Is it finally our turn for a college?

OLYMPIA – Forty years ago, Dick Johnson led an Arlington brigade in the fight to bring a four-year college to the tiny town.

They came up short, and he is still perplexed as to why.

“We had the goods but we didn’t prevail,” said Johnson, 73, of Mill Creek. “There was a lot of politics, and I’m sure politics won out.”

On March 21, 1967, Republican Gov. Dan Evans sealed Arlington’s defeat by signing the law ensuring Olympia would be the home of what would become The Evergreen State College, the only public four-year college built in Washington in the last century.

That was a deflating moment for Johnson, then principal of Arlington High School, and two other civic leaders, veterinarian Arne Hansen and Dr. Dale Huber.

Together, they had worked for 20 months on a dream and mobilized a community behind their pursuit.

Documents from the mid-1960s shed light on the decision-making when a site was being selected for The Evergreen State College. (PDF)

View the portion of the 1966 report dealing with the location of a new college.

View a speech by an education leader in Olympia pushing the Olympia site.

Where things stand today

Johnson, the lone survivor of the trio, remembers vividly the moment he stood at the podium to argue Arlington’s case before a joint session of the state Legislature. It was days before lawmakers voted on the issue.

He looked up to see the galleries packed with partisan supporters, then back at the legislators.

“Any other county would have had two colleges by that time, and we didn’t have any,” Johnson recalls telling them.

Snohomish County still doesn’t.

Today, the state is again facing pressure to establish a college in the county. An advisory group of civic and political leaders has recommended building a four-year polytechnic university.

Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to spend $2 million to determine by Dec. 1 how to run and where to build a new college.

Many arguments for a new college today echo those of the 1960s.

The region’s growing population is driving up demand for higher education. Rising tuition and extended drive times make enrolling in existing universities to the north and south less desirable.

College proponents are again pointing out that Snohomish County is one of the most populous counties in the nation without a four-year institution.

But not everything is the same.

Then, the presidents of the University of Washington and Washington State University wanted a new college to satisfy the state’s explosive demand. Now, they are distinctly lukewarm because a new school would mean another institution feeding from the trough of higher education dollars.

This isn’t 40 years ago, Evergreen president Les Purce pointed out.

There is no baby boom, and the number of high school graduates is leveling out. Students seeking a college education today are often older – the average age at Evergreen is 26 – and may be working. They have far different needs than students did when the state approved Purce’s school.

And unlike the 1960s, when the county’s leaders united to compete against other regions for a college, Snohomish County’s state representatives are divided and can’t decide on what to build and where to build it.

One group, mostly senators, wants an independent stand-alone institution like Evergreen. The other group, mostly representatives, is pushing for a branch campus of the University of Washington like the one in Bothell.

That divide could delay the dream.

“It was so unified back then. No one torpedoed the idea of Arlington,” said Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, who was serving on the Edmonds City Council in 1967.

“The worst thing that can happen now is because of some jealousy or need to be the sponsor you don’t send the same uniform message of desire to the full Legislature,” he said.

Arlington City Councilwoman Sally Lien is not taking sides, only pulling for success.

“I want a four-year college and I don’t care how we get it.”

Opening bids

In the early ’60s, a wave of baby boomers began graduating from high school and heading to college.

In November 1964, the presidents of the state’s five colleges issued a report urging the construction of a new four-year university because their campuses were running out of space.

Gov. Al Rossellini agreed with them and early in 1965 set up an advisory panel to recommend the best place to build one.

Twenty-two people – five senators, five representatives, the college presidents and one representative from each congressional district – served on the panel. Members included Everett Community College president Rodney Berg and Everett resident Stanton Hall.

They hired an out-of-state consultant who drew up criteria for the selection process. Issues such as projected population growth and proximity to existing universities mattered.

Panelists acknowledged early on that their eyes were trained on southwest Washington.

That didn’t deter Arlington’s Johnson, Hansen and Huber, who made Arlington’s interest known earlier than most other communities. Once they went public, people from all walks of life and all parts of the county joined.

“It was an era when the college system was starting to grow so fast around the United States, and we wanted to be part of it and we didn’t want to be denied,” Nelson said.The city of Arlington provided a huge boost by pledging to provide 640 acres near the airport for the campus.

The three men produced pamphlets, crunched numbers, gathered endorsements and obtained architectural drawings, all of which they funneled to the selection panel. Business, civic and education leaders and even the Seattle City Council endorsed the effort.

“We just started out compiling the information. Arne was bulldogging the effort to get the data,” Johnson said.

The Bellingham Herald described them as having “more evangelical zeal than Jason Lee, Marcus Whitman and all the other pioneer missionaries combined.”

Yet in the fall of 1966, the fight seemed finished when the panel recommended that the Legislature situate a college within 10 miles of Olympia.

Johnson said this inspired them to find data to counter the recommendation. They focused on expanding industries north and east of Seattle, including Boeing, that made Arlington a better spot to educate the workers that employers needed.

They were not the only ones trying to undermine the panel’s work.

Yakima, Aberdeen, Tacoma, Chehalis, Longview, Ridgefield, Vancouver, Lacey, Tumwater, Port Angeles, Tri-Cities and Redmond all wanted the college and weren’t retreating.

On Feb. 15, 1967, the Legislature held a joint session of representatives and senators. They wanted to hear from and ask questions of spokesmen from the different regions.

Johnson used his time at the podium to slam the findings of the advisory council, whose legislative members sat in plain view.

“Your integrity is above question, but your methods are open to question,” he said, according to a story in The Daily Olympian.

The trio’s public torching of the panel’s conclusions went on for days, prompting Evans to ask the chairman of the advisory council, Sen. Gordon Sandison, D-Port Angeles, to respond.

He did, writing a letter that The Daily Olympian ran under a banner front-page headline: “Senator Sandison Says Snohomish Statistics Silly.”

“Arlington put up quite an effort. I don’t even think Olympia put up the strongest effort,” Evans said. “Its location near Western (Washington University) was probably the single biggest factor of the panel not choosing a site north of Seattle.”

The majority contended the college should be connected in some way with state government, explained Mary Ellen McCaffree, 89, a Republican representative from Seattle who served on the panel.

“I personally didn’t think there had to be that nexus, but it was on that basis that we started narrowing the focus,” she said.

Evans embraced the recommendation.

“Immediately after the decision, everybody in every other community raised hell,” he said. “It quieted down real fast.”

Not in the minds of lawmakers whose communities lost out. They arrived for the 1967 legislative session with their gloves on.

“It was a fight. It was a brawl,” said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who at the time was working in state government at the Capitol.In the opening days, Rep. Charles Moon, D-Snohomish, pushed a bill to put the college in Snohomish County. Other members proposed legislation to put it in Clark and Pierce counties. Those all stalled.

The showdown on the law creating the college came in a two-and-a-half-hour debate Feb. 27 on the House floor. Lawmakers turned back Rep. Dick King, D-Everett, who wanted the law changed to allow construction of two colleges.

They voted down an amendment from Rep. Henry Backstrom, D-Snohomish, to put it in Snohomish County.

They roared with approval but voted against Democratic Rep. Art Avey, who suggested it be placed in his tiny hometown of Kettle Falls.

“We could name it Kettle U and have Ma and Pa Kettle as mascots,” he said, triggering a roar of laughter.

The Legislature passed the bill by margins of 85-9 in the House and 38-10 in the Senate and sent it to Evans for his signature.

The Greeners

Without prodding, Evergreen president Purce sings his school’s fight song. He’s popular on campus and respected by lawmakers for bolstering the school’s reputation. It is one of only two public colleges in the 2007 edition of “Colleges That Change Lives.”Such praise took a while to earn.

Lawmakers earmarked $1.4 million to buy land and begin operating The Evergreen State College. It opened for classes in 1971 with 800 students. Today’s enrollment is 4,500.

The school has a nontraditional approach to grades – there are none – and a unique mascot in the geoduck. Its emphasis on public administration, environmental science, liberal arts and civic engagement gives it a different focus than the state’s other universities.

“We didn’t want this to be a carbon copy of what we have,” said Evans, who served as the college’s president after he left office. “What it took was time to have enough graduates to prove it was a good school.”

Around Olympia, Evergreen is viewed with admiration and disdain.

In Evergreen’s early years, legislators threatened to close the college because of their anger with the behavior of the hyper-liberal students and faculty; more than once their protests forced the Legislature to halt its business.

Republican Sen. Dan Swecker attended in 1971, the school’s first year of operation.

“There were only two conservatives on campus,” he said. “And we got married.”

Two decades later, the campus still tilted left, recalled Rep. Chris Strow, R-Clinton, a 1991 graduate.

“When I went to Evergreen I was a moderate,” he said. “When I came out I was a rock-rib conservative and have slowly been drifting back to the middle ever since.”

Through the years, the stridency eased and appreciation grew of Evergreen’s value to the city’s economy and its soul.

“It’s brought in a whole new pop culture to Olympia,” Munro said. “This town used to be extremely conservative and, I hate to say it, quite racist and very inward looking. The college has changed all that.

“The kids all look weird as hell, but they get a darn good education.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or

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