Speidel, Shirley Ross (1916-1994)

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 7/30/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21285
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Shirley Ross Speidel, the devoted wife of Seattle Underground Tour founder Bill Speidel (1912-1988), was active in her community. She was one of the first members of the King County Landmarks Commission, where she helped craft the county's approach to historic preservation. Speidel was a docent at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and served as President of Vashon Allied Arts and on the board of advisors for the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, among other community interests. A lover of plants and gardens, she particularly championed both the lowly yellow dandelion and rooftop gardens. Born in Minneapolis, Shirley Ross lived with her mother and sisters in Minnesota, Asia, California, and Washington state. She attended Lowell Elementary in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, graduated from Broadway High, and attended the University of Washington.

Roots in Minnesota

Shirley Elizabeth Ross was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at home on the sleeping porch, on October 16, 1916. She was the youngest of the three daughters of Charles Frederick Ross (1887-1958) and Jessica Marie Brown Ross (1889-1967), following sisters Mary Esther (1911-1978) and Marjory Ann (1912-1974).

Years later, Shirley Ross Speidel's daughter Sunny Speidel fondly remembered her mother describing her sisters' reaction when she was born: "Ann asked Mary, 'What's that sound?' Mary said, 'Oh that's just mother, cleaning her teeth'" (Speidel interview).

Shirley Speidel's maternal grandfather Frederick V. Brown was born on a farm in Saline, Michigan. His family moved to Minnesota in 1869 when he was 7. Brown attended schools in Shakopee, Minnesota, and attended Hamline University in St. Paul, but left without earning a degree. The lack of a degree did not hold him back. In 1885, Brown was admitted to the bar. He moved two years later to Minneapolis to practice law. In 1903, he was the President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. Brown was elected in 1906 to be Superior Court Judge for Hennepin County. He resigned in 1909 after serving two years of a six-year term.

Brown came to Seattle in 1909 to replace Luthene Clairmont Gilman (1857-1942) as Western general counsel of the Great Northern Railway. A staunch Democrat, he was active in civic affairs and progressive causes, and a prominent member of both Minneapolis and Seattle high society.

Speidel's mother, born Jessica Marie Brown on December 18, 1888, was the daughter of Frederick Brown and Esther Bailey Brown (1864-1954). Jessica had one younger brother, Howard Selden Brown (1891-1927). She graduated in 1908 from MacDuffie Private Boarding School in Granby, Massachusetts. While attending MacDuffie, she was a school reporter, president of her class, and voted most popular.

Speidel's father, Charles Frederick Ross, was the adopted son of Charles H. Ross (1848-?) and Mary E. Ross (1847-?), a nurse. The family moved from Wisconsin to Minneapolis when he was a young child. As a young man, he engaged in international trade as Vice President of Bankers Investment Company in Minneapolis, traveling often to the company's Tokyo, Japan, office, as well as China and other destinations including Russia, Australia, India, and Canada.

Family Life During World War I

Speidel's parents married on September 4, 1909, a year after her mother's graduation from MacDuffie, at the Minneapolis home of her mother's parents Frederick and Esther Brown. The newly married couple moved to Seattle when Jessica's father took the position of Vice President and counsel of the Great Northern Railway in Washington state.

In June 1914 World War I broke out in Europe. Three years later, the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. In the U.S., men aged 21 to 45 were required to register for military service. Thirty-year-old Charles Ross registered on June 5, 1917. Shirley was a babe in arms at 8 months old. Charles frequently took his wife and children with him as he traveled abroad.

By January 1918, the family had been living in China and Japan for several years. Charles moved his family back to Seattle to be near his wife's parents, then proudly enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve on January 26, 1918. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Charles Ross was honorably discharged on December 21, 1918, with the rank of corporal. Shirley was a toddler of two. After his discharge, the family moved to Southern California.

Two years later, on July 7, 1920, Shirley's beloved grandfather Frederick V. Brown died suddenly in Victoria, British Columbia, at the Empress Hotel. He had been in the city for three weeks on business. His death sent shockwaves through his close-knit family and friends. Speidel's mother and grandmother became the first known women to travel in a Boeing B-1 Seaplane, flying from Seattle across the Strait of Juan De Fuca to Victoria to be at Frederick Brown's side. The Boeing Seaplane was preserved and put on display in the Boeing Wing section of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry in 1954.

Growing Up in Seattle

Shirley and her sisters attended school in California until 1925. Sadly, their parents were in the midst of a divorce. Jessica Ross returned to Seattle with no job, three children, and rheumatic fever. Jessica's brother Howard assisted his sister in finding a home. "She got the worse house that she could afford on the best block where she lived" (Speidel email).

Jessica Ross worked at the I. Magnin department store in downtown Seattle to support her family. In September 1925, at the age of 8, Shirley stepped into Lowell Elementary School as a third-grader. She attended Lowell until the spring of 1930.

Speidel's mother Jessica (whose granddaughter Sunny would call her Jee Jee) was determined to bring up her three daughters to be strong, independent, curious, capable, and educated. Speidel's grandmother Esther Brown, affectionately called "Gommy," came to live with the family to assist in caring for the children. Sunny Speidel recalled:

"The children were never allowed to see their mother immediately after work, only after she had rested. She wore fashionable lounge wear around the house. It embarrassed my mother because it looked like she was answering the door in her pajamas" (Speidel interview).

Speidel's father made California his home, becoming known in real estate and as a stockbroker in San Francisco. He remarried in May 1930 to Rowena B. Browning (1898-1997). He became a member of the San Francisco Real Estate Board. Charles and Rowena Ross lived for many years at 2401 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. A veteran, Charles Ross was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.

In the fall of 1930, Shirley, a dark-haired beauty, began attending Broadway High School on the corner of Broadway and E Pine Street in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, which her sisters Mary and Ann had both attended. A bright student, she had several creative interests. She was active in numerous class plays and very involved in academics, service, and leadership. She won academic awards and served as Junior Class Secretary and on the Publicity Committee.

When Shirley was 16, her mother remarried on April 17, 1933, to Seattle attorney Scott Michael Calhoun (1874-1952), a Port Townsend native. The couple met in 1931. In Speidel's later years, she did not talk much about her stepfather. Prior to her mother's marriage to Calhoun, she had a close relationship with mother.

One of Speidel's childhood neighbors, Marilyn Thompson (later McFarland, 1920-2008), became a long-life friend. Marilyn's brother George Harold Thompson Jr. (1914-1974) would become Speidel's first husband. In Shirley's senior year, she received a senior honor society scholastic award and joined the Latin Club. She was a lover of Latin and desired to learn more of the culture. She graduated from Broadway High in June 1934 at the age 17.

Later in life Speidel remarked positively about her school experiences at Lowell Elementary and Broadway High. 

College Studies and First Marriage

In September 1934, Shirley began attending classes at the University of Washington, majoring in law and joining the Pi Beta Phi Sorority. At the same time that Shirley Ross was making her way in Seattle, family members liked to note, American singer and actress Shirley Ross (1913-1975) became a huge success in Hollywood. The name was not all they had in common, and if not careful, one might confuse the two! Both their fathers were named Charles, they were born just 3 years apart, and both had the acting bug.

Among Shirley's classmates at UW was George Thompson Jr., a 6-foot-2 blue-eyed blonde, member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) Fraternity, and the brother of her best friend, Marilyn Thompson. George, Marilyn, and their brother Raymond Barrell Thompson (1919-1944) were the children of George Harold Thompson (1888-1948) and Mary Lloyd Barrell Thompson (1891-1964), owners of the Thompson Candy House at 1600 Dexter Avenue in Seattle.

Shirley Ross and George Thompson exchanged vows on Saturday, November 4, 1939, at the Thomsen Memorial Chapel of Saint Mark's Cathedral on Seattle's Capitol Hill. They made their residence in Edmonds and Everett, in Snohomish County north of Seattle.

World War II Loss and Hardship

George Thompson enlisted in the U.S. Navy on May 21, 1941, and served in World War II. His brother Raymond had enlisted in 1940. Lieutenant Junior Grade Raymond B. Thompson was Missing in Action (MIA) after being captured by Japanese forces on November 22, 1943. He died in 1944 at Rabaul POW Camp in Papua New Guinea.

George Thompson was discharged in 1945, returning to Seattle after having served his country as an Aviation Chief Machinist's Mate. As World War II ended, George and Shirley's marriage also ended. The couple had no children. Sunny remembered her mother saying "George and I were sitting before the fire, and I said, 'George, let's get a divorce,'" adding "And so, they did" (Speidel email).

Speidel would remain close friends with George's sister Marilyn until the end of her life.

Bill Speidel Jr.

William Charles Speidel Jr. was born on February 11, 1912, in Seattle as the oldest child of Dr. William Charles Speidel (1883-1963), a prominent Pacific Northwest physician, and Irish-born Anna Ochiltree Speidel (1882-1915). Dr. Speidel, a pioneer in blood transfusion, was known as an incredibly kind person. Bill Jr.'s younger siblings were Dorothy Lucille Lundin Speidel (1914-?) and John Hawley Ochiltree Speidel (1915-?).

When Bill was three, his 33-year-old mother died on April 27, 1915, of puerperal sepsis (postpartum infection), 14 days after giving birth to her youngest child on April 13. Dr. Speidel agreed to a blood transfusion in an unsuccessful effort to save his wife's life. She sank into a coma without regaining consciousness. Her husband was left with three young children to raise. Bill Jr. for years kept an article in his wallet on what happened to his mother. Dr. Speidel remarried multiple times throughout the years. This early situation would impact Bill for the rest of his life.

Bill attended John Muir Elementary, then graduated from Franklin High School in 1930. Following in his father's footsteps, he attended and graduated from the University of Washington in 1936, getting his degree in literature. One year later he married his first wife, Nanon Grinstead (1918-2000). Before their divorce, the young couple had three children, William Charles III (b. 1938), Julie (b. 1941), and Marion (b. 1948).

To support his family, Bill Speidel became a police reporter for The Seattle Times and wrote a column for the Seattle Star. In 1946, he opened a public relations company in downtown Seattle. For 20 years, he handled a variety of political and commercial accounts.

Life with Bill Speidel

Shirley Ross Thompson met Bill Speidel Jr. in 1950 while working on Janet Powell Tourtellotte's unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate seat held by Democrat Warren Magnuson. Shirley was Tourtellotte's assistant, and Bill managed her publicity. Over a period of time, Bill Speidel would become a passionate hands-on historic preservationist. In her 1994 obituary, The Seattle Times quoted their daughter Sunny Speidel saying of her mother, "she gave him the push into historic preservation" (Beers). Sunny Speidel later recalled:

"My mother decided to marry a man who had long ago decided he would never work for a corporation. He was creative and wanted to write, wanted to own his own business and build it from scratch" (Speidel email).

The couple married on Sunday, December 2, 1951, at the Plymouth Congregational Church at 1217 6th Avenue in downtown Seattle, in a small ceremony with only immediate family members in attendance. Bill had just been named Administrative Assistant to Mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982) of Seattle 3 months prior to the wedding. Three years later their daughter was born on November 9, 1954. They named her Shirley and nicknamed her Sunny.

As the saying goes, behind every great male writer, there is a great woman. Shirley Speidel allowed Bill to be himself. He started writing and by 1955 he was a published author. His first book was You Can't Eat Mount Rainier. As the wife of a larger-than-life husband, Speidel became his literary agent, secretary, editor, and scribe. By 1967, Bill was a well-established author and had written three books.

Known for his drinking and smoking, Bill credited Shirley for managing and stabilizing him. As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he was proud that he took his last drink on November 24, 1964. What gave Shirley Speidel joy was nurturing his writing, and she promoted her husband's work, clearing the way for him to be creative. They always appeared in public together. Certainly, and obviously, he relied on his wife. Their daughter told The Seattle Times in 1994:

"Dad could do anything mom made up her mind he could do. She also would sit next to him and mouth his bad jokes -- he told very bad jokes" (Beers).

Together, the couple opened Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, run by Bill Speidel Enterprises, in May 1965. It was their contribution to preserving Seattle's history and culture. The tours attracted hundreds of customers bringing interest to Pioneer Square and its historical significance. Over the years, much has been written about the Seattle Underground Tour, which continues to operate.

Active in the Community

In addition to supporting the tour business and her husband's other activities and raising a child, Speidel spent her time volunteering and being extremely active in the community. Highly creative and loving the arts, she served as a docent at the Museum of History and Industry.

She had a fondness for plants, including her cheerful yellow garden of dandelions. She created fantastic bouquets of dandelions and topped salads with the leaves. She often wrote and gave speeches and presentations about roof gardens. Seattle Times columnist Dorothy Brant Brazier praised a 1970 article on the subject:

"Very good reading is 'Think Rooftops' by Shirley Speidel in the November issue of the Junior League's Puget Soundings. She suggests utilizing the roofs of buildings in the central business district for plantings -- roof-gardens that not only will give people and birds a safe place to enjoy, not only for aesthetic value but for air cleansing, too ... When I took my first monorail ride from downtown to the Seattle Center (1962) I thought many roof tops we went by quite unattractive. Even a good cleaning -- let alone plantings -- would have helped." ("A Very Personal ...").

Speidel served as vice president of the Broadway High School Alumni Association. She was an early guide at the Seattle Japanese Garden in the UW's Washington Park Arboretum, was active in the Arboretum Foundation, and joined the Lake Washington Garden Club. Speidel served on the King County Arts Commission and was one of the original members of the King County Landmarks Commission, appointed in 1980 and 1985.

The Speidels moved to Vashon Island in 1966, leaving their home at 3916 E Pine Street in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood in east-central Seattle. The Vashon home had been a wedding gift from Bill's father. The house was a get-a-way, a haven from the city.

Built in 1936, the Vashon house sat on one acre. Originally a 240-square-foot beach house, it was surrounded by trees as tall as 150 feet. The house was once a log-sided cabin with a separate cottage nearby serving as a bedroom. For many years the couple walked outdoors to their bedroom.

Speidel opted not to cut the trees, even though beyond them was a view of Colvos Passage and Blake Island. Her daughter explained:

"Bill transformed the house into Shirley's dream home. In the house, there are full length windows on most of the walls with the exception of one of the two bathrooms. A door to the outside is in every room. Shirley loved nature and her garden. The house sits right on the ground, not grand or majestic. She had the opinion that the trees were the view, and the slice of view as the Japanese know is a thing of beauty and mystery" (Speidel interview).

The remodel increased the house to 2,450 square feet.

Speidel played an active part in Vashon Island community activities. She appeared in numerous plays at the Drama Dock Theater, was a founder and president of Vashon Allied Arts, served on the board of advisors for the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, was an active member of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, and led Vashon Associated Arts.

Inspirational Life

Speidel remained close to her sister Mary and to her sister Ann's daughter Pat Turner. Ann lived in Southern California and lived a different kind of lifestyle. Sunny Speidel remembered her Aunt Mary:

"Mary was around a lot when I was little. We had Christmas and holidays together and she and her husband were very present when Shirley and Bill got together. That's why my cousin Danny and I are close; we are the same age and were brought up a bit like siblings" (Speidel email)

A terrific interior designer and gardener, Shirley Speidel was not an artist, but was artistic in a variety of ways. Many artists were her friends. Her ego was not fragile nor did she have to put herself forward.

Speidel displayed a friendly, welcoming demeanor. When she was at home, she wore grubbies. Generally she was well dressed and kept stylishly up-to-date with whatever was new and fashionable. She loved art and culture in all its forms. Her personality was direct. Her daughter said:

"She made the world sound friendly, like a place you'd want to be, even though living through [the] Depression made her forever save aluminum foil, and wrapping paper, and ribbons" (Speidel email).

Sunny Speidel also recalled that her mother engaged in multiple sewing projects, some never finished: "I still have the monogrammed placemats and towels and handkerchiefs she embroidered when she was young" (Speidel email).

Speidel was spiritual in a quiet way. After she passed, her daughter said:

"I found two things behind the bedroom door that was always open. Those two images totally epitomized her, one a poem titled 'My Garden,' the other a photograph of her as a preteen:

"'My Garden is a place where roses grow,
Where I commune with God,
I love the flowers, the trees, the sky,
The stepping stones I trod'" (Speidel email).

Her greatest legacy was her commitment to her husband of 37 years. He died in 1988. On July 28, 1994, Shirley Ross Speidel died at her beloved Vashon Island home of spinocerebellar degeneration at the age of 77.


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C-4; "Broadway Girls Lead Boys, 2 to 1 on Honor Roll," The Seattle Times, March 22, 1933, p. 22; "Broadway High Students Put on Honor Roll," Ibid., November 13, 1933, p. 10; "Shirley Ross, Mr. Thompson Repeat Vows," Ibid., November 5, 1939, p. 33; "3,600 High School Pupils Graduating," Ibid., June 11, 1934, p. 14; "322 Girls Pledged to U.W. Sororities -- Pi Beta Phi," Ibid., September 28, 1934, p. 30; "These Seattle Men Serve Country," Ibid., October 11, 1942, p. 10; Dorothy Brant Brazier, "Join the Underground -- It May Not Be Exactly Relaxing, But It Is Fun," Ibid., April 17, 1966, p. S-3; William Gough, "Paintings, Plants Sought for Beautifying Courthouse," Ibid., September 14, 1969, September 14, 1969, p. 35; "Pioneer Square Restoration to Be Topic," Ibid., August 9, 1970, p. H-12; Dorothy Brant Brazier, "A Very Personal Christmas List," Ibid., November 16, 1970, p. 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