Politician and humanitarian Ralph Munro served as Washington Secretary of State from 1980 until 2001. He was instrumental in streamlining voter registration procedures, pressed for the preservation of historic landmarks, and served on numerous international trade and cultural missions. With a passion for social justice, education, and the environment, he was a pioneering figure in the state's disability rights movement, helped establish a bald eagle preserve on the Skagit River, and supported a ban on the capture of orca whales in Puget Sound. Born in Seattle on June 25, 1943, to a family with Scottish roots, Munro graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1961 and earned a B.A. in education and political science from Western Washington University in 1966. In 1968, a chance encounter with Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) brought him to Olympia, where he served on a statewide committee and then became as assistant to the governor. After retiring from public service in 2001, he was honored by friends and colleagues with the establishment of the Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education at Western Washington, his alma mater.
Early Years on Bainbridge Island
Ralph Davies Munro, son of George Monroe (1900-1999) and Elizabeth Troll Munro (1909-1962), was born on June 25, 1943. His paternal grandfather, Alexander McKenzie Munro, was a Scottish stonemason who immigrated to the U.S. in 1886 to help build the Texas State Capitol in Austin. After that project ended, he traveled around the Midwest working other jobs until he heard that stoneworkers were needed in Seattle to rebuild the city after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. He liked the looks of the Northwest and asked his fiancée Janet Montgomery to join him. The couple married in 1890 and bought property on Bainbridge Island's southwestern waterfront for $1,300. They had 10 children born between 1891 and 1910.
Alexander Munro helped build the first granite dry dock at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as well as the British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria. In the 1920s, the 60-year-old stonemason spent five years cutting sandstone blocks for the State Capitol in Olympia. "Like the other carvers of his day, Munro hammered his signature mark into the back of each stone he carved. Three-quarters of a century later, several of Munro's rusted chisels sit on a desk in one of the Capitol's most spacious offices -- the office of his grandson, Secretary of State Ralph Munro" (Ralph Thomas).
Ralph Munro's father, George, was an electrician who worked through both world wars at the naval shipyard. His mother Elizabeth taught kindergarten and first grade, and was employed at McDonald Elementary School on Bainbridge Island when she died at the age of 53. The family included two other sons, Ronald and David, and two daughters, Ruth and Margaret.
Munro graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1961 and earned an undergraduate degree in education and political science in 1966 from Western Washington State College (changed to Western Washington University in 1977). In a 2003 oral history conducted by the university, Munro talked about his family's commitment to higher education. "My mother had gone to Western in the early '30s. She was from Seattle and wanted to be a school teacher. She graduated ... and came to Bainbridge Island and met my father, who was living in the same neighborhood where she taught. My dad had been the first of his family to go to university; he went to Washington State College in the mid-'20s. Our home was always filled with education ... My father worked much harder during the war; he worked two shifts in the shipyard to make sure that we had enough money to go to school ... Going to college was a very big thing in my family and I will always be indebted to them for that" (Munro oral history, p. 1).
Known for his own disparaging remarks about his educational track record, including the fact he was kicked out of Western as a freshman for drinking beer, Munro showed an affinity for politics early on. He was student body president at his high school and president of the Associated Students at Western Washington, experiences he saw as invaluable later in life. "Student government is the training ground for the very best elected officials. You learn a lot in student government, at an age where it doesn't make a hill of beans difference, as opposed to later in life. If you've never been involved in politics, and you get involved in politics and you make mistakes -- that costs the public a fortune" (Munro oral history, 6).
Fircrest School and a Boy Named Terry
After graduating from college, Munro worked for The Boeing Company at its Renton facility, where he was trained as an industrial engineer. A few days before Christmas 1966, Munro's landlord, who every year organized Holiday Cruises for the Handicapped, had a last-minute staffing problem. He asked Munro if he would help serve food aboard the steamboat Virginia V. During the event, Munro met a frightened little boy named Terry Sullivan, whose mother had abandoned him as a toddler. Terry made such an impression on the young Munro that on Christmas Day, with gifts in tow, he visited the boy at Fircrest School, a residential center set up to aid those with developmental disabilities.
Munro later said, "I was ashamed of myself for not knowing more about retardation and individual problems the mentally retarded face" (Bob Young). Designated 4-F by the Army because of an existing heart murmur, Munro was barred from serving in Vietnam. He decided to serve his country by volunteering to help disabled children and became a regular at Fircrest. About a year later, in March 1968, Governor Daniel Evans was at Fircrest to dedicate a new building. Munro took the opportunity to introduce himself and his new friend Terry Sullivan, and he told the governor a bit about his volunteer work at the school. What happened next is straight out of a Hollywood script:
"A few hours later, Munro was working a catering job at Seattle Center. He didn't even know Evans was speaking at that night's banquet. Munro was scraping food off dishes when the lead waitress came back, grabbed him and said: 'I think the governor is talking about you.' What? Munro stuck his head into the Rainier Room. Evans was winding up his talk about volunteerism and his visit to Fircrest, where he had met a young boy who had learned how to talk. Munro later followed the governor out to his car, still wearing his slop-covered apron, to thank him. 'You call my office,' the governor said. 'I want to talk to you'" (Bob Young).
Munro did so, and in June 1968 Evans appointed the 25-year-old to a committee to study volunteerism in the state. Two years later, Munro became the state's first volunteer coordinator, and in 1972 was appointed the governor's special assistant on education and social service issues. On loan to the White House in the early 1970s, Munro was instrumental in establishing ACTION, the federal volunteer services agency in Washington, D.C., which had oversight of VISTA, the Peace Corps, and other volunteer programs.
In the early 1970s, families with disabled children had few resources. They could keep the children at home where education and socialization might be lacking, or they could send them to a state institution. "Munro had a hand in the state's revolutionary 'Education for All' law, which gave all children a right to public schooling ... 'He saw this as a civil-rights issue, not as poor people who needed pity. He saw them as people whose rights were being abridged,' says Norm Davis, former Fircrest superintendent" (Bob Young). Gov. Evans signed House Bill 90 into law in 1971, the first in the nation to require a state to educate all special-needs children, regardless of the level of disability.
The following year, Munro convinced the governor to spend a day in a wheelchair -- an eye-opening experience. "On the morning of October 4, 1972, Evans edged his wheelchair out of the governor's mansion. He skinned his knuckles colliding occasionally with walls and other objects ... Evans called the six hours he spent in the chair 'a sobering ... experience,' noting that a 6-inch curb 'looked about as impossible as a 6-foot wall.' Munro lobbied for a bill requiring new public curbs to have at least two ramps, or cuts, per block to accommodate wheelchairs. It passed in 1973" (Bob Young).
Munro married Karen Lee Hanson on February 17, 1973. At the time of their marriage, Hanson was press secretary for the Washington State Committee for the Re-election of the President and a graduate of the University of Washington. The couple had one child, George, born in 1977. They were divorced in 2012, and on May 18, 2013, Munro married Nancy Bunn.
In September 1974, Munro took a leave of absence from his work in Olympia to become general campaign manager for A. Ludlow "Lud" Kramer, a Republican candidate who ran unsuccessfully for Washington's 3rd congressional district (after Kramer died in 2004, Munro delivered his eulogy). After the defeat, Munro rejoined Gov. Evans' team in Olympia until Evans left office in 1977.
Munro accepted a position with the Foundation for the Handicapped, continuing his commitment to improving the lives of the state's disabled residents. In 1978, he was named one of Seattle's 100 Newsmakers of Tomorrow, a project sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Time magazine. Munro petitioned for, and was appointed, legal guardian for Terry Sullivan, who eventually moved out of an institutionalized setting and into a foster home – one of the first children in the state to make that transition. Sullivan supported himself for 30 years by sorting recyclables and polishing machine parts.
A Run for Office
In 1980, the 37-year-old Munro decided to run, as a Republican, to become Washington's 13th secretary of state. The position is responsible for such tasks as supervising elections, filing initiatives and referendums, and producing voter pamphlets. His opponent that year was Ron Dotzauer, the Clark County auditor. Munro eked out a win with 707,352 votes to Dotzauer's 682,129, and went on to be elected secretary of state for five terms, serving in Olympia from 1980-2001.
Building on his passion for equal rights and social justice, Munro championed numerous programs to make voting more accessible and convenient to Washington citizens. He established mail-in voting in state primary and general elections, streamlined voter registration procedures, and published the first Braille voter pamphlet. Other accomplishments included overhauling the state's business licensing system to improve the efficiency of corporate filings, deleting the terms "idiot" and "imbecile" from the state constitution, and creating the "motor voter law" that enabled residents to register to vote at the same time they applied for or renewed their driver's license.
One of his political battles -- restricting exit polling at voting sites -- played out on the national stage. During the 1980 presidential election, some Washington residents were discouraged from voting because the East Coast-based television networks had already decided the winner before the polls had closed on the West Coast. Munro testified before the U.S. Congress in 1982 that network projections of election results "violate every doctrine of fairness" ("TV Election Projects Unfair ..."). "Munro regards exit polling as interference in the electoral process, which should enjoy sanctity. 'The only thing that should happen at a polling place is an election,' Munro says" (Charles Dunsire).
Washington became the first state to ban exit polling within 300 feet of the polling place, a law quickly challenged by the three major television networks, The New York Times, and the Washington Daily Herald as a violation of First Amendment rights. The case wound its way through the court system and became a national test cast. "In 1986, a federal district court judge in Seattle found the law unconstitutional. The judge ruled that the media could not obtain the information gleaned from exit polling in any other manner, and that it was not disruptive to voters at the polling place. The judge stated that the true motive for the legislation was to prevent early election predications and not to preserve peace at the polls ... By the time of the 1988 final ruling of the Washington case, 24 states had prohibited exit polling to various degrees" ("States Enact Polling Laws ...").
Awards and Honors
Munro greatly enjoyed his position in Olympia but after 20 years decided it was time to move on. As he prepared to leave office, he was asked if he wanted any gifts. "I said, I don't want a gift but I would like to put together a program where we taught teachers how to better teach civics because I think there's a great lack of civics in public schools today ... Thanks to the generosity of a lot of very fine friends, we've raised now $247,000 and the legislature has put their $250,000 in, so we just have $3,000 to go and the program will be fully endowed. We are very, very pleased about that" (Munro oral history, 17). The Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education at Western Washington University opened in 2001. In March 2016, Munro received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the university.
Munro may not have wanted gifts, but he was showered nonetheless with many awards and citations over the years, including the World Citizen Award from the Seattle World Affairs Council, Warren G. Magnuson Award for outstanding public service, and Executive Leadership Award from the Washington State League of Women Voters. He was one of only a handful of Americans awarded the Medal of Friendship by the government of the Russian Federation, and King Juan Carlos of Spain presented him with the Award of Civil Merit -- the highest honor given to a non-Spanish citizen.
Munro is an avid environmentalist whose impact on the wildlife of Puget Sound has been significant. "It would be difficult to find an individual who has done more to protect Puget Sound and its biological and cultural diversity than this Bainbridge Island native" ("We Are Puget Sound").
In 1975, he championed the establishment of a sanctuary on the Skagit River for bald eagles, and in 1976, he "lit the fuse that ended commercial whale captures in United States waters" ("We Are Puget Sound"). In 1995, he helped launch the Free Lolita! campaign to raise awareness about the last Puget Sound killer whale held in captivity in a marine park in Miami, Florida (as of 2020, the campaign to release Lolita had not been successful). With his first wife Karen, in 2006 he helped fund a new interpretive center at Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island, built with a wheelchair-accessible overlook of Puget Sound where visitors might see an orca breaching. In 2018, Washington Trails Association renamed a hiking trail near Evergreen State College in Olympia as the Ralph Munro Trail.
In addition to safeguarding wildlife, Munro was instrumental in preserving historic landmarks, including the site of the state's 1878 constitutional convention in Walla Walla and the Virginia V, the same steamship on which he met his young friend Terry Sullivan in the mid-1960s. As a child growing up on Bainbridge Island and the son of a man who worked for decades at the naval shipyards, the historic steamship held special meaning to Munro. "I truly believe that you never know where you're headed unless you know where you've come from. The Virginia V ... is an integral part of our history" ("Puget Sound History").
Munro continued his volunteer work in retirement. He took pride in "ringing a bell for the Salvation Army before Christmas, helping at his neighborhood elementary school, going to East Africa year after year, helping to eradicate polio by administering vaccine drops one child at a time. 'I see people today trying to find fulfillment in all these screwy places,' Munro said on the eve of his retirement. 'If people would just go down to their local school and walk in and talk to the first-grade teacher and offer to volunteer, they'd find a hell of a lot more fulfillment than they'd find in the spa at Palm Springs'" (Bob Young).
In 2003, after their father died, the three Munro brothers used their inheritance to support a college scholarship fund for Bainbridge High School students in memory of their parents. The George and Betty Munro Scholarship Fund is administered by the Bainbridge Community Foundation. In 2020, Ralph Munro and his cousin Elizabeth Munro Berry published a book on their family history called The Munros and Montgomerys of Crystal Springs. The project took the cousins several years to research, sending them on expeditions around the country as well as to Scotland.