizens. ...
"Most were middle aged or older, most were experienced women. They published a journal called Lilith, which I actually typed I think. That was my involvement. That was going on and swirling around in the households when I came back" ("The Women's Movement ...").
Historian Barbara Winslow, who was herself active in the women's movement in Seattle at the time, noting that from 1967 to 1969 there were three women's liberation groups in Seattle -- Radical Women, Women's Liberation-Seattle, and the Majority Union, said:
"Dotty provided a connection liaison between the older left, i.e., the Crowleys, and the younger new left, which included the women who founded Lilith and the Women's Majority Union, one of the first women's groups founded in or around 1968. ... I remember her [DeCoster] as serious, hardworking, thoughtful, well respected and non sectarian" (Barbara Winslow to Long, March 9, 2015).
DeCoster participated in Women's Liberation-Seattle, and in the Peace and Freedom Party's Women's Caucus from 1969 to 1972. In 1974 and 1975 she helped write, edit, and publish the feminist newspaper From the Ground Up, while also working for improved policies on daycare services.
After nearly a decade in Seattle, DeCoster returned to California to work at San Francisco's Exploratorium, which she did from June 1977 to August 1980, rather early in the evolution of the unique hands-on science/art museum. DeCoster worked on fundraising, research, proposal writing, educational program development, video projects, and artists-in-residence programs. She served for a time as interim public-relations officer and she worked with the high school explainer (intern) program.
According to Exploratorium co-worker and friend Irene Oppenheim:
"Dotty was already at the Exploratorium when I arrived. Her job description was, I believe, secretarial. Dotty, however, was never one to pay attention to labels. She loved the museum. She loved the concept of educational play, and she was as much a contributor to the activities at the Exploratorium as those technically ranked above her" ("Remembering Dotty DeCoster").
In those days, according to Oppenheim, everything ran in a rather ad hoc manner, a bit frustrating at times, but Dotty "loved to laugh and seemed always to find something wryly amusing in virtually any situation. Smoking was permitted indoors in those far away days, and at her typewriter, a cigarette burring in a nearby ashtray, Dotty was a catalyst for anyone with a problem or a gripe"("Remembering Dotty DeCoster"). DeCoster's brother, Corlin, lived with the family in San Francisco for two years and reports that they were "some of the best years I've had. ... The four of us spent so much time at the place [the Exploratorium]. It was a magical place to work and play" (Corlin Beum to Long, March 11, 2015).
DeCoster was also of course raising her children, who were 8 and 9 years old upon arrival in San Francisco. An old friend, Beth Katz (b. 1943), recalled, "During the San Francisco years I knew Dotty mainly as an incredibly devoted, inventive, and hardworking single mother" (Katz to Long, March 3, 2015).
The Exploratorium was a seminal experience, informing DeCoster's later work with the Seattle Children's Museum as well as her environmental concerns within her neighborhood planning work. It was hard work but also fun, and there was no lack of adventure, as when, in 1979, DeCoster and children, accompanied by friend Bruce Crowley (son of George and Louise) returned to Seattle for Thanksgiving by hopping a freight train.
Back to Seattle: The 1980s
In July 1980 DeCoster returned to Seattle with Tara and Tristan. By this time political activism had changed or in many cases died. And activists of older generations, including her mentors the Crowleys, were reaching the end of their lives. In an interview, DeCoster said, "It was a time of loss for me ... [the] link with the generation that was older than I am began to disappear rapidly. People quite sensibly had reached a point in their lives where they were out doing other things" ("Capitol Hill and the Movement").
She got a part-time job working at the Health and Welfare Department of the Seattle Urban League, where she assisted the lobbyist with research and writing of informational materials and press releases. During the next three years she also volunteered with the then-new Seattle Children's Museum. She wrote grants, transcribed, made do with part-time jobs.
When the money at the Urban League ran out, she went to work for the city of Seattle in a land-use and transportation project. Then for a year, from 1983 to 1984, she worked for the Seattle Children's Museum as assistant director and development officer, creating a fundraising program. Next she went to work for four years (1986-1990) as an administrator in the University of Washington's Chemical Engineering Department.
By 1987 Tara and Tristan were out of the house (Tara in college, Tristan in Los Angeles for a year) and DeCoster moved in with a new companion she'd met at the engineering department. They lived together for about six years.
Sustainability and Urban Planning: The 1990s
She moved back to Capitol Hill in the early 1990s. Tara returned to Seattle in 1994 and from that year until the end of Dotty DeCoster's life, mother and daughter shared a household.
DeCoster became increasingly concerned with the environment and in 1990 participated as a volunteer in a citywide street-tree inventory carried out by the Seattle Engineering Department and the city arborist. The tree count was done as part of a program to improve stewardship of the urban forest.
Meanwhile she returned to college, receiving her BA from Antioch University in 1992. Her thesis was titled "Exploration of the Family, Public Policy, and Urban Planning." In 1994-1995 she studied urban planning at the University of Washington's professional and continuing education program. She received her certificate in urban planning in 1995.
Her years-long work and activism in neighborhood planning was arguably her most significant contribution to the city. From 1991 to 1994, she worked for the Seattle Planning Department, and thereafter moved to the Neighborhood Planning Office, where she was employed from 1994 until 1999. She served as project manager for three plans from start to finish: Lake City/North District, Aurora-Licton Springs, and Broadview-Bitter Lake-Haller Lake. She was deeply knowledgeable about the political history and issues of neighborhood planning, involving traffic, parks, the use of school buildings, and other matters, and continued to contribute her expertise to the conversation after she retired as a city employee. According to Tara DeCoster, "She was especially proud to be part of Norm Rice's populist vision, a vision that was watered down with each successive step of implementation" (Tara DeCoster to Long, March 11, 2015).
In 1999 DeCoster moved from the Neighborhood Planning Office to Seattle Public Utilities, where she worked until she retired in 2002. As a city employee and later as a volunteer, she enthusiastically supported the Thornton Creek Alliance, "an all-volunteer grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring an ecological balance throughout the Thornton Creek watershed" (Thornton Creek Alliance website). The Thornton Creek watershed comprises more than 11.6 square miles, the largest creek watershed in both cities it traverses. The creek runs from Shoreline through Seattle into Lake Washington, through back yards and a number of natural areas, where citizens have helped bring about many habitat improvements.
The big event of the year 2000 was the birth of Tara's daughter, Esmé DeCoster. The three generations shared a household, and Dotty played a strong role in raising her granddaughter.
Exploring the Past, Protecting the Future
In the early years of the new century, DeCoster, along with her sister Helen, turned her research skills toward Kansas and her own mother's story. Mildred Beum, who had died when Dotty was 25, had been adopted and the family knew nothing of her birth family. Dotty and Helen traveled to Kansas in May 2006, met for the first time their mother's sister, who was in her 90s, and visited many of their mother's Kansas places. For both sisters it was a profoundly moving experience.
In 2008 DeCoster began researching and writing extensive essays for HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history (this website). She specialized in historic buildings such as the Governor's Mansion in Olympia and Seattle's Town Hall. She also wrote history-oriented articles for the Capitol Hill Times and for the Jet City Maven (later renamed The Seattle Sun). For that community newspaper she became far more than a contributing writer. Publisher Susan Park explained:
"There had been a gap in community news in the northeast of Seattle for some time. Upon finding out that former Seattle Press and Pike Place News editor Clayton Park had moved into the neighborhood and wanted to start a little publication to cover Licton Springs and Maple Leaf, Dotty jumped at the chance to get us to build an even larger paper. It quickly grew with her help. Dotty was a driving force and a wonderful cheerleader. She was always there without fail to assist in providing us information as well as contacts for city and county government. She visited us often and always answered the phone. She was one person we knew we could count on" (Susan Park to Long, February 26, 2015).
For years, DeCoster and her granddaughter Esmé were involved in community efforts to establish P-Patches. Interest in community gardening continued during the year 2010-2011, when Dotty home-schooled Esmé for fifth grade. As to what they did that year, Esmé wrote in an email remembering her grandmother:
"Well we did lots: Sewing, Colonial Williamsburg and a lot of Gardening. Dotty and I were working on creating a p-patch up on Capitol Hill but the city had kind of screwed us over. So we began to work on the creation of Unpaving Paradise ... . And when I was homeschooling, we were very involved with those processes, sketching, checking soil, measuring spaces, talking to nearby companies. I was mostly in the background for business discussions :) ! As for sewing I took a weekly Friday class at stitches, where Dotty taught me to sew. It was a painstaking process but in the end it mostly worked. The major part of homeschooling [was for] the trip to Colonial Williamsburg. We went for about a week and covered the entire place! There was lots of walking and plenty of good food. Where Dotty revealed that she LOVED snickers bars. By buying 6 of them at the vending machine at our hotel and sharing them throughout the long time between meals. We began the process of learning french together too. With CDs which was comical, but still" (Esmé DeCoster to Long, March 9, 2015).
In 2009, the Unpaving Paradise P-Patch and park project, located at Summit Avenue and John Street on Capitol Hill, became a key focus. In 2010 DeCoster joined the Communications Committee. She became site coordinator in 2013, following a unanimous vote. As the Unpaving Paradise community remembered her:
"She devoted immense energy and time to the garden, working on the maintenance committee, compost committee chair, maintaining the Garden map and our communications. She was also responsible for authoring the Park's By-Laws and was a constant advocate for the Park, the P-Patch, its attendants and inhabitants" (Unpaving Paradise website).
Her fascination with the built environment, architecture, and history found another outlet when she worked, along with fellow resident David Collett (b. 1952), on uncovering the history of the elegant San Marco apartment building, built in 1904 on First Hill, to which the DeCoster household moved in April 2008. Collett and DeCoster worked for two years to research, photograph, and record the history of the historic and beautiful old apartment building with its brick facing and broad windows and courtyard.
Collett reflected that the work that went into a website they created on the building "exemplifies many of Dotty's finest qualities, particularly her love of history, her ability (and persistence!) to discover the most minute facts, and her deep caring about people and social issues in the past and present" (Collett to Long, February 17, 2015).
Dotty DeCoster was diagnosed with cancer in January 2014. Among her last contributions, she wrote the hospital chapter and most of the last chapter of the book Tradition and Change on Seattle's First Hill: Propriety, Profanity, Pills, and Preservation edited by Lawrence Kreisman (b. 1947). The book-launch was held at Town Hall on December 14, 2014. As one of the authors, DeCoster greeted and signed. Photographs of the occasion show her looking very pleased indeed.
A bit more than a month later, Dotty DeCoster died of colorectal cancer at Swedish Hospital, in Seattle, on January 21, 2015.
Of Dotty DeCoster, colleague and friend David Petersen said, "She was one of the hardest working people I ever met, to say nothing of the most determined. She was sharp and had a storehouse of useful information stored in her head, the like of which you seldom see. If you knew her at all, you knew how dedicated she was to the ideas and the people she believed in ... . My world, our world, is a better place for her having been in it" (Petersen to Long, February 10, 2015).
Three months before she died, she wrote to this writer, who was an old friend, critiquing the way the media made heroes of certain people who had spent or lost their lives working for social justice. In her view, there was nothing heroic about it. Rather, "it does seem to me that one does one's part for the common good" (Dotty DeCoster to Long, October 25, 2014).
Dotty DeCoster did her part for the common good. More than that, she was a tireless advocate, an energetic and effective neighborhood activist. She was a prime mover -- not in the sense of being politically visible or in any way celebrated, but in the sense of being a responsible and caring citizen, a dynamic and indispensable participant in her community.