Remembering Kay Bullitt

The following tribute was contributed by John Chaney, former executive director of Historic Seattle.

It was always just “Kay”, a presence far beyond Historic Seattle and Seattle. Kay was experienced and skilled in philanthropy. In this sad time of her passing I am reminded of an observation she often made. “I wish more obituaries would suggest a gift to things the deceased supported and enjoyed in life, not the disease that took their life.” I’m remembering the enterprises she supported and enjoyed.

Kay served on the Historic Seattle Council for many years. I had the great pleasure of serving on the Council with Kay Bullitt for 4 years and then as Historic Seattle’s Executive Director for another 15 years. During that time the Historic Seattle Foundation was created and Kay was the first President. Kay fervently supported the long-planned completion of the Good Shepherd Center, creating long term affordable housing in historic buildings, and undertaking challenging projects like the acquisition of the Third Church of Christ Science now Seattle Town Hall and the Nisqually earthquake damaged Cadillac Hotel which now houses the National Park’s Klondike Gold Rush Museum. Kay was an early and stalwart supporter of historic preservation in Pioneer Square, the Market, and around Seattle long before I knew her. For me and so many others in Seattle, she was a shining example of community service.

Kay showed me by example that there can be great joy in adding your efforts to those of others, small grains of sand that eventually will tip the balance favorably. That part of living is experiencing victories and losses, both pyrrhic and valued. The important thing is to make investments in incremental change. Things you may not fully see nor personally enjoy. She was always present but also looking over the horizon.

Kay was part of the struggles and success of many organizations, large and small. She saw the value in working to preserve, protect and interpret our past for future generations. I often recall her gentle way with other board members and citizens. Kay was an exceptionally skilled leader.

Kay was a consistent voice for meaningful stewardship.  She cautioned me more than once about the potential hidden agenda in “sustainability” and challenging the pretty pictures of the future. Taking the long view and tempering the fashion of the day was something Kay helped me understand.

Kay’s memory will live on with many who knew her and I am hopeful that those who benefit now and in the future from her remarkable community service will also remember her. She saw each day as an opportunity to make a difference, to put energy toward making even the slightest positive change in the trajectory of our shared community. She invested in Seattle whether she found agreement with others views or not. In these times my memories of Kay will help me continue to invest in our collective future and I know new citizen warriors are carrying her ideas forward, it is the cycle of life and Kay lived it fully.

In 2012, I was retired and received an e-mail from Kay that I intend to use myself. She wrote: “My computer and email have become a burden. Today I am closing my email account. To reach me, please call or write to me.” For the next 8 years we wrote and spoke on the phone but the best times were a quiet chat at her home or at her Wednesday Summer Picnics. I will leave it to others to speak of her leadership in world and community affairs, maritime preservation, environmental awareness and a bit of progressive politics too. If you did not know Kay, it may be hard to fathom her energy and passions.

Walt Whitman wrote in 1882 on the passing of a very dear friend. ”… one beyond the warriors of the world lies surely symboll’d here.  … all loving, all-inclosing, and sane and clear as the sun. … we are here to honor … conscience, simplicity, culture, humanity’s attributes at their best, yet applicable if need be to average affairs and eligible to all. … I shall henceforth dwell on the blessed hours when, not long since, I saw that benignant face, clear eyes, the silently smiling mouth, the form – to the very last, with so much spring and cheeriness. Warrior, rest, thy task is done.”

Photo courtesy of the Seattle Times