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Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Former Gov. Al Rosellini dies at 101

The two-term Democrat, who served from 1957-65, championed building of the Highway 520 floating bridge.

  • Former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini talks to a visitor at a restaurant in Seattle at the start of a luncheon honoring his birthday in 2009. Rosellini,...

    Associated Press

    Former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini talks to a visitor at a restaurant in Seattle at the start of a luncheon honoring his birthday in 2009. Rosellini, who brought an everyman personality and trademark rosebud lapel to the state's top office, died Monday at age 101.

  • In an undated photo, former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini votes with his wife, Ethel and daughter, Lynn. Rosellini, who served as governor from 1957 to...

    Associated Press

    In an undated photo, former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini votes with his wife, Ethel and daughter, Lynn. Rosellini, who served as governor from 1957 to 1965, died at age 101 on Monday.

  • In an undated photo, former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini begins a state-of-the-state address to a joint session of the Legislature in Olympia. At left...

    Associated Press

    In an undated photo, former Washington Gov. Al Rosellini begins a state-of-the-state address to a joint session of the Legislature in Olympia. At left is House Speaker William Day. Rosellini, who served as governor from 1957 to 1965, died at age 101 on Monday.

OLYMPIA -- Al Rosellini, who blended old school charm with a progressive political agenda in his reign as Washington's governor from 1957-65, died Tuesday. He was 101.
Rosellini, the nation's oldest living former governor, was known for a rosebud in his lapel, a Cadillac with the vanity plate "Gov ADR," and an insatiable thirst for the world of politics that lasted right up until his death.
In his two terms, he worked to modernize the state's approach to treating mental health and rehabilitating prisoners. He proved a stalwart booster of higher education and piloted an aggressive program of transportation improvements highlighted by construction of the Highway 520 floating bridge that now bears his name.
Rosellini also steered Washington into the national and international limelight by helping bring the World's Fair to Seattle in 1962.
Democrats and Republicans alike admired his political toughness and, once out of office, Rosellini became an even more endearing figure the longer he lived. There's no shortage of politicians who sought him out for counsel.
Gov. Chris Gregoire visited Rosellini for a last time Saturday and reminded him of their first meeting in a grocery story in Enumclaw when she was a fifth grader.
"He was running for re-election and introduced himself to my mom and then stood there and spent a good deal of time talking with me," she said Monday. "I've been his fan ever since."
"He's been my mentor. He was mentoring me on Saturday, I might add," she said. "Everybody else thought he was not alert and when he saw me he started right back in: 'You're going to get through these tough times. I know it's hard. Do the right thing. You're doing great.' He was just pumping me up and I thought like, wow, here you are with how many hours left of life and you're still telling me how to get through this challenging time. It was an amazing experience."
The son of Italian immigrants, Albert Dean Rosellini was born in 1910 in Tacoma and developed his characteristic work ethic as a child. He remembered selling newspapers at age 9 while also doing odd jobs for a woman for a penny a day.
He was a boxer in college and took three jobs to put himself through school, working as a butcher in Pike Place Market, working on an Alaska steamer and law clerking.
In 1927, his father and a friend were arrested and charged with trying to smuggle drugs out of Mexico, according to a 1997 biography by Payton Smith. Gov. Rosellini reflected to Smith years later that his father's arrest in the home, the sensational headlines and visiting his father in federal prison made an indelible impression on him and motivated him to enter law school.
Rosellini met his wife, Ethel, when he was a young attorney defending a literary agent on trial for grand larceny. They got married in 1937, and were married for 64 years. She died in 2002. He is survived by their five children and their families.
Rosellini built his political career in Seattle. He won a seat in the state Senate in 1938 and was re-elected four times. He was midway through his fifth term when he captured the 1956 race for governor. He narrowly won re-election in 1960.
His bid for a third term ended in defeat in 1964 to Republican Dan Evans. Eight years later, they faced off again with the same results.
"We engaged in good political battles but afterwards became quite good friends," Evans said. "He presided in very interesting and important times in our state and I think our state did well."
Rosellini loved politics and those in it. Though he outlived most of his political contemporaries, he never lacked for the company of the latest crop of politicians.
"He was one of the first ones in my corner when I got into politics, and I know there are countless others across our state who have benefitted from his advice and support over the years," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement.
Richard King lived in Everett when he won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1964 with the aid and counsel of Rosellini. King went on to serve 30 years in the Legislature.
"He cared about people. You talked to him and he listened," King said. "And he had a fantastic memory for names."
A couple times a year Rosellini lunched with Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.
Rosellini liked to eat at the 112th Street Diner in Everett, talk about politics and what he'd do to work with those on the other side of an issue, Reardon said.
"He had great stories. He was an absolute charmer," Reardon said. "And it never failed somebody would walk up and ask to have their picture taken with him. He was quite an iconic figure."

Rosellini's career wasn't without controversy. Before, during and after his political career the friendship he cultivated with Seattle strip club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. and his family became fodder for rumors, innuendo and investigation.
For example, Rosellini's name emerged during the investigation of illicit campaign contributions from Colacurcio to Seattle City Council candidates in 2003 known as Strippergate. The former governor was never accused of any wrongdoing.
Years earlier, in the 1972 campaign, newspaper accounts tell of foes aware of their ties targeted Rosellini with bumper stickers reading, "We Don't Need a Godfather."
Paul Elvig of Everett, a lifelong Republican and a former chairman of the Snohomish County Republican Party, remembers meeting him twice.
"He was an extraordinarily gracious man and a fellow who took some pretty nasty racial slurs in stride," he said.
With Rosellini's passing, Evans is now the state's oldest living former governor. He turns 86 on Sunday.
"I told him the last time I saw him, 'You're my hero now Al because you lived to be 100'," Evans said. "We will miss him."
Herald wire services contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Story tags » Governor

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