Jack Metcalf: loss of a true maverick

OAK HARBOR – Jack Metcalf, the Whidbey Island Republican who blazed a maverick trail as a state lawmaker and congressman, died Thursday afternoon. He was 79.

Metcalf was surrounded by family at HomePlace in Oak Harbor, where he had been receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease.

Tall and sinewy and always wearing his cowboy boots, Metcalf displayed a fierce independence in his thinking and no pretense in his politics in a career spanning four decades starting in 1960.

He eschewed conventional political labels save the one most used to describe him – populist.

“One thing I always admired about Jack was that he was a straight shooter. He had certain beliefs. He kept those beliefs and he didn’t vary,” said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who along with Metcalf was elected to Congress in 1994.

Metcalf was an incontrovertible conservative on fiscal and social policy. Yet he demonstrated an environmental ethic pushing for Puget Sound protections and befriended unions with votes for a higher federal minimum wage and against the North America Free Trade Agreement.

He didn’t trust big government and became known best to many as the man who wanted to shut down the Federal Reserve and return to a silver-based currency. More than once as a state lawmaker he demanded to be paid in coin rather than check.

Though a hawk on defense, he railed loudly against those in the military he felt knew more about the cause of Gulf War illness than they let on.

He was the lone member of Washington’s delegation to vote against a bill authorizing permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000. He also fought the Makah Tribe’s attempts to restart whaling off the Washington coast.

“We who are activists tend to measure our views with a party. Jack didn’t do that,” said Paul Elvig, former chairman of the Snohomish County Republican Party.

“Jack saw things as black and white and right or wrong. Consequently, he could alienate everybody in one fell swoop,” he said. “You don’t find many like that around anymore.”

Voters appreciated his gentlemanly nature and unwavering frankness.

Metcalf lost five elections, including runs for U.S. Senate in 1968 and 1974 against Sen. Warren Magnuson, yet he never seemed deterred by defeat from running again.

“People around him realized that what you saw is what you got. That was refreshing to them,” said Lew Moore, Metcalf’s chief of staff for five-and-a-half of his six years in Congress

“He was one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever known,” said Rep. Chris Strow, R-Freeland, who interned for Metcalf in the Legislature and worked for him in Congress.

“There was a sophistication I think a lot of people completely missed,” Strow said. “His crusades were not your conventional Republican crusades. He was very blue collar. He was a very proud patriot. He loved his wife and he loved his country, and I don’t know which came first.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called Metcalf “an independent soul. There was a real heart inside that guy. Jack and I voted differently on many, many issues and that didn’t preclude us from talking together afterwards.”

She recalled Metcalf, who was a teetotaler, did have a penchant for ice cream and a near addiction to chocolate milkshakes.

“He always had the hugest bowl of ice cream in the state Senate dining room,” said Murray who served with him in Olympia.

Metcalf was born in Marysville on Nov. 30, 1927. His birth certificate reads “Baby” Metcalf because his parents hadn’t settled on a name by the time the document was filed. He would legally change his name 18 years later.

His family moved to Langley when he was 6 months old and he remained rooted to the homestead throughout his life.

He attended public schools and after graduating high school served in the U.S. Army from 1945-47. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Pacific Lutheran University and later added a master’s degree from the University of Washington.

He taught for 30 years, all but one in Everett. His resume included stops at North and Evergreen junior highs and Cascade and Everett high schools.

He and his wife, Norma, met in high school and married in 1948.

One of his first jobs was selling pots and pans door to door. After a few days, friends said Norma made him quit because he hadn’t sold any but gave sets to needy families, which meant they had to foot the bill.

In 1975, Metcalf and his father, John, built what began as a retreat and became the Log Castle Bed and Breakfast using logs they cut from selectively harvested trees on the family property. Today it is the Metcalf home.

Metcalf’s political odyssey began in 1958 while the couple lived in Mukilteo. He lost the race for state representative in the 38th District and then ran two years later and won.

In 1964, Democrat Dick King unseated Metcalf. While a Republican has been elected senator in that district since, there hasn’t been a Republican state representative since Metcalf.

In 1966, redistricting put Metcalf in the 21st District, where he ran and won the state Senate seat. He served from 1967 to 1975.

After running for U.S. Senate and losing in 1974, the couple moved to Whidbey Island, where he burned all his legislative papers, thinking he would not run again.

In 1980, he was recruited by Republican leaders to run for state Senate in the 10th District. He won and served three terms.

In 1992, Metcalf vied for Congress and lost to incumbent Democrat Al Swift.

Two years later, Swift retired and Metcalf ran again, and won to join the raft of Republicans elected that year.

Local Republicans didn’t want him running.

Elvig was Snohomish County Republican Party chairman then. He said he went to Langley with a message from party leaders of Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties to keep Metcalf out of the race.

“I said, ‘Jack, we don’t think you can win.’ He said, ‘I think I can win.’ He went out and did it,” Elvig said.

Metcalf won re-election twice. A believer in congressional term limits, Metcalf retired after his third term.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., succeeded Metcalf in the 2nd Congressional District. He said Metcalf “valued public service so much that he kept running. The title meant little to him. It was the ability to use the title for something to help the people back home.”

He welcomed the heat of debate, though he never raised his voice. Often times, those with whom he debated he would later play poker.

“Jack really had a lot of fun. He was basically a happy warrior,” Moore said. “Every day he would come in and say, ‘Today is a high adventure.’ “

He is survived by his wife, Norma; four daughters, Marta Cahill, Lea Headley, Ann Bowman and Gayle Metcalf; a brother, George; a sister, Evelyn; and 10 grandchildren.

A life celebration for Metcalf is planned for March 31 at South Whidbey Assembly of God.

Herald news services contributed to this report.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Metcalf in politics

  • 1961-65 – State representative, 38th District

  • 1967-75 – State senator, 21st District

  • 1981-93 – State senator, 10th District

  • 1995-2001 – Congressman, 2nd District

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