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Originally published Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Obituary

William Witherup, poet, playwright and activist

William Witherup, a Seattle poet, playwright and activist, whose work focused on people who lived downwind of the Hanford nuclear reservation, racism and technology, has died. He was 74.

Seattle Times staff reporter

William Witherup, a Seattle poet, playwright and activist, whose work focused on people who lived downwind of the Hanford nuclear reservation, racism and technology, has died. He was 74.

In his book of poetry "Down Wind, Down River," Mr. Witherup memorialized downwinders and spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons and technology. He was also a member of the Hiroshima Peace Project, an anti-nuclear organization. Altogether, he was the author of 11 books of poetry and two plays.

Mr. Witherup died June 3 from complications of acute myeloid leukemia while in Seattle's veterans hospital. He believed the illness that ultimately took his life was caused by living downwind of the Hanford Nuclear site, according to Frederick Nelson, his therapist, friend and fellow artist.

Mr. Witherup was born March 24, 1935, in Kansas City, Mo., the eldest of four children. The family moved to Richland in 1944 where his father worked as an engineer at the Hanford nuclear facility.

Growing up, he was a tease, a younger sister remembered. Sandra Witherup described one of his pranks:

"He would hide underneath beds and [jump out and] scare us," she recalled. "He would also hide in the dark and jump out and scare us."

Mr. Witherup's pranks continued into his adult life.

He carried a fake cellphone in his pocket and would talk on it when he saw other people talking on their cellphones.

"Bill hated technology," his sister said. "He felt that technology does not enhance society but does the opposite."

In 1957, Mr. Witherup joined the Air force as a Russian translator, serving until 1959, she said.

"He wanted to join the Air force before the army drafted him." his sister recalled. After leaving the Air force, Mr. Witherup moved to San Francisco in 1960, and to Seattle in the '80s. Mr. Witherup began writing poetry about downwinders after his father died in 1983 of colon cancer, which Mr. Witherup suspected, was caused by his father's work in the Hanford site. Mr. Witherup even dedicated his book of poetry "Black Ash, Orange Fire" to his father.

During his life, Mr. Witherup struggled with bipolar disorder, and because of it, he had trouble holding on to jobs, his sister said.

"He was crusty, angry, and a deep-feeling person, so he had trouble dealing with everyday things." she said. He quit a security job at the Seattle Art Museum, for example, because he didn't like using the earpieces to communicate with the other guards.

Mr. Witherup is survived by his mother, Nita Rosemond Witherup, of Post Falls, Idaho; three daughters, Teresa Witherup Schiller of San Jose, Calif., Gwendolyn Witherup of Seattle and Amber Renee Witherup Allen of San Francisco; three siblings, Sandra Hankins of Seattle, Mervyn Witherup of Spokane and Connie Isakson of Post Falls, Idaho; and one grandson. Memorial services have been held.

Armando Montaño: 206-464-2347 or amontano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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