Kay Powers. More than a decade ago, her very name was front-page news. A spirited teacher and ardent advocate of free speech, she was fired from Cascade High for her role in helping students publish a newspaper not sanctioned by the Everett School District.
“I remember a lot of resilience. Kay didn’t give up. She kept fighting,” said Cascade graduate Brynn Eden, 29, who met Powers during her junior year. “She definitely taught us don’t stop. You’re one person, but the fight’s not impossible.”
Kay Grant Powers died Jan. 4 at her Seattle home. She was 76, and had dementia.
“She connected with every student. She treated everyone with respect,” said Mike Therrell, a retired Cascade government and history teacher.
Since losing his friend and former colleague, Therrell has heard from her former students. One woman, out of high school 20 years, called from Taiwan. “She was in tears,” Therrell said. “She said, ‘I am who I am because of Ms. Powers.’”
She is survived by her husband of 22 years, Randy Rowland, daughter Rosa Powers and son Patrick Powers. Her daughter is a language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” quipped Rowland, 72, a retired nurse who worked at Harborview Medical Center.
Powers, an English teacher, was at Cascade from 1984 until she was fired in 2007. Supported by her union and rehired by the district with full back pay, she taught English one more year, 2008-2009, at Jackson High School before retiring.
“The whole battle started at Everett High School,” Rowland recalled.
That First Amendment fight, in which two former student editors and the Everett district reached an out-of-court settlement in 2007, centered on the Kodak, Everett High’s newspaper. In 2005, the Kodak’s co-editors had filed a lawsuit over the issue of prior-to-publication review by school administrators.
With administrators enforcing prior-review policies, student journalists at both Everett High and Cascade published newspapers not approved by their schools. The Tyro, Cascade’s literary magazine, also went underground.
The Free Stehekin, the Cascade students’ underground paper, was published with Powers’ help. Early in 2007, the teacher had emailed Carol Whitehead, then the district’s superintendent, saying she wouldn’t defy district rules — she wouldn’t use school equipment for work on the Free Stehekin.
Powers told The Herald in 2008 that she and students tried to keep their work off campus, although she did admit to some use of school equipment.
It all became a hot-button issue after it was learned that the school district, in May 2007, had a vendor install a hidden camera in Powers’ classroom. For months, until evidence proved the camera had been installed, district officials denied that it was so. Whitehead, the superintendent, retired in September 2008, months before she had planned.
“When it was all clear, Kay was in the district and the superintendent was out,” Rowland said.
“The most puzzling and hurtful thing to her, given her beliefs about freedom, openness and inclusiveness, was that she would be spied on like she was, with that damn camera,” said Everett attorney Mitch Cogdill.
Cogdill had represented the 2005 Kodak editors in their free-speech lawsuit. He met Powers during that litigation.
“She was passionate about her beliefs,” Cogdill said. “As a young adult and college student, she’d be called a flower child, out picketing in Birkenstocks and long dresses. That was Kay. When she became a teacher, she was very supportive of those who were underdogs and of people having a voice.”
Rowland said his wife grew up in Seattle and attended Catholic schools before going to Gonzaga University with full scholarships. She studied in Florence, Italy, as part of a Gonzaga program and later hitchhiked through Europe. “She had an adventurous life, and it was reflected in her teaching style,” Rowland said.
Her students’ academics could be rigorous. “She’d force kids to memorize long passages of poems, and not just AP students,” Rowland said.
During a previous marriage, she spent about 20 years in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There, she taught high school English and for a University of Idaho program.
Rowland’s first date with Powers was to a reading by the Beat-generation poet Gary Snyder. Married at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, they shared a zeal for progressive politics and workers’ rights.
She was a creative writing teacher at Cascade when the school needed an adviser for its newspaper. “She stepped into that gap reluctantly,” Rowland said.
On March 22, 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the Washington New Voices Act, which protects the rights of student journalists. Washington became the 14th state to legally establish that student editors are responsible for the content of their media, and that advisers may not be fired or otherwise disciplined for complying with the law.
The law includes limits on student expression, among them libel, slander, unwarranted invasion of privacy, or material that incites students to violate laws or school policies related to harassment, intimidation or bullying.
“That should be the law. It caught up with our theory on the Kodak,” Cogdill said.
Eden is now a concierge at a downtown Seattle hotel. She was editor of the underground Tyro Libre in 2007 and 2008. “It was a big deal. It was a lot for her, but she persisted,” she said of the free-speech controversy. “My fondest memories of high school are my teachers — Kay being the main one.”
Karen Shoaf-Mitchell was Cascade’s librarian when Powers was there. With Therrell and other supporters of Powers, she helped establish a scholarship for students who stand up for the First Amendment. It was awarded most recently to students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of a 2018 shooting that killed 17 people.
Shoaf-Mitchell recalled Sept. 11, 2001, the horrible day of the terrorist attacks. “On 9/11, Kay brought her students down to the library to recite poetry,” she said. “Her colleagues loved her. Her students loved her.”
Therrell last saw Powers when he and other former colleagues went to her home for a Labor Day picnic last September. Her memories of the stand she took had faded. The visitors’ memories of her courage had not.
“Students should not have to give up their First Amendment rights when they walk onto school grounds,” Therrell said. “They’ve put into law what Kay stood for.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
A memorial service honoring Kay Powers is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the King County Labor Temple, 2800 First Ave., Seattle, followed by a reception.
In lieu of donations, Powers’ friends are invited to walk in her name in Seattle’s MLK Day march Monday. Events start with a rally at 11 a.m. Monday in the Garfield High School gym, 400 23rd Ave., Seattle. The march to Westlake Park downtown begins at 12:30 p.m. There will be bus service, fare-free, back to Garfield High for a free meal in the school cafeteria (about 2:30 p.m.).