In 1980, eight women seeking to contribute to the community's civic dialogue got together to form the nucleus of CityClub in Seattle. At the time, many civic organizations, such as Rotary International, were open to men only. The founders of CityClub determined that the new organization would be open to all and would provide a nonpartisan forum for ideas and debate. Since its first presentation in 1981, the organization has sponsored hundreds of speeches, discussions, and debates from local, regional, and national experts and leaders, contributing greatly to civic awareness. A co-sponsor of the annual Jefferson Awards, CityClub is recognized as one of the region's foremost civic and public affairs organizations.
Taking a Seat at the Table
As recently as 1980, many civic organizations accepted only men as members. The eight women who went on to form CityClub were all members of Seattle Junior League, which prepared young women for volunteer roles in the community. According to CityClub founders Colleen Willoughby and Sue Lile Hunter, the eight women came of age at a time when it was uncommon for women to work outside the home. Instead, they often sought a role as "professional volunteers." Volunteering, Willoughby said in an interview, "saved our sanity and kept us involved in the community." However, Junior League had limited roles for members who reached a certain level of maturity.
The eight women, who were involved in wide ranging but complementary fields of volunteerism, were reunited at an events for Junior League alumni. They decided that they missed meeting together and, more important, they missed the infusion of information, ideas, and opinions that they had received earlier as new members of the Junior League. Finding that many existing civic organizations were not open to them and wanting to continue learning about important issues, they determined to create their own organization, which became known as CityClub. According to Willoughby and Lile Hunter, it was advice from Hunter's father, Mort Frayn, that led them to decide the organization should be open to both men and women from various walks of life.
"He asked if we really wanted a seat at the table," Lile Hunter recalled. "When we said we did, he asked, 'Well, why would you isolate yourselves? Why not include everyone?'"
Men Can Serve Too
Working out of cofounder Jean Rolfe's kitchen, they went to work forming an organization, with Lile Hunter serving as treasurer. Resources were scarce at first. They met once a month at the Plymouth Church for buffets with Jello salads and Parker House rolls. Willoughby typed up a newsletter with updates on their progress. Based on Frayn's advice, they decided to bring men into the organization's board. Eventually Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), jeweler Herb Bridge, Doug Picha, Steve Duzan, and Doug Norberg were among the men to serve.
The club's articles of incorporation were drawn up in 1980. In the fall of 1980, the group held a meeting to introduce the concept of the club to the community with a panel discussion on Citizen Leadership. They went on to plumb ancient and modern philosophy on February 1, 1981, with a talk by Dr. Leo Bustad on why "Socrates, Caesar and Schweitzer Should Not Be Buried." Programs continued on the first of the month throughout 1981, with Governor Evans speaking and Congressman Joel Pritchard giving a talk on "Seattle – America's Trade Gateway to the Far East." The juncture between politics and the economy became a common theme, although the programs ranged as far afield as the impact of television medical education and cultural arts.
Lunch, a Library, and Forums
As the club's initially shaky financial picture improved, with new members joining, they began to search for a better space. Originally, the plan was to house their own forums and other events. At the time, CityClub's focus on forums was not as sharp and they viewed themselves as offering other wide-ranging services. To house these ambitions, they rented a large space on the second floor of 1111 3rd Avenue from Wright Properties at close to market rates. In that space, they developed offices, a library, and a place to offer lunch each day.
Over time, the financial burden of the new space became too much for the organization to support and they decided to move out. But during its formative years, Willoughby said, CityClub benefited from the prestige that came along with its signature facilities. Today, the organization occupies a much more modest space and holds its forums in a variety of locales, including the Westin Hotel and the Washington Athletic Club.
Becoming a Civic Force
For focusing the organization and maintaining it as a civic force, Willoughby and Lile Hunter credit longtime director, Deborah Swets, who oversaw the club for 12 years. Over the years, the public affairs forums sponsored or cosponsored by CityClub continued to deal with pressing civic issues, from economic development to energy forecasts to cultural events. The fate of old growth forests, public investments in sports stadiums, and the rise of the local software industry received timely consideration. In 1996, CityClub celebrated its 500th forum with a program by the first Environmental Protection Agency chief and local leader, William Ruckelshaus (1932-2019).
At the same time, Candidates for local, county and state offices debated in a neutral setting. In 1996, as CityClub prepared for back-to-back debates by Democratic and Republican primary candidates for governor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorialized: "Seattle's CityClub has established itself as an organization that consistently offers significant and timely forums on public issues. This election is no exception."
Eventually, CityClub also became a forum for national luminaries, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and ABC-TV news anchor Peter Jennings, who appeared in 2005, several months before his death.
Today, the organization continues to press on with its mission:
"CityClub is committed to fostering civic engagement in issues vital to our community through access to leaders, informative programming, fair debate and lively exchange of ideas."
This mission continues to be timely. As the Puget Sound Business Journal editorialized on the occasion of the 500th forum: "Perhaps no other local organization has so consistently elevated the art of public affairs – and kept it on such a high, dignified plane when so much of what passes for political discussion these days is mired in self-serving mudslinging."
Anne V. Farrell
Barbara M. Hodgson
Suzanne F. Lile (now Hunter)
Nancy S. Nordhoff
Jean B. Rolfe
Marilyn B. Ward
Kate B. Webster
Colleen S. Willoughby