Jim Compton, a respected television journalist who parlayed his local popularity into a sometimes rocky stint on the Seattle City Council, was found dead Tuesday morning in his car.
Mr. Compton, 72, had spent Monday night having dinner with friends and apparently died of a heart attack while returning home, said his wife of 10 years, Carol Arnold.
The couple had planned to leave for a trip to Rome on Wednesday.
His body was found in his car in North Seattle with the keys in the ignition. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office said it had not yet determined the cause of death.
Mr. Compton was remembered Tuesday by friends and former colleagues as a big-thinking reporter and commentator whose curiosity and drive was of great service to TV news viewers.
Born in Klamath Falls, Ore., Mr. Compton received a bachelor’s degree in history from Reed College. He later earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Romania.
He started his journalism career in 1964 as a radio reporter for KGW-AM in Portland. In 1976, he pioneered a Washington, D.C., bureau for KING 5. Three years later he became a foreign correspondent for NBC News, stationed in the Middle East and London.
Over the years he interviewed many prominent world figures, from Anwar Sadat and Moammar Gadhafi to Orson Welles and Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Compton returned to the Northwest in 1984 as host and producer for KING 5. He produced a dozen prime-time documentaries, including one on Canadian medical care that won the prestigious duPont-Columbia Award in 1992. His work also was honored with a dozen regional Emmys.
Mr. Compton was best known locally as host of “The Compton Report,” a half-hour news show that ran on KING 5 for 10 years.
“He was a bigger thinker than most [local] journalists. He was a historian — he had a wider view of news events,” said Mike Cate, a longtime KING 5 producer who worked with Mr. Compton on the show. “You don’t see a lot of those guys on local television news any more.”
When the first Gulf War broke out in 1990, Cate recalled KING’s news director scrambling into the newsroom: “Where’s Compton? Where’s Compton? Get him on the set!”
Mr. Compton proceeded to offer commentary and context as the news broke. “Jim spoke Arabic; he’d been in Cairo, he’d been in Beirut, he could do it. It was unbelievable to work with the guy,” Cate said.
Mr. Compton loved reporting from the field, and before heading out on assignments, he’d tell Cate to be ready for the unexpected: “Dare to be lucky,” he liked to say.
After decades covering and commenting on politics, Mr. Compton decided to take the plunge himself in 1999, when he ran and was elected to the Seattle City Council.
As a council member, Mr. Compton shouldered tough assignments, chairing the council’s public-safety committee, leading an effort to reform the finances of Seattle City Light and investigating the city’s much-maligned response to the riots outside a World Trade Organization gathering in 1999.
For a time, Mr. Compton was considered a potential candidate for mayor. But a pair of missteps blunted any such ambitions.
Mr. Compton was swept up in negative headlines during the 2003 “Strippergate” scandal involving a surge in campaign contributions to three council members from a strip-club owner who sought, and received, a zoning change for his Lake City club.
It later emerged that many of those contributions were illegally funneled through straw donors, though there was no evidence the council members knew that.
Mr. Compton also was cited for accepting a free trip to an NBA game aboard a private jet owned by billionaire Paul Allen, whose real-estate company, Vulcan, had business before the council.
Mr. Compton apologized and paid a $3,000 settlement to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Despite the controversies, Mr. Compton was re-elected in 2003. But he resigned midterm in 2006, saying he wanted to pursue other interests.
Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden, another journalist turned politician, remembered Mr. Compton fondly.
“He was an unofficial mentor to me, extending a helping hand and giving advice about how a journalist makes the transition to being a city official,” Godden said.
And City Councilmember Nick Licata, who served with Mr. Compton, recalled his working for government transparency, police accountability and a municipally owned wireless system. “I found Jim’s approach to governing to be thoughtful yet still bold. He was easy to work with but stood up for his beliefs,” he said.
News of Mr. Compton’s death, coming the same day as a KOMO helicopter crash killed two of the television station’s contractors, sent an extra pang of sadness through the media community.
Don Porter, a former KING 5 anchor and longtime colleague, had lunch with Mr. Compton on Monday and said he’d appeared in good health. He called Mr. Compton “a role model, all about substance ... he really had questions he wanted answered, and was everything a journalist should be.”
In recent months, Mr. Compton had completed a book on the Modoc Indian War and secured a literary agent to get it published. He’d planned to resurrect a documentary-film project about the Gypsies, or Romani people.
Mr. Compton had no children, but Arnold said he’d basically adopted her own grandchildren from a previous marriage.
Mr. Compton’s last words with friends at dinner Monday night were, “It was fun,” Arnold said, adding that’s how he’d like his life to be remembered.
“He had a real zest for life,” she said. “He went out on a good note, but it was too soon and too sudden.”
A memorial service will be held, but details were not yet available Tuesday.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.