Pacific Northwest | June 29, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 29, 2003seattletimes.com home
Home delivery
Search archive
Contact us
CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY SUSAN GILMORE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DEAN RUTZ

 Above: Aubrey Davis' demeanor belies his reputation as an astute, respected and indefatigable public servant.
While talk drones on and on and on, his eyes droop, then slowly close; his curly white beard quivers.

Pity the person who thinks Aubrey Davis is asleep.

He isn't. He's deep in thought.
 
 Photo
As chairman of the state Transportation Commission, Davis is at the center of some of the state's most controversial and costly projects. Davis and other commission members recently checked out one of those projects, construction of a second Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
"We call it his screen saver," says Connie Niva, his self-avowed best friend, diet cop and fellow member of the state Transportation Commission Davis leads.

When commissioner Chris Marr tries to slip Davis some M&M's to keep his sugar level up, he'll do it at the risk of a severe reprimand from Niva, who monitors his diet with the rigor of a school marm.

After all, Davis is 85 years old, a man who's been feted with more retirement parties than he can remember and still shows no signs of slowing down. "I failed a retirement course," Davis says simply. "As long as I'm able, I intend to keep busy."

He uses a Palm Pilot to keep a schedule he packs in pursuit of his four main passions: his family, transportation, health care and the Seattle Mariners.

Davis lives with Henrietta, his wife of 63 years, in a house he built in 1960 on a dead-end street on Mercer Island. It's not on the water. He bought the lot for $4,000 and had to make monthly payments until he was able to build his home.
 
Photo
Aubrey joins his wife, Henrietta, who goes by "Retta," in watching their grandson pitch in a Little League game on Queen Anne Hill. Besides trying to get to many of his grandson's games, Davis shares season tickets to the Mariners with his son. Once he got to throw out the first pitch at a game against the Yankees.
It was in this house that the couple raised four children and a considerable amount of hell, considering Davis tackled two of the most controversial Big Issues there are — health care and transportation.

"He's not involved in the easy stuff," says Marr, a Spokane auto dealer. "This is stuff that makes your head hurt."

On the commission, Marr says, "you constantly have to be on the lookout for Aubrey raising his right index finger 3 inches off the desk while his eyes are still closed." Just when you think he's drifted off, "he will come back with the most insightful comments or penetrating questions, which often amaze me. It taught me never to assume what's going on in Aubrey's head."

Over the eight decades of his life, Davis has served as mayor and city councilman of Mercer Island and is largely responsible for construction of the Interstate 90 bridge with a lid of parks that's the envy of other communities. He was a federal transportation official who helped secure money for the downtown bus tunnel; he ran for King County executive and managed the much-revered Warren Magnuson's last campaign for the U.S. Senate. He was a founding member (No. 239) and later chief of Group Health Cooperative, and has served on the state transportation commission since 1992. He's also tossed out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game.

He is crusty, stubborn, indefatigable and widely respected.

He leads — and lasts — with patience and persistence, taking on the big issues without ego interfering.

• • •

THE SCENE IS a Transportation Commission meeting in Bellingham two years ago. The cameras of public-affairs-television station TVW are rolling and Aubrey Davis is listening intently as a local panel gives testimony on the conventional wisdom of why transportation is in crisis. What follows is a classic Davis moment. Eyes closed, Davis raises his right index finger and pronounces: The conventional view is, "in a word, bullshit." "I don't think so many necks have snapped at a chiropractor convention," Marr recalls. "The room roared with laughing approval."
 
 Photo
Davis keeps his schedule on a palm pilot and has a GPS system in his car. "Aubrey is way past us," says Doug MacDonald, head of the state Department of Transportation. When Davis runs meetings of the state Transportation Commission, which oversees the department, MacDonald compares it to watching "an excellent symphony conductor."
An unrepentant Davis explains, "I said it because it was something that had to be said. I figure at my age I get more latitude."

But don't ever dismiss him because he's 85 and slowing down, says Cheryl Scott, CEO of Group Health. "He just bristles at that. His notion of aging is extraordinarily different."

When Scott first got the job in 1997, she and Davis were in her office talking. "He has this way of closing his eyes and thinking before talking, and I've learned not to fill the space," she says. "He opened his eyes and pointed at my chair and said, 'You're going to be sitting in that chair.' "

My gosh, thought Scott, was this man getting senile? "He gave me a steely look and said, 'You sit in this chair and you do something with it. This is an organization that has an incredible legacy, and don't screw it up.' "

Aubrey Davis has no patience for failure.

At a meeting earlier this year with state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald on opening some carpool lanes to single drivers, MacDonald was trying to manage the meeting when Davis poked him and said, "Move over kid" and took charge.

"I really have the feeling I'm watching a master," MacDonald says.

When he rides in Davis' Acura, the one with the "Yes on 51" bumper sticker for last year's failed gas-tax measure, MacDonald watches with awe as Davis programs his road computers and other gizmos. "I can't even program my Palm Pilot, and Aubrey's way past that."

• • •

BORN IN South Pasadena, Calif., Davis graduated from Occidental College and took a job as an intern in Washington, D.C., with the Federal Works Agency. There he met Henrietta, or Retta, the woman who would become his wife.
 
Photo
As Mercer Island mayor, Davis was a strong advocate for putting a lid of parks and landscaping over part of Interstate 90 on the island. Here, in 1972, he meets with engineers and architects to discuss proposals and survey a model of the project.
They began dating in early May, 1941, and married just weeks later.

"We were both old enough to know what we liked, and somehow the marriage has survived," says Davis, who calls his wife every night when he's out of town on business.

Drafted, he served in the Army in Calcutta, India, and worked in the ordnance unit, where his job was to assemble trucks to be sent to China.

When he returned from the war he and Retta, with one child in tow, drove across the country to Seattle, where he worked with the Seattle Housing Authority and later the Wage Stabilization Board. When that program ended at the close of World War II, he and longtime friend Hugh Mitchell, a former congressman who ran unsuccessfully for governor, began selling a chemical waterproofing material produced by Gaco Western. He and Mitchell eventually took over the company and built a new plant in Tukwila.

Davis remains chairman of the corporation, and son Peter now runs the business. Not only was it profitable, it provided good summer jobs for each of the Davis kids.

One year the kids, bored, created a new "product," RB901 (as in bottled root beer that Peter bought in a gallon jug at an A&W). They ran it through all the Gaco hoops, tested the formula, analyzed it for quality control, paid for it, put it in the company's inventory, labeled it and sold it to a friend; they even gave the "salesman" a commission.
 
 Photo
The Davises gather for a ferry ride in the early 1950s, before the family's fourth child was born. With Aubrey and Retta are, left to right, Judy, Peter and Becky.
When it was discovered in the inventory the plant manager was furious, says Becky Pentz, Davis' daughter.

Today the story is part of Gaco lore. "Dad thought it was funny," says Peter Davis. "Nobody else thought it was funny."

In 1967 Davis, a Democrat, threw himself into politics, which wasn't a particularly wise move on Republican Mercer Island. He ran for city council, fully expecting to lose, so he doorbelled only the flat precincts (as in, not on the water) and sent cards to every registered voter on the island. He learned never to walk across lawns or through flower beds, and he won with 67 percent of the vote. He went on to serve 11 terms on the council, two as mayor.

While on the City Council, Davis was appointed to the Metro Council, which at that time ran sewer systems in the county. He helped put together the 1972 campaign that established Metro Transit.

In 1977 he decided to run for King County executive, believing what incumbent John Spellman had said the year before — that he would be concentrating on his race for governor and wouldn't run for re-election. But when Spellman lost the governor's race, he decided to run again for executive. Davis won the Democratic primary but couldn't beat Spellman in the general election.

"After I lost I realized it was nice to wake up on a Saturday morning and not go to a shopping center to campaign."

Don Munro, a longtime friend whose wife worked on Davis' campaign, says one incident showed him why Davis was never elected to major political office. His campaign manager had arranged a speech at the Ballard Elks Club, but Davis said he wanted to go instead to a meeting of the Puget Sound Council of Governments. No amount of persuasion could change his mind.
 
Photo
Davis chaired former U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson's last campaign in 1980. While he wasn't eager to take on the job, he said you just couldn't turn down Maggie.
"There was no political reason to go to PSCOG. Everyone there either loved him or hated him," Munro says. "There was every political reason to go to Ballard Elks. He was more interested in public policy than shaking hands. We threw up our hands. It was an epiphany. Aubrey was completely detached from running for office. He didn't need it. We need more people like that in public office."

What may have made Davis most famous was his work on Interstate 90. When the state began planning in the 1960s it called for a 13-lane bridge across Lake Washington. It was then that Davis coined what would become an oft-repeated phrase about the bridge: "I don't want to see it, hear it or smell it."

Davis persuaded state highway engineers to redesign the bridge, even as piers were being put in place. "For the first time in history a project was designed not just by engineers, but by architects," says Davis, whose stamp on the Mercer Island lid includes not only parks with walking trails, but ballfields, tennis courts and picnic areas.

In 1979 Davis was appointed regional administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration and helped secure money for the downtown Seattle bus tunnel and the Portland light-rail system.
 
 Photo
During his 1967 campaign for the Mercer Island City Council, Davis stops to visit the Robinson family at their grocery store.
He took a break from UMTA when he was drafted to run Magnuson's last campaign in 1980. Davis had never run a political campaign, but took on the job because "you can't turn down Maggie."

Magnuson was haunted by a young Slade Gorton dancing around the 75-year-old veteran politician, and Davis said there were times he'd try to stand in front of television cameras so no one could see Magnuson's shaking hands.

Polls showed Magnuson ahead just weeks before the election, but Davis still remembers the words of advice from pollster Peter Hart. "He said, 'You're carrying water in a paper bag. You might get across the line, but not if it breaks.' We were winning up to the last two weeks. Then the paper bag broke."

On election night, a stunned Davis could only shake his head and confess, "I don't know what changed."

Davis returned to UMTA, where he stayed until 1988. He remained active in Metro, and was appointed to a panel in 1990 to investigate the sinking of the I-90 bridge. "We found if a bridge is floating, you better treat it like a boat," Davis says.

Long active in Group Health, missing only one meeting in 21 years on the cooperative's board, he was asked to take over as chief executive officer in 1988 when the previous CEO moved to Detroit.

He stayed three years, leaving to become president emeritus so he could work on federal health-care reform, only to be frustrated by the inability of federal decision-makers to come up with any meaningful reform.

• • •

THOUGH HIS TERM on the Transportation Commission expired last year, Davis continues to serve as its chairman. It's a big job for the money — $12.50 an hour plus expenses — but Davis has stepped up to the task since he was first appointed in 1992. He was reappointed by Gov. Mike Lowry, and Gov. Gary Locke has kept him on. Davis didn't particularly want to be reappointed to another six-year term, but says he's willing to stay until Locke pulls the plug. Andrew Johnson, Locke's transportation adviser, says there's generally a 10-year limit on appointments, but Davis is an exception and can stay on the panel as long as he wants. "Folks like Aubrey are giants and are hard folks to replace," he says.
 
Photo
Lawn chairs in hand, Aubrey and Retta leave their grandson's Little League game. The couple have been married for 63 years.
The seven-member commission oversees the state Department of Transportation and appoints its secretary. State legislators have been trying to abolish the commission for years, saying that the nonelected body should have more accountability, and if transportation policies are headed down the wrong track, it's the commission to blame. Many say the commission survives largely because of the respect people have for Davis.

Even so, Davis' passion for transit and transportation improvements has made him enemies over the years.

State Republican Party chairman Chris Vance says that in his old job as a King County councilman, he saw Davis as a guy too willing to sacrifice other public-policy objectives to improve transportation. "I don't like zealots on either side, and Aubrey is a transit zealot."

Davis is unquestionably a strong advocate of getting more drivers off the streets and highways. He favors what's called congestion pricing, where charging people for driving in congested areas might get them to leave their cars at home and take the bus. "People's behavior will change with very, very little price signals," Davis contends.

"Orwellian," Vance retorts. "It's Big Brother government, social engineering, and I think it's wrong."

Davis sighs. He knows he can't win over everyone. But that doesn't stop him from trying.

"Aubrey won't say it, but he can't stand people who can't set aside personal ego for the cause," says Munro. "He finds it hypocritical. He can even put up with scoundrels, but not people who will only do something if it enhances their own self-image."

Davis says he likes the advice he once got from his old friend Jim Ellis, the father of Metro. "You can either make things happen or take credit, but you can't do both. I like to make things happen."

A LOYAL MARINERS fan, Davis shares family season tickets and goes to spring training in Arizona every year. He came back this year worried about pitcher Freddy Garcia.

When asked to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game in April 2000, he practiced for a month so he wouldn't be embarrassed. His toss hit the plate.

Tall and skinny in college, he played center on his football team. He was, he confesses with a chuckle, "small but slow."

The family has a cabin in Mason County — complete with a satellite dish and computer access — and a 15-year tradition of going to Ashland, Ore., for its Shakespeare Festival. Davis and his wife have season theater tickets to ACT, the Seattle Repertory and Intiman, where son Peter was once managing director.

Wife Retta taught school for 23 years on Mercer Island and now volunteers at the Seattle Aquarium. Friends say the two are inseparable.

When MacIntosh computers were first introduced in the 1980s, Retta made sure all the kids had Macs so they could e-mail each other, says oldest daughter Judy Willott. The family was such a bunch of baseball fans her mother would save all her ironing for the World Series.

Often Retta will accompany Davis on trips to keep him awake; when she's not along, he likes to listen to books on tape. He's now immersed in a Napoleonic war series.

"With Mom it's a package deal," says daughter Trisha Davis Muller. "It's amazing how much they stay in shape."

When Muller, a graduate student at Yale, told her parents she'd met the man she wanted to marry, Davis said he just happened to have a business trip planned to New Haven, Conn. Yeah, right, sighed Muller.

The family was run as a democracy, say Davis' children. When decisions were to be made, whether it was what movie to see or where to go on vacation, the family would vote.

"But we all had one vote, and Dad had six," Becky says. "Obviously, we knew who was running the family."

Adds Peter, "We never felt an inch of pressure to do anything but what we always wanted to do. He taught us your measurement is your expectation of yourself."

Friends of Davis say they worry about him, that he doesn't know how to slow down.

"I'm retired, and Aubrey's older than I am, and he's still doing stuff. We should ration him a little bit," says Ellis. "I'm worried he's going to cause himself to collapse. I'm in awe of Aubrey's capacity, and frankly a little worried he'll go on until he drops. It may be what he wants, but not what his friends want. I want him to stay around as long as possible."

Davis hears this all the time. When Ellis urges him to slow down, Davis changes the subject. "He's stubborn," Ellis says with a sigh. "I say, Aubrey, I've plainly retired, and it's time to do it. He says, not quite yet."

Davis' kids say they want their dad to stay active and happy.

"What's better? Slow down and die?" asks Becky. "Why not go out in a blaze of glory? I'm happy he flunked retirement."

Susan Gilmore is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Dean Rutz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

  PACIFIC NORTHWEST
 MAGAZINE SEARCH
Today Archive

Advanced search

 
advertising

seattletimes.com home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company

Copyright

Back to topBack to top