Former governors celebrate Al Rosellini’s 100th birthday

  • Sun Jan 17th, 2010 9:08pm
  • News

By Erik Lacitis The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — They gathered Saturday for lunch to honor the oldest member of a very exclusive club.

It has only seven members, and they all make sure that no matter what important things are on their schedule, or where they are, they make it to this event. It is the seven living governors of this state, and on Saturday, although in a wheelchair after breaking his hip in September, there was Al Rosellini, about to turn 100 on Thursday.

The governors were remarkably cordial and friendly with each other, considering a good portion had run against each other for office, sometimes in nasty races.

But time passes and the heated remarks don’t seem as important.

“We all share the same thing,” said Dan Evans, 84, the Republican governor from 1965 to 1977, about knowing just what it’s like to be a governor. “It’s welded us together.”

It was Evans who beat Rosellini, a Democrat, when the latter ran for a third term after first being elected in 1957. Then, when Evans himself ran for a third term, Rosellini tried a comeback, and Evans once again won.

Now the two men greeted each other like old friends, which they are.

Said Rosellini, “You fight bitterly at the time, but then you go on, pick up and forget.”

The governor, or Al, as he is often called, was more than willing to pose for photos, crack a joke, lend a smile, talk some politics and just plain enjoy being with those who showed up.

The story goes that in 1957, he was 20 minutes late to his own inaugural ball. His wife, Ethel, who passed away in 2002, explained then that they were delayed because her husband stopped to listen to some problems of the Capitol’s groundskeeper.

Although looking a bit gaunt after the hip break, and sometimes halting in his speech, Rosellini was quite lucid.

Until September, Rosellini was going every day to his office in Georgetown; up until a couple of years ago, he was driving there himself from his apartment in Madison Park.

“I’m still a lawyer, still qualified in doing law business,” Rosellini said. “I was more or less discussing different legislative and business issues.”

His son, Al Rosellini Jr., 57, a Seattle businessman, said the family finally took the elder Rosellini’s car keys away after he banged up his Cadillac a few too many times.

“It was nothing of importance,” said the governor about the dents. Still, he agreed it was best to let others drive.

After breaking his hip, he moved to the Skyline at First Hill assisted-living facility, where the party was held.

This is now the seventh or eighth year this exclusive party has been held for Rosellini nobody could remember the exact number.

The party was organized by former Gov. Gary Locke, now U.S. secretary of commerce. Locke, governor from 1997 to 2005, was also born on Jan. 21, but 40 years after Rosellini.

Other governors present were Chris Gregoire, a Democrat serving her second term in office; John Spellman, 83, Republican governor from 1981 to 1985; Booth Gardner, 73, Democratic governor from 1985 to 1993; and Mike Lowry, 70, Democratic governor from 1993 to 1997. Some showed their age with a slower walk. Gardner, who has Parkinson’s disease, was in a wheelchair.

Gregoire talked about the special bond of this club.

“I can count on every one of them,” she said. “I can call them on the phone and ask for advice.”

Locke explained why Rosellini mattered to a world in which history is what happened last week, events are often reduced to a sound bite, and fourth-fifths of the state’s population was either not yet born or under age 10 when Rosellini’s governor days were over.

Said Locke, “He was a trailblazer. You know, he’s been called the father of UW Medicine. He basically created the UW Medical School, and Harborview. He worked for us to have institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

“… And he made sure the 520 bridge was built.” (Its official name is the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge Evergreen Point.)

So it was those achievements that were honored Saturday, not some of the murkier history that has dogged Rosellini over the years — such as his links to Seattle strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr.

That link surfaced most recently in 2005 during the “Strippergate” case involving illegal campaign contributions by Colacurcio and others to three Seattle City Council members. Rosellini was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Rosellini’s youngest daughter, Lynn Rosellini, said in a 2007 Seattle Times story that to understand her dad — the son of Italian immigrants — you had to understand his growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood, with loyalty to family and friends.

“As he went up the ladder, he very stubbornly maintained those loyalties, even at a time when it could be harmful to his public image,” she said.

But Saturday was not a time for murky history.

In a conference room at the assisted-living facility, a bunch of the governor’s scrapbooks and photos were displayed.

It was quite an array.

There was Rosellini with Elvis. Frank Sinatra. Queen Elizabeth. Harry Truman. Liberace. Eleanor Roosevelt. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Bill Clinton. John F. Kennedy.

Rosellini was presented with various gifts on Saturday. There was a U.S. flag that had been flown in Washington, D.C., over the Capitol, a birthday greeting signed by Barack and Michelle Obama, and various official proclamations.

The nearly 100-year-old governor reveled in it all.

He’d take a nap after the festivities. But for the luncheon, he was energized.

Spellman remembered this image he has of Rosellini at the old Sicks’ baseball stadium in Rainier Valley.

“He’s a populist,” said Spellman. “You’d go to the stadium and he’d walking up and down, shaking hands. Everybody knew him.”