‘Classic’ Seattle journalist, former P-I editor William Asbury dies

William Asbury was in his first year as adviser to The Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Washington, when controversy erupted in 1970.

The paper’s editor was a Marxist. A staff revolt was brewing. And anti-war sentiment at the UW sparked large-scale demonstrations and divided the campus.

Asbury, a Tacoma native who died last week in Olympia at age 90, was a UW graduate who had deep newspaper roots. His father had been a newspaper publisher and owned small newspapers in Utah.

Asbury himself had been the publisher of a couple of small newspapers in California. Before taking the adviser’s role at UW, he was managing editor of the Bremerton Sun.

In May 1970, protests broke out at the UW and elsewhere in the country after President Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia and National Guard soldiers killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio.

The UW Daily’s editor at the time was Bruce Olson. A self-proclaimed Marxist, Olson became a spokesman for the protesters and allowed an activist group, Students for a Democratic Society, to meet in The Daily’s newsroom.

As demonstrations grew on campus, some of The Daily’s staff members felt the paper, steered by Olson, had lost its objectivity and become a mouthpiece for the protesters. Six members of the newsroom resigned en masse.

Asbury was frustrated, too. He asked that his name be removed from the masthead and requested that he be allowed to write an opinion piece about the state of The Daily.

“They refused,” said Asbury’s son, Joe. “So he used his own money and went to the advertising department of The Daily and they ran the editorial as a paid ad.”

“He wasn’t afraid to express his opinion, that’s for sure,” Joe Asbury said.

Part of William Asbury’s editorial read, “Olson has been guilty of gross conflict of interest. He can’t be spokesman and chief participant in a major political activity and have time to run a daily newspaper with a balanced viewpoint.”

One of the six staff members who resigned, editorial cartoonist David Horsey, said he admired Asbury’s stand.

“The paper became very much part of an anti-war movement,” Horsey said this week. “Our decision was really about journalism. We all sided with Asbury and very publicly quit The Daily.”

“His point was that this is a publication supported by student funds, and it shouldn’t reflect the views of a fairly narrow group of students.”

Another of the six, Lee Rozen, is now managing editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

“You could wander into his office anytime you wanted to and chat if you had an issue,” Rozen said of Asbury.

“He was a slightly different kind of guy than the previous adviser. He didn’t quite have the same father figure aspect to him. Nonetheless, he knew what he was doing.”

The UW dust-up wasn’t the last time Asbury would face a tough decision in a newsroom.

He eventually landed at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1975 as news editor and rose through the ranks to executive editor, overseeing the entire news operation.

In 1981, when a joint operating agreement between the P-I and The Seattle Times was proposed by the owners of both papers, Asbury resigned in protest.

The idea of his paper sacrificing its financial independence by entering into a deal with its crosstown rival was too much for him, Asbury’s family and colleagues said.

“He just didn’t feel like he could work comfortably for an organization that was going into business with the competition,” said Janet Grimley, a reporter and editor at the P-I from 1974 to 2009.

“Bill was a solid influence for us,” she said. “We had experienced some editorial turmoil, and I remember the staff was really happy when he was appointed because he was well-liked and a really good newsman.”

Joe Asbury remembers his father’s reasoning for leaving the editorship of one of the largest papers in the Northwest.

“I think his main concern was that he didn’t believe the editorial departments would remain independent,” he said. “That was the real sticking point.”

Joel Connelly, who has written for the P-I and now seattlepi.com since 1973, said Asbury was “a deeply principled, decent man, a manager who believed in top-to-bottom communication.”

During his time at the P-I, Asbury wound up hiring Horsey, one of the six UW students who had resigned from The Daily nine years earlier.

“I owe him the start of my career,” said Horsey, who was the editorial cartoonist at the P-I and seattlepi.com from 1979 to 2011, won two Pulitzer Prizes during that time and is now a columnist and editorial cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times. “I was at the (Bellevue) Journal-American and covering the state Legislature in Olympia and just doing cartooning as a sidelight.”

Asbury was familiar with Horsey’s work at the student newspaper and as an intern for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in 1975, when Asbury was editor there.

When The Seattle Times hired an editorial cartoonist, “he thought it was time once again for the P-I to have a cartoonist,” Horsey said.

“He was a really decent guy and at various times really stood on principle,” Horsey said, “one of the classic Seattle journalists and a real gentleman.”

Asbury also oversaw two more future Pulitzer winners while at the P-I: Eric Nalder, who won twice for reporting while at The Seattle Times, in 1990 and 1997, and Timothy Egan, who won in 2001 for reporting at The New York Times.

“Bill Asbury was a gracious and warm man,” Nalder said, “which are perhaps odd characteristics for a newspaper editor. Even so, he always urged me to press hard, to be uncompromising in the search for truth and good stories, even when we might be stomping on toes that were near to him.”

Asbury was born in Tacoma, the son of parents who met as teachers at Stadium High School.

He attended a boys school in Arizona for a time, graduated from Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California, where he was class president, and enlisted in the Navy during World War II.

He was sent to Colorado to learn Japanese because the Navy wanted him to be a translator — a critical role should the United States invade Japan.

“They taught more translators than they actually needed,” Joe Asbury said. “So he didn’t really put the Japanese language to use for the Navy, but he later did missionary work in Japan and Korea, and it definitely came in useful there.”

Asbury spent time in Asia with the American Bible Society and the Christian Children’s Fund. Connelly described Asbury as “a devout Methodist who brought faith gracefully into his decisions.”

He also found himself speaking Japanese after he left the world of newspaper journalism and embarked on a new career in state government.

“He was working in trade and economic development at a time the state was trying to sell more apples to Japan,” his son said. “They found out he had learned Japanese and he actually had a state office in Tokyo during the tail end of his career.”

Asbury met his wife, Janet, in Richmond, Virginia, while she was a timpanist for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and he was with the American Bible Society. They were married in 1955 and would have celebrated their 60th anniversary in May.

She and their five children — three daughters and two sons — all survive Asbury.

Over the course of his life, Asbury found himself in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), dining with governors and rajahs, as a project secretary for the Asia Foundation, a nongovernment organization that works for responsible development and quality of life issues.

He also met President Jimmy Carter during a meeting of newspaper editors in Washington, D.C.

After retiring from state government — among the posts he held was director of the state Office of International Relations and chief of protocol for Governors John Spellman and Booth Gardner — he stayed in Olympia and called it home.

“He loved this state,” Joe Asbury said. “He was an avid outdoorsman and loved to hike, fish, hunt. He loved the Cascades and loved to sail the Sound.”

William Asbury was also an adventurer.

At the age of 70, he sailed solo to the Queen Charlotte Islands in his 25-foot sloop. At 73, he worked as a deckhand on an Alaskan fishing boat. At 75, he summited Mount Whitney, which, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the contiguous United States.

And he was forever loyal to his alma mater.

“He was a huge Husky fan,” his son said. “I attended games with him, and he would be cheering himself hoarse rooting for the Dawgs.”

That’s why Joe Asbury is looking for a marching band to play at his father’s memorial service on Easter Sunday.

“It’s going to be a celebration instead of a mourning event,” he said. “We want a band to play ‘Bow Down To Washington.’ ”