Crowley, Walt (1947-2007)

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/20/2005
  • Essay 7216
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Walter C. Crowley was the founding president and executive director of History Ink, the non-profit historical organization which produces, the nation's first online encyclopedia of local and state history created expressly for the Internet. A Seattle resident since 1961, Walt Crowley worked as a journalist, a social services director, a policy planner for the City of Seattle and the Municipal League of King County, a television news commentator, and a freelance writer and communications consultant. He was active in numerous social justice and historic preservation causes since the 1960s, and was author or co-author of more than a dozen books on local history and institutions. In 2007 he received posthumously the highest award bestowed by the Washington State Historical Society -- the Robert Gray Medal. The medal recognizes distinguished and long-term contributions to Pacific Northwest history.

Notes From the Underground

Walter Charles Crowley was born on June 20, 1947, in Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He was the only child of Walter A. Crowley, an engineer and inventor, and Violet King (now Kilvinger), a British war bride. He lived in Royal Oak and Flint, Michigan, before his family moved in 1958 to the Washington, D.C., area, where his father pursued development of the world’s first air cushion vehicles (or hovercraft, as they are widely called). The family next moved to Connecticut, whence the elder Crowley was hired by Boeing and the family relocated to Seattle in 1961.

Crowley graduated from Nathan Hale High School as a member of its first senior class in 1965, and won state and local honors as a student artist. After a brief stint as an illustrator for the Boeing Co., he entered the University of Washington and became active in socialist groups and local antiwar and civil rights campaigns. In 1967, he dropped out of college to join the staff of the Helix, a popular and influential “underground newspaper” founded by Paul Dorpat (b. 1938), and worked there for three years as a cartoonist, writer, and editor. He also ran as a Peace & Freedom Party candidate for State Representative in 1968.

In the aftermath of August 1969 University District riots, Crowley served as an informal mediator between the Seattle Police, city officials, local business and civic leaders, and representatives of the community’s “street people.” This led to the founding of the U District Center, a youth hostel and social service agency, which Crowley directed from 1970 until 1972. This program provided emergency housing to more than 3,000 transients and campaigned successfully for the legalization of hitchhiking in 1972.

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

The Seattle Model Cities Program hired Crowley in February 1972 and he became assistant to John Mitsules, director of the program’s Ballard and Greenwood branch. He transferred to the City’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) in 1973 and served as its Director of Neighborhood Services. In this role, he organized and directed DHR staffing for Seattle’s controversial new Community Service Centers, better known as “Little City Halls,” then run by the Office of the Mayor. Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) appointed Crowley to head the Citizen Service Bureau in late 1973, and he coordinated the transfer of the Little City Halls program to DHR the following year in a successful effort to depoliticize the program.

In 1974, Congress created the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, which consolidated previous “categorical” grants to cities such as Urban Renewal and Model Cities into single annual allocations. It also cut the historical level of federal aid to Seattle by half. Crowley designed the citizen participation process for the CDBG and directed overall planning for Seattle’s 1975, 1976, and 1977 applications, totaling more than $25 million.

City planning functions were reorganized in 1976 to create a new Office of Policy Planning (OPP), directed by R. W. “Woody” Wilkinson Jr. Crowley served as OPP’s deputy director and as the city’s chief citizen participation expert until May 1977, when he chose to freelance as a writer and consultant. He ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council in 1979.

Strategic Communications

In 1980, Crowley organized Crowley Associates, Inc., with his future wife Marie McCaffrey, graphic designer Doug Fast, and former advertising executive Jamie Anderson. Crowley and McCaffrey collaborated on their first books, the Seattle Aquarium’s Guide to Life in the Sea and The Compleat Browser’s Guide to Pioneer Square, in the early 1980s. The agency also provided writing and advertising services for a number of political campaigns, including Mike Lowry’s first campaigns for Congress and the Washington State Labor Council’s Initiative 412 campaign for lower consumer credit interest rates. The agency also conducted successful advertising and public information strategies for Teamsters Local 174, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and other labor unions.

Marie McCaffrey, a graphic designer, and Walt Crowley married in 1982, and she maintained the business after he joined the staff of the Seattle Weekly in 1984 as a columnist and feature writer. He also offered weekly commentaries on KPLU-FM National Public Radio. Crowley was hired by the Municipal League in 1985 to write its history and organize a new “Issue Watch” program for public policy research and education. He served as the League’s Policy Director until 1988, when he became a senior associate with the public affairs consultancy of Gogerty & Stark (now Gogerty Stark Marriott).

Meanwhile, in May 1986, KIRO Television News recruited Crowley and conservative activist John Carlson to conduct biweekly “Point-Counterpoint” debates on its evening news broadcasts. The duo sparred more than 700 times on air before the station reorganized its news format and dropped the feature in February 1993. Crowley also wrote and produced numerous features for KCTS-9 Public Television in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Brushes with History

While still at the Municipal League, Crowley was retained by the Rainier Club to prepare its official centennial history for publication in 1988. This was his first introduction to serious historical research, and the book’s success encouraged him to pursue other commissions, including book-length histories of Seattle University (1991), Metro Transit (1993), and Group Health Cooperative (1996). During this period, he also wrote Rites of Passage, A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (1996) for the University of Washington Press and The National Trust Guide: Seattle (1998) for the National Trust for Historic Preservation/John Wiley & Sons. (See bibliography below.)

Crowley led the successful public campaign to save Seattle’s historic Blue Moon Tavern from demolition in 1990, and chaired Mayor Norm Rice’s task force on historic downtown theaters, which drafted new laws and tax incentives for preservation and restoration of the Paramount, Moore, and Eagles theaters. He was elected president of Allied Arts of Seattle in 1992, and was Governor Mike Lowry’s lead speech writer in 1993-1994. Also during the 1990s, he served on the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, and on the Elevated Transportation Company (Seattle monorail project) as its first vice president.

The Genesis of

In 1997, frustration with gaps and inconsistencies in the local historical record led Crowley and Paul Dorpat, who had become a popular historian, to begin discussing the idea of preparing a comprehensive Seattle-King County historical encyclopedia for the forthcoming 2001 sesquicentennial of the arrival of the pioneer Denny Party. Marie McCaffrey joined the effort as art director and recommended the alternative approach of publishing the encyclopedia on the Internet.

With a seed grant from the late Priscilla “Patsy” Collins, McCaffrey, Dorpat, and Crowley incorporated History Ink on November 10, 1997. The prototype of debuted on May 1, 1998, and attracted early funding from the City of Seattle, King County, Safeco Insurance, and other sponsors. This enabled the assembly of a core staff of designers, writers, and editors -- including Priscilla Long, Steven Leith, Heather Macintosh, Alan Stein, Greg Lange, Mary T. Henry, Lee Micklin, Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, Junius Rochester, Chris Goodman, David Takami, and Mildred Andrews -- to begin preparation of database content. formally launched on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 1999 with about 300 essays.

At the urging of K-12 educators and aided by funding from the Paul Allen Virtual Education Foundation, began to expand its content in 2003 to cover Washington state history. The State Legislature appropriated $150,000 to support this effort in 2005.  As of early 2007,'s database included more than 4,400  original essays and web features, and the site had registered more than 127  million file requests ("hits") and 6.6  million visits since its May 1998 soft launch.  It currently averages 120,000 daily hits from 6,000 visitors. 

True to its corporate name, History Ink has also produced numerous books, including The War Years (by James Warren, 2000), Seattle-King County Timeline (HistoryLink staff, 2001), Bellevue Timeline (by Alan Stein, 2003), Class Wars (by Steve Kink and John Cahill, 2004), and staff histories of Seattle’s Union Station (1999), Washington State Ferries (2001), YMCA of Greater Seattle (2001), Washington State Dental Service (2004), Washington State Department of Transportation (2005), Fairmont Olympic Hotel (2005), and Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco (2006).  Histories of Seattle City Light, Group Health Cooperative, and Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center  are due in 2007. History Ink has also created commemorative plans and exhibits for the City of Bellevue, City of Seattle, Washington State Ferries, and Washington State Department of Transportation.

Kudos and Cancer

The Pacific Northwest Historians Guild presented its 2007 History Award to Walt in January 2007, adding his name to a distinguished roster including Murray Morgan, Lucile MacDonald, Norman Clark, Doris Pieroth, and Paul Dorpat. Also, in the same year, Walt was recipient of the Municipal League of King County's Citizen of the Year Award. In addition he was the recipient of AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Charles Payton Award for Heritage Advocacy. Finally, in 2007  Walt Crowley received the City Club Silver Key Membership Award for outstanding dedication and contributions to the Greater Seattle community.

He and/or had won many previous awards, including the Washington State Historic Preservation Officer’s award for media in 2001 and the Association of King County Historical Organization’s 2000 award for best long-term project and its 2005 award for best book (Alan Stein’s Olympic Hotel history). 

After several years of chronic throat and voice problems, Walt Crowley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer on July 15, 2005. He began treatment at Group Health Cooperative in August, but chemo and radiation therapy ultimately failed to kill the disease, necessitating removal of his larynx on February 9, 2007. Following another surgery in September 2007, Walt died from complications at 8:15 in the evening on September 21, 2007.

Books by Walt Crowley

    • Group Health Timeline (Seattle: HistoryLink for Group Health Cooperative, 2007)


    • Historic Photos of Seattle (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 2006)


    • (with Robert Courland) The Fairmont: The First Century of a San Francisco Landmark (Seattle: HistoryLink for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, 2006)


    • (with Kit Oldham) Moving Washington: A Timeline of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2004 (Seattle: HistoryLink/University of Washington Press, 2005)


    • Seattle & King County Timeline (Seattle: History Ink/UW Press, 2001 & 2002)
    • (with Heather MacIntosh) The Story of Union Station in Seattle (Seattle: Sound Transit/History Ink, 1999)
    • The National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: National Trust for Historic Preservation/John Wiley & Sons, 1998)
    • The Continental Family (Seattle: Continental Mortgage and Savings Bank, 1997)
    • To Serve the Greatest Number: A History of Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press/Group Health Cooperative, 1996)
    • William J. Sullivan, S. J.: Twenty Years (Seattle: Seattle University, 1996)


    • Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995)
    • The Woodland Park Zoo Guide (Seattle: Woodland Park Zoological Society, 1995)
    • Routes: An Interpretative History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993)
    • Forever Blue Moon: The Story of Seattle’s Most (In)Famous Tavern (Seattle: Blue Moon Tavern, 1992; reprinted 2004)
    • Seattle University: A Century of Jesuit Education (Seattle: Seattle University, 1991)
    • The Rainier Club, 1888–1988 (Seattle: Rainier Club, 1988)
    • The Compleat Browser’s Guide to Pioneer Square (Seattle: Pioneer Square Association, 1981)
    • The Seattle Aquarium’s Guide to Life in the Sea (Seattle: City of Seattle, 1981)


  • (with Michael Eagan Jr.) Seattle: Renaissance of America's Most Livable City (1978)


Cynthia Rose, "Absolutely Seattle," The Seattle Times, January 9, 2000 (; Chrisy True, "Site-Seeing -- HistoryLink," Ibid., January 24, 1999; Walt Crowley, "Seattle at 150: Reflecting on the Uses of History," Ibid., November 13, 2001; Ross Anderson, "Web Site is indispensable link to Seattle-area History," Ibid., July 1, 2001; Jean Godden, "History's Other Battle of Seattle," Ibid., June 8, 2001; Walt Crowley archives; Helix archives (in possession of
Note: This biography was updated on February 6, 2007, and again on September 21, 2007.

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