Award-winning producer Jean Walkinshaw (b. 1926) pioneered television documentary filmmaking in the Northwest. Beginning at KING-TV in Seattle in the 1960s, Walkinshaw pushed TV beyond its white middle-class comfort zone with the weekly interview show "Face to Face," hosted by African American educator and actress Roberta Byrd -- one of the first local programs to take on minority issues. After moving the show to KCTS, Walkinshaw next produced the series "Faces of the City," inspired by Studs Terkel, before going on to create more than 40 documentary features on prominent artists, writers, and cultural topics for local and national audiences. Her subjects included artist Guy Anderson (1906-1998), poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), Lummi weaver Fran James (1924-2013), writers Raymond Carver (1938-1988) and Tom Robbins (b. 1932), and composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). An avid outdoorsperson, along with her husband, attorney Walt Walkinshaw (1917-2010), Jean helped debut high-definition programming for KCTS in 1999 with her homage "Rainier: the Mountain." Among her many awards are eight Northwest Regional Emmys, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the New York International Film Festival Award, and the Northwest's National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Gold Circle Award.
Privilege and Heartache
A Tacoma native, Jean Strong grew up among the families of timber barons in the city’s elite Lakes district, riding to the hounds, and playing golf and tennis during a time when many in the U.S. were struggling through the Great Depression. Her older siblings — Charles (1910-2002), Peggy (1912-1956), and Katy (1914-2004) — were followed after 10 years by Bibbits (1924-2018) and finally Jean — "the spoiled baby of the family" (memoir).
Their father, Charles Arthur Strong (1883-1947), was a staunch Republican and a civil engineer who worked on massive projects including Fort Peck Dam and the initial stage of the North Cascades Highway. Jean's mother, Margaret Henderson Strong (1886-1975), a Democrat and supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal, took leadership roles in the local Red Cross and USO to help during World War II. The couple's disparate political views made for occasional heated arguments, Jean later recalled, but Charles' work kept him away from home for long stretches, and his poignant love letters to Margaret stand as a testimony to the depth of their relationship.
Margaret Strong's independent views may have been unusual for women at the time, but she came from a family of prominent politicians, activists, and scholars. Her father was the early Northwest botanist Louis F. Henderson (1853-1942), for whom Mount Henderson in the Olympic Mountains is named. Her grandfather, John Henderson Jr. (1821-1866), a Louisiana lawyer and abolitionist, was shot in the New Orleans race riot of 1866. Her great-grandfather, John Henderson (1797-1857)) served as a U.S. senator from Mississippi.
The Strong family spent summers at the construction camps where Charles was working, in the Cascade Mountains or on the Olympic Peninsula. Exotic breakfasts of pie and steak made camp life seem blissful to Jean. But it was in the Cascades, on a summer night in 1933, that life-changing news arrived: Jean's sister Peggy had broken her back in a car crash and was paralyzed below the arms. Margaret left immediately to care for Peggy during her months in hospital and rehabilitation, and Katy stayed home from college to take care of her two younger sisters. Jean's carefree life was shattered.
Nevertheless, activities at the family's lakefront manor, Stronghold, carried on after Peggy and Margaret returned home. Encouraged by her mother, Peggy renewed her art studies and established herself as a prominent Northwest figurative painter. Unable to ride a horse, Peggy continued to follow the hounds driving a specially outfitted convertible.
Jean's father believed in public education and sent his youngest daughter to Clover Park High School, even though many of Jean's friends attended the exclusive Annie Wright Seminary. Vice-president of the student body and popular with boys, Jean later described herself as "a righteous prude" and "a bit bossy at times" (memoir). Yet ever aware of how fortunate she was, Jean wrote about her concerns, stating, "No one likes a snob" (memoir).
Looking Around in Palo Alto
In 1944 Jean enrolled at Stanford University to study liberal arts -- and look for a husband. This was the start of what she would later call her "catch and release" period (Farr interview). Attractive and vivacious, she had no trouble reeling in suitors, but quickly tired of most of them. In 1947 Jean's father died unexpectedly and she left Stanford temporarily to help out at home. She attended the University of Washington for a semester, and by the time she returned to Stanford she had been replaced as secretary of her class and her latest heartthrob had found a new girlfriend. For a young woman used to getting what she wanted, this was a serious blow.
To recover, she signed up for a bicycle tour of Europe, where she found new admirers. It was shortly after the end of World War II and Jean's travels alternated between rugged living on a dollar a day -- sleeping on floors, or in parks, or the occasional youth hostel -- and luxurious hotels and partying after her mother joined Jean in London to see the 1948 Olympic Games.
When she returned to the States, Jean took an administrative job at Yale University, but her life grew increasingly unhappy and adrift. On the advice of her mother and Peggy, she attended a seminar on religion in Carmel, California, given by the head of Stanford Business School, and learned to meditate. This set her on a new path. "I decided to ... quit looking for a man, Mr. Wonderful, and just live in the present," she said (Farr interview).
Finding Inspiration and Meeting Her Match
In 1950 she returned to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington to earn her teaching credential. One evening at a Quaker meeting Jean encountered Floyd Schmoe, an antiwar activist who was building houses for displaced people in Hiroshima. He invited Jean to join his crew. In the summer of 1951, Schmoe's volunteers built two houses and a community center, designed by Japanese and constructed with traditional methods. Jean worked long days with blistered hands. Everywhere in the city she saw the aftermath of the atomic bomb: scarred and maimed survivors, hopelessness, despair, and destruction. People were unfailingly gracious to her and she admired the spare beauty of artworks, gardens, temples, and living spaces. This exposure to such dire hardship, as well as the principles of the Japanese aesthetic, would shape her life and work.
In the fall, Jean returned to Seattle and a teaching job at Bellevue Junior High School. She rented a funky old warehouse space on Portage Bay, living frugally, and continued to attend Quaker meetings. That's where a young lawyer named Walt Walkinshaw spotted her one evening. While trying to meditate, he was distracted by a shapely ankle across the room and checked out its owner. After the meeting, unbeknown to Jean, Walkinshaw discreetly followed her home, to be sure he could find her again. A week later he saw her at a cocktail party and introduced himself.
Walt was nine years older than Jean, a passionate outdoorsman who had served in the Navy in combat and later as a diplomat. Intrigued by his intelligence and experience in the State Department, Jean delighted in their shared concerns for social justice and love of nature. There was even a mountain in the Olympics named for Walt's father: Mount Walkinshaw. She soon discovered she couldn't manipulate him like she did other smitten young men she'd been dating. "He really challenged me because he wouldn't let me get away with anything," she recalled." (Farr interview). They both knew they'd found their match.
After the wedding Walt moved into Jean's warehouse apartment where they lived a Bohemian life for the next two years, squeaking by on $12 a month rent as Walt established his private law practice. But in 1955, after their first son, Charles, was born and they discovered that a rat had been in his crib, they knew it was time to move; the Walkinshaws bought a house on Capitol Hill. Their son Robert was born in 1957 and daughter Meg in 1958.
The Walkinshaws also bought property on San Juan Island, where for the next 15 years Jean would take the children every summer to camp, an arrangement that harked back to her own childhood. They lived in a teepee, with no running water or electricity, and Walt would arrive from town on weekends, usually with guests. Frequent visitors included lawyer Stimson Bullitt (1919-2009) and his wife Kay (b. 1925), and poet Theodore Roethke and his wife Beatrice (b. 1926). Roethke wrote much of his long poem "The Rose" there on the island.
The Bullitt family owned KING-TV, which was founded by Stim's mother, Dorothy, and they were at the forefront of developing commercial television as a source of entertainment and news in Seattle. Stim served as president of KING Broadcasting, but he did it reluctantly. "Daddy hated the product of television, and felt that it was intellectually empty and that its influence outran its content," Bullitt’s son, Fred Nemo, later explained (HistoryLink.org essay 9428). Similarly, the Walkinshaws believed watching TV was a "vacuous waste of time" and refused to buy one (memoir). However, one day they arrived home to find their kids glued to a TV screen; a client of Walt's had installed the set in their absence. What could they do?
Suddenly, Hooked on Television
It was around that time that Stim visited Jean and asked if she would consider working at KING-TV. He was looking for an interviewer for a morning talk show. Intrigued by the idea of making daytime television more challenging and substantial for women, she agreed. But Jean soon discovered she was unprepared for being on camera and that her appointment by Bullitt had caused resentment from the host of the show as well as program director Lee Schulman, who had been overstepped. When Schulman called Jean in and severely criticized her performance, she resigned. (Bullitt would later leave the company and practice law, joined by Walt, at the firm Riddell, Williams, Bullitt and Walkinshaw).
By now, however, Jean was hooked on the power of television. She went back to UW to study communications and took television production courses from professor and broadcast journalist Milo Ryan (1907-1986), whose idealism inspired Jean. Ryan was a founder of KCTS Channel 9, which operated from a studio on campus, and students benefited by learning their craft on the set. At one point Walkinshaw interviewed African American actor and educator Roberta Byrd (1919-1993) and was amazed by her clarity and incisiveness. In 1965 Walkinshaw developed a show for KCTS called "Face to Face," with Byrd as the moderator, and then took the show to KING.
"Face to Face" was a hit. The two women would choose a topic, and then Walkinshaw researched and wrote the scripts, tracked down guests and prepped Byrd, who took charge in front of the camera. In the 1960s it was a new thing to see a black woman preside over a TV program and Byrd was compelling. "She was terrific on camera," Walkinshaw said, recalling that The Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2001) once wrote he could listen to Byrd read the phone book (Farr interview).
Columbia University's Survey of Broadcast Journalism 1968-69 called "Face to Face" with Roberta Byrd, "the only local attempt at a consistent report on attitudes of minority people (including Indians) and this contributed to deeper insights on the race relations issues" (p. 20).The show took on other hot-button issues of the day, including Vietnam war protests, the killing of Kent State University students by police, Timothy Leary and LSD, nursing home abuses, Indian fishing rights, homelessness, and prostitution. (Jean proposed going undercover as a prostitute to get that story, but Walt nixed the idea.)
"Face to Face" was an education for audiences -- and Walkinshaw, too. One day after talking to members of the Black Panthers, she came back to the station in tears. They hadn't been as supportive and grateful as Jean expected. She told Byrd, "Roberta, they weren't nice to me." And Byrd replied, "Well, why should they be?" "She was pretty ruthless in not babying me," Walkinshaw remembered. "She taught me to roll with the punches" (Farr interview).
Despite the show's good ratings, Walkinshaw had to plead to get office space at KING. For a while, she had to use the phone in the women's restroom to line up interviews. The pay was minimal: $50 each per program. But eventually, after underwriting from the Aerospace Union was secured, they wrangled $100 a show for Walkinshaw and $125 for Byrd. "Face to Face" aired on Sunday afternoons, an undesirable timeslot, so in 1970, when Walkinshaw and Byrd were offered prime time at KCTS, they jumped at the opportunity.
Connecting With 'Faces of the City'
By 1972, Byrd --Seattle's first African American woman high school principal -- was short on time and Walkinshaw was ready for a change. They ended the run of "Face to Face." Then, inspired by a Studs Terkel book, and encouraged by a meeting with Terkel, Walkinshaw started a new series called "Faces of the City," a look into the lives of lesser known people in Seattle -- a bartender, a hotel cleaning woman, a Vietnam vet, a prostitute -- and Byrd would make appearances as an interviewer.
That series is where Walkinshaw really honed her craft. Working with cameraman Wayne Sourbeer (?-2005), she learned to do her own audio recording, editing the interview tapes with a razorblade and incorporating music into the soundtrack. Sourbeer shot film footage to cover the audio, with alluring imagery of the Northwest landscape as a backdrop. That method became "the skeleton of what was going to happen next," Walkinshaw recalled. "My career launched with 'Faces'" (memoir).
The series won Walkinshaw's first Emmy, as well as Best of the West and National Federation of Press Women Association awards. The awards, along with enthusiastic coverage from the newspapers, helped reel in a National Endowment for the Arts grant for Walkinshaw's first documentary feature, "Three Artists in the Northwest," about painter Guy Anderson, sculptor George Tsutakawa (1910-1997), and poet Theodore Roethke. Shooting the 1976 documentary challenged Walkinshaw artistically, and also threw her into a conflict with Sourbeer over control of the film, when he went behind her back to set up a shoot of Anderson painting nude models on a beach. She was furious initially, but ended up liking the footage. "There's a tender balance between producer and photographer. One does not want to stifle the creativity of a photographer, yet there has to be one boss -- and that was me" (memoir).
The two came to an understanding and worked happily as a team for 10 years. "Three Artists" aired nationally four times and won two regional Emmys. The Seattle Times called it "a first-class example of putting film to work in the service of art -- and resulting in a film that is a work of art itself" (Voorhees, "Three Artists"). Walkinshaw followed it with "Trident: Super Sub or Dinosaur?" about nuclear weapons in Puget Sound; "Tarheels in the Northwest," on North Carolinians who brought their way of life to Darrington; "Columbia: Voices of the River," at how the great river shapes the lives around it; and "Japan Northwest," with British Columbia architect Arthur Erickson.
Walkinshaw was bringing home awards for KCTS, but still wasn't on the payroll. One colleague remarked that maybe she didn't need a job; she was married to a lawyer. In the latter '70s, Walkinshaw wrote a strongly worded letter to program director Burnill Clark, who eventually offered her a staff position as a producer. Throughout her years at the station (later often teamed with photojournalist Tom Speer), she continued to fight for equal recognition and support.
Favorable Reviews, Chaos at KCTS
One thing Walkinshaw could count on, however, was the enthusiasm of the press. In the pre-internet-and-smartphone days of the 1980s, everybody watched TV and both of Seattle's daily newspapers had critics and weekly sections devoted entirely to programming. Coverage of Walkinshaw's shows was consistently favorable. The Times summed it up: "Over the past few years, the team of Walkinshaw and Sourbeer has become one to be reckoned with, creating a body of work that is uniquely Northwest but is, at the same time, universal ... " (Voorhees, "Award-winning Team").
As a senior producer at KCTS, Walkinshaw continued to search out and reveal intriguing aspects of the local scene -- the Croatian community, Western art, mountain climber Jim Wickwire, writer/performer Rebecca Wells -- and also international topics, such as Japanese New Age musician Kitaro, a children's cross-cultural exchange in the Soviet Union, and the challenges faced by Japanese volunteers and U.S. Peace Corps workers in Ghana. Walkinshaw produced a show on composer Alan Hovhaness, capturing rare interview footage of him.
But by the 1990s, KCTS was in turmoil and Walkinshaw's status at the station was eroding. KCTS had moved from UW to a new studio at Seattle Center in 1987, and Clark, now president and CEO, implemented ambitious plans, spending extravagantly amid big budget deficits and rounds of layoffs. He formed a new national and international unit, but excluded Walkinshaw. The station developed a promotional relationship with glass artist Dale Chihuly (b. 1941) that violated the Public Broadcast System’s ethical guidelines.
Walkinshaw returned her attention to local programming and produced a new series on "Remarkable People," among them Assunta Ng, publisher of the Seattle Chinese Post, and Dr. Michael Copass, head of Emergency Services at Harborview. The Seattle Times reported that the series was "not only a valuable contribution to intelligent viewing but also provides an historical record for the future" (Voorhees, "The Tonys"). Clark had poured money in a costly new technology, high definition, and now he enlisted Walkinshaw to produce the station's debut show in HD. The subject was one dear to Washington state residents: Mount Rainier. But as Walkinshaw wrapped up production in 1999, she discovered accounting discrepancies in the financial statements for the show. She wrote to Clark, pointing out the errors, but he explained away the issues.
Then, when "Rainer: The Mountain" aired, Walkinshaw got another shock. A newly arrived TV critic at The Seattle Times wrote a condescending review, blasting the format of the program and Walkinshaw personally. "The results are occasionally pretty," the review conceded, before complaining that the program "meandered" and lacked structure. It concluded, "What’s most disappointing is ... it comes from an award-winning producer like Walkinshaw" (McFadden). Other reviewers were enthusiastic, with the Post-Intelligencer opining that the film "shows once again that creativity makes for more engrossing television programming than a big fancy production," (Connelly, "Documentary Captures"). Still, the unprecedented critical flogging from The Times, on top of tensions at the station, was too much. Walkinshaw was crushed.
By the turn of the 21st century reporters from Seattle's major publications had begun prodding into financial issues at the station. Eventually Walkinshaw agreed to an interview, even though she found it painful to speak out against Clark. She told a Seattle Weekly reporter that it was time for "radical change" at the station and that it was time for Clark to go. (Shapiro). Both dailies rolled out exposes, with a Seattle Times investigation spelling out some of the issues: "Under Clark's leadership, KCTS has racked up millions in operating losses, projected unrealistic revenue and fallen behind in dues to PBS and rent to Seattle Center" (Phillips).
Clark's tenure crashed to an end with his ouster in 2003, amid multimillion-dollar debts and internal discord. The station laid off much of the creative staff, including Walkinshaw. In order to receive severance pay, she and others were asked to sign a document requiring that they not speak against the company or its officers and also keep the agreement secret. Outraged at the idea, Walkinshaw declined, writing to the company, "I will not have my freedom of speech denied me.” (memoir). She was not paid.
In the P-I, a lament about Walkinshaw's termination noted that her "elegant and insightful work brought fresh blooms to an increasingly desolate [TV] landscape ... Television's tools are so often used like sledgehammers it is almost unnerving to see them work with such precision, delicacy and insight ... " (Paynter, "Channel 9"). A few years later, some KCTS employees learned that Walkinshaw's film and video archive was going to be discarded and arranged for dozens of boxes of film and videotape to be transferred to Jean and Seattle Colleges Cable Television (SCC-TV), where it was digitized. Eventually the original material was moved to the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
One of the 'Remarkable People'
Walkinshaw wasn't ready to give up. She had always been active in the Democratic party and in the community, serving as chair of the American Friends Service Committee Exchange Program, a member of the Washington Commission for the Humanities, Washington State Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee, and on the boards of the YWCA, Lakeside School, and Planned Parenthood, among others. In her late 70s, she bought a video camera and, at SCC-TV, learned how to edit on her Mac computer. She got a grant and began a series of "Remarkable People" documentaries there, mixing some footage from old shows with new material she shot herself. Gospel singer Pat Wright was among her subjects, as well as mountain climbers Jim Whitaker and Dianne Roberts, king crab fisher Stefani Smith, and poet Roethke. It was the last series she produced. Then SCC-TV turned the camera on Walkinshaw, and shot a "Remarkable People" documentary on her.
After a fall that left Walt confined to a wheelchair, Jean devoted herself to his care and, because it was her way, began interviewing him on camera, sharing remembrances, reliving their love for each other. Together they had helped start Amigos de las Americas in Seattle, training young people to go to remote Central American villages to give immunizations. They would donate their island properties to the San Juan Preservation Trust. When he died in 2010, a newspaper tribute quoted his old friend and law partner Stimson Bullitt, who once wrote to Walt: "You are the only person I've known for whom I thought ethical decisions were not hard -- that on coming to a moral fork in the road, you would take the right one without breaking stride" (Connelly).
Mourning her partner of 58 years, Jean found solace by working on an extensive video memoir, for the historical record and as a resource for future generations of her family. In 2019, she received the Northwest Regional Emmy's Gold Circle Award, for outstanding achievement in a career spanning half a century.