When I moved to Seattle in 1979, I’d made only one television documentary. As an activist in the so-called “New Left”, I’d grown disillusioned by its drift into irrelevance, complete with a mindless adulation of foreign revolutionaries including China’s Chairman Mao and even the Albanian lunatic Inver Hoxha. With guidance from some Minnesota friends, I’d gotten interested in our own homegrown progressive history, including movements like North Dakota’s Non-Partisan League of the early 20th Century, and Minnesota’s depression-era Farmer-Labor Party. I’d heard there was a similar history in Washington State, and hoped to bring some of it to the television screen. I thought a biography might be a good way to do that and asked local historians who might tell the story best. Several mentioned a man named Terry Pettus.
I reached Terry by phone and was soon visiting with him in his Lake Union houseboat. He was a tall, thin man, then in his late seventies, with signs of emphysema from a life of smoking, but with a remarkable memory and ability to tell a good story. He had lost none of the passion and fire that had made him a radical leader half a century earlier. My Seattle colleagues, David Frankel and Gail Whittaker, and I decided that Terry was ideal for the story we wanted to tell. Our documentary, SUBVERSIVE? THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TERRY PETTUS premiered on KCTS-TV in 1983.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he’d picked up the nickname Terry, Pettus was the son of a Christian socialist minister. As a boy he listened to the fiery speeches of Terre Haute’s most famous citizen, Socialist leader Eugene Debs. He became a reporter and moved west to Seattle in 1927 with his wife Berta, and worked on a series of newspapers, eventually founding the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild and helping lead the first successful strike against the Hearst empire—the 1936 Seattle P-I campaign for union recognition.
The Great Depression radicalized Pettus. It didn’t make sense to him that in so rich a country, thousands stood in breadlines or lived in shacks in “Hoovervilles” like the one where the Seattle sports stadiums stand now. He was energized by labor battles in Tacoma and on the Seattle waterfront, where, he said, he always managed to wind up in the middle of the tear gas. He engaged in struggles to fight evictions and foreclosures, win unemployment insurance and old age pensions, and joined a new organization, the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF), that hoped to move the state’s Democratic Party to the Left. Soon, he was editing the Federation’s newspaper, The New Dealer.
During World War II, Pettus tried to enlist in the military, but was refused on the grounds that he was “essential to the war industry as editor of the WCF paper.” By then, Pettus had also joined the Communist Party, which was a part of the Federation. His work, and that of his associates, paid off. By the early 40s, the WCF controlled much of the Democratic Party and was electing public officials, including Seattle Congressman Hugh De Lacy.
But after the War, amid charges of Communist influence and election defeats, the WCF disbanded. During the McCarthy Era, Pettus (then editor of the Party’s paper, The People’s World) was charged, tried and convicted (with six other Seattle-area Communists) with advocating the violent overthrow of the US government, but his conviction was later overturned. Terry told me that two Seattle icons, then-Congressman Warren Magnuson and seafood magnate Ivar Haglund, both contributed to his legal expenses, surreptitiously of course.
Pettus left the Communist Party in 1958 after violence broke out at a People’s World picnic. Before he died in 1984, he showed me his 1200-page FBI file. In it, the FBI gleefully took credit for initiating the violence at the picnic. Pettus rebuked those who suggested he apologize for his Communist activities. “For what?” he said to me. “We fought for old age pensions, for welfare and unemployment insurance, against racism. Apologize for that? Hell no!”
Though he was free, his trial left Pettus a marked man who could not find a job. He moved to what was then the cheapest housing in town, a Lake Union houseboat, and earned a small income by writing crime novels under a pen name.
In the 1960s Pettus went from pariah to hero. When Seattle officials wanted to ban houseboats from Lake Union for dumping sewage into the lake, Pettus organized his fellow boaters. Though other sources were also contributing to the pollution, Pettus convinced the new Floating Homes Association to tax its members and create a sewage system. He became an environmental champion. “Lake Union is Seattle’s gift from the Ice Age,” he said. “We have to save it for future generations.” He then led the fight for a Shoreline Management Act to protect all of Washington’s waters. By the time I met him, kids were diving off his dock to swim in the cleaned-up lake.
In 1982, Mayor Charles Royer declared March 7 “Terry Pettus Day” in Seattle and hundreds of prominent citizens came out to honor a man the city had once reviled. After Pettus died in 1984, the city named a small park on Lake Union just south of the Fairview Avenue houseboat docks for him. But 30 years later, the park was overgrown and in disrepair. That’s when an old friend of Terry’s and former houseboat owner, Dixie Pintler, decided to try to do something. Persuasive and persistent, she convinced the city’s park department to begin a renovation of the park and used her own funds to have a stone with a plaque honoring Pettus placed at the park. When the plaque was unveiled this past June, about fifty people came to pay respects to the old radical.
But the work remains unfinished. Many parks in Seattle have interpretive exhibits, explaining their history or biology. While small, there is enough room in Terry Pettus Park for a set of interpretive signs telling a bit of Terry’s story and that of the Lake Union houseboats and clean-up at the same time. Let’s make it happen! Terry Pettus’ life connected with much of Seattle’s most significant history and many of its most memorable personalities. He was certainly among the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, and Seattle’s Eastlake community should be proud of him.
John de Graaf produced documentaries at KCTS for 31 years, and wrote about Terry Pettus in Crosscut: https://crosscut.com/2018/05/dont-forget-man-who-saved-seattles-houseboats. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the hard copy fall of 2018 Eastlake News.