City of Seattle photo of Paul Schell as mayor, 1999
I get news bulletins from various newspapers throughout the day, rarely is it personal. This morning the Seattle Times informed me that my friend Paul Schell had died this morning.
Paul was a wealthy man, a lawyer, real estate developer, and patron of the arts. Although we both live on Whidbey Island, we don’t travel in the same circles, so I haven’t spent a lot of time with him recently. but whether it was a chance meeting on the streets of Langley during Choochokam or a few moments when I was at their home helping his wife Pam with her computer, it was always a delight to talk to Paul. I think Paul actually read more than I do, he certainly retained familiarity and understanding of an unusual range of topics. (As Seattle mayor he built the new downtown library and several branches, his commitment to reading was great.) When I think of brilliant people whom I might enjoy talking with, at length and on any subject, I would have to put Paul in a group including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Dorothy Parker, and Richard Feynman.
I first met Paul and Pam when I was hired as a campaign coordinator for the Committee to Turn Off Billboards in 1971, a noble but losing effort that demonstrated Paul’s concern about the city environment. When Paul was the head of Seattle’s Department of Community Development he had the bright idea of hanging colorful banners on the light poles along the Seattle waterfront. I was in the screen printing business at the time and those first banners were printed in my shop. It was an interesting experience as the mix of my scruffy staff and the sharp young lawyers volunteering from his office mixed in a solvent haze during the printing.
At that time Paul was president of Allied Arts of Seattle and somehow I seemed to be involved in quite a few of their activities. Seattle became one of the first cities anywhere to adopt a “1% for art” program in 1973 as a result of pressure from the Schells and Allied arts.
During Paul’s first run for mayor of Seattle in 1977 I printed his signature in green ink on several thousand bumper stickers. But for my van, I enlarged it: in emerald green ink, 6 feet long on both sides. Politics frequently involves candidates appearing at dinners in the homes of supporters, normally large homes of very wealthy supporters, a category in which my roommate and I did not fall. Preparing that meal was a memorable experience, it featured rolled filet of red snapper stuffed with crab and the largest salad I ever tossed (lacking a huge bowl, we used a black garbage bag). The dinner did not raise significant money, our friends didn’t have deep pockets, but I counted it a success when one of Paul’s campaign staff told me that he had not seen Paul enjoying himself as much during the entire rest of the campaign.
Paul lost that election, but was elected in 1989 as a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a significant role in the growth of Seattle’s international trade. In 1997 he took another run at the mayor’s office. Charles Royer, the man Paul lost to two decades before, said of Paul’s one term, “Paul is no longer mayor primarily because he had maybe the worst string of purely god-awful bad luck of any mayor in Seattle’s history.”. (“Unlucky Paul Schell“, Seattle Times) Paul was a great believer in the potential of government as an organizational and structural tool to improve communities. Royer identified Schell as one of the most productive mayors in Seattle’s history, but noted that he lacked the interest and talent in the political process, and as a result he was the first Seattle Mayor to lose a primary campaign for reelection in over 75 years.
I think Jim Bruner’s Seattle Times story, “The Measure of a Mayor“, after Paul’s loss in 2002 is a good summary of Paul’s contributions and the faults that cost him a second term.
About that time of Paul said, “I never did anything in my first term to ensure that I’d get elected to a second.”, and I think he was proud of that. In an age when most politicians won’t make a move without current polling, Paul did what he thought was right. It’s the eternal paradox of the honorable politician: Do you play the game to make this polity a better place for the citizens, with the risk that you’ll look in the mirror and see the same things you ran against in the first place? Or do you do what you see as best at every opportunity and end up out of office – losing the power to make those improvements. Seattle might have been better off if Paul had followed the first path, but I’m proud to have known the man who stood his ground.
Paul underwent a quadruple bypass at Swedish Hospital on Wednesday of last week, complications led to his death this morning at age 76. (See “Former Mayor Paul Schell dies” by Lynn Thompson and Jim Bruner in today’s Seattle Times) Whenever any married man dies the mourners sympathize with the widow over her loss, but time moves on. This case seems to me to be different. Pam has shared a home and broken bread with Paul for 51 years, the loss of an intellectual conversation partner of Paul’s stature goes far beyond the typical.