Walter W. Straley was the founding president of Pacific Northwest Bell in 1961. Later he was a top executive and corporate "radical" with the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., and a community-service activist, both on the job and after retiring. He came from humble, troubled beginnings in the Midwest during the Great Depression, but was blessed with some gifts, some luck, and considerable drive to succeed. Walter Straley was a self-made man. Family was important and he and his wife, Rachel, bore five children, all successful, despite the vicissitudes of the nomadic, Bell system corporate life. Walter Straley died on April 14, 1999.
Growing Up Railroad
Walter W. Straley was born on February 2, 1913, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a town of about 7,000 in the southeast corner of the state, on the Clarksville, Baltimore & Ohio line. Walter's father, Grant Allen Straley, was a railroad telegrapher-agent and a descendant of German immigrants who had first settled in Pennsylvania. Walter's mother, Blanche Larrington Straley, came from a family of Welsh coal miners brought in to work the southern Iowa mines in the late 1800s. Walter had a brother, Larry, two years older, who went on to become a pilot and operate an airport in Clinton, Iowa.
When Walter was three, the family moved to the small railroad town of Manderson, Wyoming, also on the Clarksville, Baltimore & Ohio line, where Grant Straley was telegrapher and depot agent. They lived in an apartment above the train depot, Grant doubled as mayor, and Blanche taught piano. Walter's boyhood included bicycle explorations of the sagebrush-covered hills, caves, and nearby badlands of the Big Horn Basin, but his formative years were hardscrabble, and far from idyllic.
Grant Straley, "a quiet, mild guy" (John Straley), apparently stole some money from the railroad, was allowed to pay it back, but lost his job. The family moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, where Blanche's family lived, and Grant found work with another railroad. Blanche "was a pretty tough, aggressive woman -- could ride a horse, shoot a rifle" -- and she never forgave Grant's disgrace. "They had a somewhat hateful relationship" (Hugh Straley).
Handsome and Stage Struck
Young Walter, 14 when the family moved back to Iowa, didn't fare much better, and he "had serious issues with his mom as long as he lived. She was always carping" (John Straley). He ran away from home at age 15, but returned to finish high school. He learned self-reliance early, had a newspaper route, caddied, and worked as usher in the Capitol Theater. He not only earned $11 a week in this job, but "became hopelessly stagestruck. "I then made up my mind to live and work as an actor" (Levine).
He graduated from North High School 1928, where he was popular and president of his senior class. He attended Grinnell College, a highly regarded liberal arts college in Grinnell, Iowa, and was the first in his family to pursue a higher education. But, in the words of one of his sons, "He was thrown out in his senior year , I think for drinking, but he had enough credits to graduate" (Hugh Straley). He was politically active, president of the student council, and was voted handsomest man on campus his senior year. Another son remembers, "He was kind of a dandy and dressed well. Appearances were very important" (John Straley). He later served on the Grinnell board of trustees and was awarded an honorary degree.
Walter found a part-time job at WHO, Des Moines, which in 1933 had become a powerful, 50,000-watt clear-channel radio station that could be heard over much of the Midwest. For $9.50 a week, he read listeners' jokes on "Jimmy and Jack, the Butternut Boys." Walter was "Jack." An occasional fill-in for "Jimmy" was another WHO up-and-comer, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). Reagan also broadcast re-creations of Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball games. Straley read commercials and generated crowd noises and other sound effects. Radio was indeed the new communications marvel and Walter Straley was dreaming big dreams. KRNT offered him staff announcer job at $25 a week, which he accepted, but he was also offered an intern position at Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. in Des Moines, for $92 a month.
In 1933, the Great Depression was approaching bottom, with more than 25 percent of the American workforce unemployed. Walter's family was among those in dire straits and they were horrified by his decision. "[T]he phone company offered security for growth and success while the radio field was a gamble and theatrically "cheap" ... I can still be an actor, even as a telephone man," Straley recalled, by way of rationalization (Levine), but it was a sometimes-difficult role.
Hugh Straley reflected, "He often had conflicts over working in that kind of establishment ... that was racist and narrow, a company run by engineers and, you know, a monopoly. He also had a huge loyalty to the company and believed that it provided a service that was unexcelled in the world." John Straley adds, "He saw it as public service, almost, rather than a business."
The Bell Telephone Years
Walter started his Bell journey near the bottom, selling services, collecting overdue bills, and training newcomers out of the Des Moines office. There he met and fell in love with Rachel Worthington, but mid-1930s Ma Bell discouraged casual interoffice dating. He had to assure his manager that his intentions were honorable. They married on July 2, 1938, and enjoyed a one-night honeymoon in Marshalltown, Iowa, which was all they could afford. Five children would be born to the Straleys: Mary, Hugh, Jane, Martha, and John.
"She was a great mother," Hugh Straley recalled. Rachel's mother, Virginia, was a Quaker, who "was a classic grandmother, a little white-haired woman who, as soon as she came into the house, would go to the kitchen and start baking." Rachel's family could not afford two educations, so her older sister went off to college and Rachel, regretfully, went to work.
Of his mother, Hugh Straley said, "She was very bright. She joined Mensa [an organization limited to the smartest 2 percent of the population] and must have read three four books a week. She was the anchor in our family. All the kids graduated from college, which she enjoyed vicariously." Walter did too. "He was widely read, a student of history and literature and he imparted it to us" (Hugh Straley).
Walter began moving up in the company, and the skills he honed as an actor helped. He was good at public speaking, a raconteur, and he wrote well. But the stage remained a magnet and an avocation. Walter received the Omaha Community Playhouse's Fonda/McGuire Award (for Henry and Dorothy) for best actor of the 1941-1942 season, the "most prestigious performance award given by the Playhouse" (Omaha Playhouse).
The price of success and security at Bell was a nomadic lifestyle, uprooting every three or four years -- San Francisco, New Jersey, New York, San Diego -- with Rachel riding herd on the moves and the displacement traumas of the children. "Mother kept everything together," Hugh Straley said. "They had a very strong relationship throughout their whole life. The moves were always framed as a new opportunity, a new adventure. The kids adjusted. We did things together, had dinners at home and he was home on weekends, for the most part. There was a high value for family. He was the classic alpha male."
In 1961, Walter became founding president of Pacific Northwest Bell, encompassing Washington, Oregon, and Northern Idaho. He was the youngest president in the Bell system at the time and his enlightened policies were evident from the start. He reduced the management staff by 25 percent and Pacific Northwest Bell was the first Bell division to hire African Americans as installers.
Community service was high on Straley's agenda. He headed the Seattle Area Industrial Council, trying to attract new business, and helped plan the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. He was Northwest chairman for White House Fellows Program, which sought candidates to serve as students of government. "Walter was the first person I would consult when I had an idea or a project concerning some service to the community. ... He was always concerned for the needs of the underprivileged" (Levine).
Along the way, his political allegiance swung from being a Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) supporter in 1968 to liberal Democrat. Hugh Straley recalled, "My mother was always a Rooseveltian Democrat and we used to have fierce dinnertime arguments. ... When Richard Nixon (1913-1994) came along, he became a Democrat. Nixon was just a bad man. He also didn't have a lot of respect for [President Lyndon B.] Johnson (1908-1973). He became very active in Democratic politics in his retirement" (Hugh Straley). Of the dinnertime exchanges, John Straley said, "He ran it kind of like a salon."
Walter Straley's otherwise fruitful Seattle tenure was marred by a tragedy that would remain with him. On January 30, 1965, he was duck hunting with a group of friends, among them retired University of Washington president Henry Schmitz (1892-1965). While standing in surf in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a sudden storm hit and a wave swept them into the strait. Straley was helping Schmidt stay afloat in the frigid water, when Schmitz suffered a heart attack.
Straley's daughter, Jane Skrivan of Seattle, remembered her father telling her: "Mr. Schmitz turned to him and gave him a big smile, then put his head down, and he knew he had died." Straley, only semi-conscious himself, kept him afloat for 45 minutes until they were rescued. John remembered, "The pilot of the float plane that rescued him did so against Coast Guard orders, because it was too dangerous. My father broke several teeth, from the chattering. He never really went swimming after that" (John Straley).
On To New York
In 1966, after five years at Pacific Northwest Bell, Straley was transferred to New York as advertising and public relations vice president for American Telephone & Telegraph Co. AT&T, with its 22 regional telephone systems -- the "Baby Bells" -- and its Western Electric manufacturing arm, comprised the most powerful and successful communications monopoly in the world. After the demobilization of World War II, it had more employees than the United States government, and its arrogance was a natural target. A bumper sticker with Bell's stylized blue-bell logo was popular for a time, with the line: "We don't care. We don't have to." Then there was The President's Analyst, an outrageous 1967 film satire starring James Coburn (1928-2002), which left no institution of society unscathed. In the film, Ma Bell was conspiring to implant a tiny phone in the brain of every American.
Straley had aspired to AT&T's top job and was "devastated" when he didn't get it (Hugh Straley). Given Bell's poor image, however, the public relations job was more than challenge enough. The problems were compounded by the ferment wracking the country in the mid-1960s -- the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.
As it had been in Seattle, Straley's top priority was giving minorities a better break. He launched an advertising campaign using black models for the first time and encouraged language and math training programs for minority entry-level workers. He sponsored a series of NBC documentaries on the plight of American cities and the poor.
From Communications to Community
He also worked to involve the firm in the community, "trying to bring the Bell system in the modern world," though public service had not previously been a Bell priority (Hugh Straley). New York Mayor John Lindsay (1921-2000), a neighbor and fellow Republican apostate, appointed him to the New York City School Board. Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) appointed him to a three-member commission seeking peace in the city's troubled school system. Nixon asked him to start a National Reading Council in Washington, D.C., where thousands of volunteers were trained as tutors for big-city schools.
During a visit to Seattle in 1969 to address the Seattle YMCA, he said the public school problems in Seattle were not much different from New York. Seattle "is not as steeped in tradition and there are not as serious racial undertones. And you are not as sore at each other as we are in New York" (Gilbert). For Ma Bell, he was "radical" (John Straley).
Back To the Midwest
In 1971, at age 58 and with five years in New York, Walter Straley retired from the Bell system, but not from much else. He had become increasingly disenchanted, at odds with the conservative management, and saw the antitrust handwriting on the wall.
A fellow AT&T board member and close friend, William Hewitt (1913-1998), was president of John Deere and a pioneer Midwest farm implement manufacturer. Hewitt quickly hired Straley as a special emissary. In 1974, Straley won the Top Communicator Award from the International Association of Business Communicators for his work at Deere, but it was something of a golden-parachute job. "They had a wonderful time, traveled a lot, all over world, which was part of the deal. The cost of that was living in the Quad Cities" (Hugh Straley).
Straley retired again in 1974, and bought a home in Borrego Springs, California, a small desert town about 80 miles northeast of San Diego. Borrego Springs had been a Straley family getaway when Walter was with Bell in San Diego. He started taking a course in paleontology at the El Centro branch of the University of California, but it was not enough. "It was too hot in summer and he was tired of being the youngest person in the community" (Hugh Straley).
Home to Seattle
Walter and Rachel returned to Seattle in 1976, back "where there are more lights, more things to do, more causes, more changes of season, more vitality, more young people to see and enjoy and talk to" (Watson). Daughter Mary Worthington said, "Within three weeks of coming back, he became president of the Seattle Symphony Board and opened a consulting practice. He was not a man who could stand not working" (Beers).
He also plunged into politics and according to son Hugh, "became one of [Governor] Dixy Lee Ray's (1914-1994) closest advisers, but broke from her when she kinda went ... crazy. Then he became a friend and supporter of Jim McDermott" (b. 1928), who defeated Ray in the 1980 Democratic primary. McDermott lost to John Spellman (1926-2018) in the general election; he was later elected to the U.S. Congress.
In 1982, Straley focused his energies on Target Seattle, "a weeklong symposium on the dangers of nuclear war" (Tate). He was a "business guy" and targeted that skeptical audience. "They really don't want to be known as peaceniks. They're caught between. Defense really is big business" (Brack).
Hugh Straley, a leader in Physicians for Social Responsibility and a Target Seattle supporter, said his father "just wanted a day when the nuclear-arms questions would be thoroughly aired in debate and discussion. Nothing more than that." Another significant event in 1982 was the court-ordered break up of the Bell system.
Straley continued to be outspoken on civil rights. His son related that the assassination of Seattle Urban League director Ed Pratt on January 26, 1969 "was devastating to my dad" (Hugh Straley).
Straley became a regular luncheon pal of Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2002), and theirs was a mutual admiration society. Watson typically skewered public-relations practitioners -- "flacks" -- but he marveled: "[H]ere was a guy with a subtle turn of mind, a guy who reads books, for Pete's sake, a guy who knew something about theater and music, and seemed to give a damn about what went on around him." Walter, for his part, according to his son John, "admired creative, stylish, humorous people" (John Straley). According to son Hugh, "They shared common political views. They liked gin and cigarettes, discussing politics and people, and remembering the way it was during the late fifties and sixties, their heyday" (Hugh Straley).
Straley rounded up some mover-and-shaker friends to help found a 12-bed home for street kids in the University District, managed by YouthCare and since named Straley House. U.S. District Judge William Dwyer (1929-2002), among the contributors to Straley's Friends of Street Kids, said: "I wish every executive, whether retired or not, would have his dedication and generosity" (Henderson). But, according to Hugh Straley, "he had this love-hate relationship with kids who were pierced and tattooed and rebellious. On the one hand, he thought they were just fascinating and survivors, and on the other hand, pains in the ass" (Hugh Straley).
Toward the end, Walter Straley suffered from a dementia similar to Alzheimer's. He died on April 14, 1999, at age 86. Rachel died a year later, almost to the day, at 83. Her last public appearance was at Walter's memorial service. "They loved each other deeply" (Hugh Straley). Walter and Rachel Straley are survived by children Mary Worthington, a teacher of child development in Santa Monica, California; Dr. Hugh Straley, medical director of Group Health Cooperative in Seattle; Jane Skrivan, a retired nurse in Seattle; Martha Straley, a technical editor in Seattle; John Straley, a novelist living in Sitka, Alaska, and 10 grandchildren.