Carl Gipson with a guest of his birthday party at Carl Gipson Senior Center in Everett on Jan. 12 . (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Carl Gipson with a guest of his birthday party at Carl Gipson Senior Center in Everett on Jan. 12 . (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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Carl Gipson, pioneering foe of racial inequity, dies at 95

The former Everett City Council member, the grandson of a slave, overcame prejudice with grace and charm.

EVERETT — Carl Gipson, the grandson of a slave who over nearly 70 years helped Everett overcome prejudice with grace and quiet determination, has died.

During that time, he became a community treasure. Hundreds of friends and acquaintances would help him celebrate landmark birthdays. Gipson turned 95 in January and made sure to renew his driver’s license, but had his health recently declined. He died Tuesday.

Gipson grew up from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a successful Snohomish County businessman, a long-time Everett City Council leader and a deacon at his church for half a century. With persistence, hard work and charm, he taught others by example to judge people on their merits instead of their skin color.

For all the many jobs he had — including teenage shoeshiner, Arkansas farmer, California shipbuilder, sailor, handyman, maintenance manager at an auto dealership, service station and restaurant owner, and affirmative-action officer — there was one common denominator.

“My career was people,” Gipson said in a 2014 interview. “People was my product.”

Carl Gipson and his wife, Jodie, in an undated snapshot. (Live in Everett)

Carl Gipson and his wife, Jodie, in an undated snapshot. (Live in Everett)

Convincing others was not always easy. In the early 1950s he moved his family onto all-white Hoyt Avenue despite efforts by neighbors to derail the deal and threats made to Gipson and the banker who granted the loan. His membership application also was rejected by the Everett Elks Lodge fraternal organization in 1976. He had more than 50 endorsements from other members, but was the only one of 67 candidates rejected after one member placed several black balls in the ballot box.

Gipson changed preconceptions through the strength of his personality. In a Historylink.org biography, John Caldbick offered one such example. Gipson was working at the Sevenich Motor Company, a Chevrolet dealership in Everett. The company’s shop foreman quit, upset that customers preferred dealing with a black man than him. John Sevenich, who managed the shop, promoted Gipson on a Friday. When Gipson showed up the following Monday, the mechanics refused to work.

Sevenich told them they could get back to work or pick up their paychecks on their way out the door.

“They all returned to the job,” Caldbick wrote, “and years later when Gipson left to start his own business some of the same men who had refused to work under him were moved to tears.”

Leading by example

Through all the challenges, nothing stopped him from reaching out to help others. Gipson was a Boy Scout leader, Everett High School PTA president and a member of the Rotary and the General Hospital Board, among other volunteer activities.

It was former Mayor Robert Anderson who first suggested to Gipson to run for City Council in 1971. He was one of seven candidates.

“Gipson’s plain talk and common touch struck a chord with the voters,” Caldbick wrote. Gipson won the general election and went on to serve six terms.

Today, the Carl Gipson Senior Center in downtown Everett bears his name.

So does the lifetime achievement award from the Snohomish County Branch of the NAACP.

The local president for the civil rights organization, Janice Greene, first met Gipson as a child in the early 1960s. She recalled the inspiration and guidance he provided to young people at their church, Second Baptist.

“All around, he was a beacon and somebody who would support us and encourage us,” Greene said.

That support took many forms. One was helping Greene and other young people find summer jobs. As a teen, she joined a crew that did early work to build Everett’s Howarth Park.

“He was low-key about all of the things he would do for the community,” she said. “He wasn’t a braggart. We appreciate the fact that he’s done so much for us.”

Gipson’s legacy will live on.

“When people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants — he’s one of those giants,” Greene said.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Eric Lucas gives out the local NAACP branch’s lifetime achievement award named after Gipson. Like Greene, he met Gipson at a young age and maintained a long, productive relationship with him.

“He’s one of my mentors and I’ve known him since I was 12 years old,” Lucas said. “He was a church elder and knew my parents well and worked closely with my dad and my mom all of our lives.”

In the early 1970s, a recommendation letter from Gipson supported Lucas’ successful application to Stanford University.

“I think that me being a young black kid, having an African-American city councilman recommend me to a school made my application stand out,” Lucas said.

A decade later, Gipson wrote Lucas another recommendation letter for Harvard, where the future judge would earn his law degree. Lucas was elected to the Superior Court bench in 2004, the first black person to hold that position in Snohomish County.

He’s grateful for Gipson’s generosity, to him personally and to others.

“He was a community leader in every sense of the word,” Lucas said. “He was involved. I have followed that example.”

Louis Harris never met Gipson in person, but he said he owes much to his legacy. An African American in his early 30s, Harris was honored this spring as Citizen of the Year by the Everett Elks Lodge — the same organization that had rejected Gipson decades earlier.

“Things certainly changed because of people like Carl facing adversity he faced at the time,” said Harris, who works in finance for the state Department of Social and Health Services and has gotten involved in politics. “Who he was as a contributor to the community set the tone for change.”

Harris said he and others in the social justice community are keeping up that fight.

“We’re continuing to carry out that legacy of equality, equal opportunity and justice for all,” he said.

Margaret Riddle, a retired historian with the Everett Public Library’s Northwest Room, said: “He was more than a witness to the events of U.S. history, he was an active participant and, more importantly, a humble survivor. Everett was fortunate to have him call this place home.”

A trailblazer in many ways

“This is a guy who was so solid and strong,” said Bill Rucker who served on City Council with Gipson. “He had the biggest and strongest handshake. If he wanted to he could have crushed every bone in your hand. Yet he had a real gentle demeanor and cute smile and a good sense of humor. He exuded a regal kind of presence and at the same time he was a real-down-to-earth lots-of-fun-to-be-with guy.”

Long before he was elected mayor in 2003, Ray Stephanson served on the Everett City Council. Gipson became a role model in council chambers but the newbie also often found himself walking two blocks from his Rucker Avenue home to Gipson’s place on Hoyt to seek advice.

“Carl’s house was always open,” Stephanson said. “We sat on that porch many a day.”

John Lovick, who is African American, sought out Gipson’s advice before he decided to run for Mill Creek City Council in 1993. He remembered being nervous before they met, hoping to pick his brain for just a few minutes. Gipson gave him two hours. After their talk, Lovick decided to run — and won. He later became a state lawmaker, county sheriff and county executive.

“He was such a trailblazer, in his community, in his business and in politics,” said Lovick, now a state representative in south Snohomish County. “The trails he blazed, other people were able to walk on them. I am able to walk on his trail.”

Betty Cobbs, who is African American and grew up in Tacoma, was a senior at Western Washington University when she tried to find a temporary home in Everett as a student teacher. Someone suggested she call Carl Gipson.

That was 47 years ago. Cobbs, in her 11th year as principal at Woodside Elementary School, has had a long and distinguished career in education and cherished the friendship that developed from that phone call so long ago.

Gipson became her husband’s best friend. He would call him at 9 a.m. each Sunday and they’d sit next to each other in church. He and his wife, Jodie, came to the Cobbs’ home each Sunday for dinner for many years, a tradition that continued after her death.

“He was special to our family,” Cobbs said. “He had a lot of wisdom. People trusted him. He was revered by so many people. People just liked to be around him.”

There is a mural depicting Gipson’s life journey at the senior center named in his honor and where he was a regular.

On Wednesday, many of his friends were happy to share memories.

“Carl was an institution in the city,” said Bob Dvorak, center manager. “Nobody could go by without getting hugs. He always had time for everybody.”

“He was like a father figure to everyone,” said Linda Davey, a volunteer at the center.

Jim Douglas, a Navy veteran who visits the senior center, said Gipson helped him find work when he was laid off from Boeing in the 1970s.

“There weren’t a lot of jobs around then,” Douglas said. “This guy from employment securities, he called up Carl and said, ‘I got a guy here who is a vet who needs a job.’ The next day I was working.”

Gipson is survived by two sons, Ron and Carlton. A third son, Alexander, died. Jodie, his wife of 64 years, died in 2007.

Arrangements are under the direction of the Evergreen Funeral Home & Cemetery.

Reporter Andrea Brown contributed to this story. Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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