On the front page we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the University of Washington Tacoma.
In that time UWT changed both the face and the fortunes of Tacoma and the South Sound.
Twenty-five years ago that part of downtown was filled with derelict warehouses and an abandoned power station. It was the workplace of drug dealers and hookers.
Today that 46-acre plot is home to a four-year campus of the University of Washington that serves nearly 5,000 students.
It’s the heart of a museum-education-retail-restaurant-historic district that employs 300 faculty and hundreds of staff and retail employees in the 26 shops and restaurants on campus. It anchors the south end of downtown, and is an impressive gateway for visitors entering the city from Highways 509 and 705 or along Pacific Avenue.
But its biggest contribution is the 17,000 degrees granted and lives transformed. In 25 years the percent of adults with college degrees in Pierce County increased 33 percent (from 18 to 24 percent) and thousands more have the chance at earning a UW degree in Pierce County.
Reporter Brynn Grimley cites many people who had a hand in this civic turnaround. But we elected to discuss another key player in this column. He’s Kelso Gillenwater, who helped create the very idea of a branch campus in Tacoma when he was publisher of the Tri-City Herald in the 1980s.
In the late 1980s, Gillenwater and WSU President Sam Smith were the nucleus of what became a branch campus movement in Washington.
“When I came to WSU in 1985, my mission was to expand the university’s reach and impact,” Smith, now president-emeritus of WSU and still a force in higher education across the nation, said last week. “I went around the state talking to publishers, and Kelso was the first one who really got the need and opportunity in the Tri-Cities, but also statewide.”
After struggling for a couple of years, Smith was frustrated.
“To get momentum and get this done we needed political support, and geographic breadth and an alliance,” Smith said. “I went to the Tri-Cities, and Kelso and I mapped out our strategy over a day or two. ... I remember putting X’s on the map where we thought the branches should go. Kelso put an X on Tacoma and said it should be a UW branch.”
They left the conference room with the plan that — two years later — would be passed by a fractious legislature (a Democratic House and a Republican Senate) and signed into law by Gov. Booth Gardner, a Tacoman.
The first obstacle was to get the University of Washington on board. Without support from the UW and acquiescence from Seattle and King County, a branch system was a nonstarter.
The UW initially resisted branches, concerned they would drain resources from the Montlake campus. That changed when Smith was invited to speak to a civic luncheon in Tacoma. Smith and Gillenwater conspired to pull the UW in, or get Tacoma’s political support by offering a WSU campus there.
So Smith traveled to Tacoma and promised civic leaders a branch campus. That afternoon he toured the area in a Weyerhaeuser-company helicopter, ostensibly looking for campus sites. A distraught UW altered course.
“When I got home to Pullman, I had a call from some folks at the UW, and they used some pretty colorful language,” Smith recalled. “I think I was in Tacoma on Wednesday. By Friday the UW let Tacoma know they were interested in a campus there.”
The next step was aligning the politics.
“The eventual campuses were all in places that had an unmet demand for upper-level college education,” said Brian Ebersole, then House majority leader in Olympia and later Tacoma’s mayor. “But they also had the right political mix.”
The Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, Jerry Saling, was from Spokane. A WSU campus went there. House Speaker Joe King was from Vancouver, which got another WSU branch. The Senate majority leader, Jeannette Hayner, represented the Tri-Cities. It got the third WSU campus.
The campus site north of Seattle was a tossup. Everett was the obvious spot, and the Democratic senate minority leader, Larry Vognild of Everett, wanted it there. But powerful Senate Republicans blocked him by proposing Bellevue. In the end, a demographic study by the UW split the difference. It recommended Bothell and got essential support from then-state-Sen. Patty Murray and House Democrat Rep. Maria Cantwell.
Ebersole, the majority leader, championed the Tacoma campus, and he and King guaranteed no bill would survive that didn’t accomplish their ends.
“If it hadn’t been for Kelso and people like Herb Simon (a Tacoma business and civic leader and now a UW regent from Tacoma), we couldn’t have gotten it done,” Smith said.
When Gillenwater moved to Tacoma in 1991 to run The News Tribune, his foremost passions became the UWT, the new Museum of Glass and economic development in the South Sound.
“Kelso really got the concept that education builds communities,” Simon said. “They build a city intellectually, culturally and economically.”
A plaza at the center of the UWT campus was named for Gillenwater after his death in 1999. Gillenwater, a commemorative plaque there reads, “understood that knowledge and discovery transform lives and sustain the human spirit. His breadth of imagination, passionate spirit, and courageous heart live on through the students here.”