Tireless And Tenacious -- Bob Walsh Is Behind The Biggest U.S.- Soviet Cultural Exchange In History, But It Has Taken Time To Win Respect In His Own City
Bob Walsh, the Goodwill Games impresario, had a working breakfast a few years ago with a powerful downtown figure.
``Why won't people get behind these Games?'' someone asked. ``Bob's done two Final Fours and the NBA All-Star Game.''
The businessman looked at Walsh and replied, ``It's simple. Everybody's waiting for you to fail.''
They'll have to wait a lot longer, says Walsh.
Since he won the bid for the Goodwill Games in 1986, and started Seattle down the road to its biggest event since the World's Fair 28 years ago, Walsh has been hailed as a visionary in some quarters, dismissed as a flake in others.
He has been punched out in a bar by a top executive of Turner Broadcasting, the major backer of the Goodwill Games. He has schmoozed with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, yet been snubbed by influential members of the Seattle business community.
He has married a beautiful Russian interpreter. He's taken out more than $100,000 in personal loans to tide over his neglected private business. He has worked himself to the brink of exhaustion.
With the first events just 12 days away, the staff of 290 and many of the 10,000 volunteers are working feverishly on a staggering list of projects and logistical problems.
Through every obstacle and criticism, Walsh has refused to yield in his conviction that the Goodwill Games will be a hit.
At certain moments, he droops like a tired cocker spaniel, with his beard, his weary eyes and his hyper-sensitivity to the approval of people around him.
But in bringing the Goodwill Games to Seattle, Walsh behaved more like a bull terrier. When the bull terrier locks his jaws on something - no matter how unwieldy - neither resistance nor intimidation will persuade him to let go.
When Walsh dragged the Goodwill Games home in 1986, many Seattleites were underwhelmed. Four years later, he sometimes still acts as if he's waiting for the city to thank
``He was a little bit ahead of his time,'' said former Seattle mayor Charles Royer. ``He was kind of out there on the edge and the early people get knocked around a little more. I admire him for that, he really stuck with it.''
Ted Turner, the broadcasting baron who created the Goodwill Games, took a $26 million loss on the first Games in Moscow. To many Seattle business leaders, a 1990 rendition seemed to bear the earmarks of a white elephant, from Russia with love.
``It's obviously difficult to do a one-time, $65 million event,'' said Jack McMillan, Nordstrom department stores president and board member of the Seattle Organizing Committee (SOC) for the Games. ``Practical people don't take things like that on, because you know it's going to be a lot of headaches.''
No one ever accused Bob Walsh, the SOC's president, of being unduly practical - only tenacious. That's how he landed two National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four basketball tournaments and a National Basketball Association All-Star Game for Seattle during the '80s.
``I guess what I don't do is take an idea and drop it because it's crazy,'' said Walsh. ``I follow through.''
Walsh, 49, was a radio broadcaster in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He moved to Seattle in 1973 and became assistant general manager of the SuperSonics, later a sports agent and promoter. Ideas were his stock in trade.
``In a sense, Bob is like Ted Turner,'' said the Rev. William Sullivan, S.J., president of Seattle University and SOC board chairman. ``Turner is a guy who's got a 100 ideas: 90 of them are crazy and another five are not feasible. And the other five are spectacular.''
Largely because of Walsh, Seattle is about to be the site of the largest U.S.-Soviet exchange in history.
Without him, Northwest residents would not be seeing everything from Russian painter Kandinsky to saxophonist Kenny G, from cosmonauts to Chekhov, from Brazilian basketball to the Bolshoi Ballet.
From its beginnings on a cocktail napkin, where Walsh worked out the financial deal with Turner, the Games grew into an undertaking with a million tickets to be sold and 2,500 athletes competing in seven Washington cities.
``I just never stopped to think about it not working,'' Walsh said.
Plenty of others did. When he began seeking sponsors three years ago, Walsh was surprised to discover that local heavy-hitters seemed to have more reservations than the Russian Tea Room, New York's venerable restaurant.
``He is a visionary and they've always taken a lot of flak from practical people,'' said McMillan. ``The business group is always asking: `How are we going to pay for it? Is it the right thing to do? Are we ahead of ourselves?' ''
Walsh, with former City Attorney Doug Jewett and community activist Jarlath Hume, wrote up the bid in considerable haste in the spring of 1986. They didn't consult many of the rich and powerful in town - the people they would later approach for sponsorships.
``I suspect, in retrospect, they probably should have talked to a few more people,'' said John Ellis, CEO of Puget Power, a formidable early critic who later became a Games supporter. ``I just think people felt excluded.''
The split may have represented insiders and outsiders or established older leadership and an impatient newer generation. Regardless, that initial oversight chilled relations and was overcome with great difficulty.
``There was a serious sense of `You guys got us into this, now you go and do it,' '' said Jewett, director of leadership conferences for the Games.
Walsh gets visibly frustrated by this subject. He feels that furthering world peace and opening commerce and culture between the United States and the Soviet Union are compelling enough ideas to stand on their own merits.
``I guess I've been criticized for not asking for permission to do things by certain segments of the - establishment,'' Walsh said.
Almost inaudibly he added, ``And that's hurt.''
Then he brightened. The cadence and volume of his speech picked up.
``But I don't know how you get things done,'' he said, his native Boston accent reasserting itself. ``If we'd have gone around and asked for permission to do the Goodwill Games in Seattle, we wouldn't be doing the Goodwill Games in Seattle. It wouldn't be happening.
``It's very difficult to do things in Seattle. I think it's the provincialism. But I think it's changing, I do think it's changing.''
McMillan of Nordstrom attributes it to the Northwest's famous independence.
``I think one thing that's unique about Seattle is it's a place where everyone wants to have a say in everything that goes on, which works against big one-time events like the Goodwill Games,'' McMillan said.
``Seattle's character is a drawback in trying to put together the Goodwill Games. It's a big-scale project and teamwork is not our best suit. There's a lot of diversity and people want to make up their own minds and not be part of a parade.''
Some influential people went even farther than passively waiting for the inevitable demise of the enterprise.
James Munn, a prominent Seattle attorney who was the chairman of the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign in the state, began soliciting money in 1987 to launch a campaign to stop the Games.
``If he had chosen to kill the thing, he certainly could have,'' Jewett said. ``He probably has as much access to the White House as anyone in the state of Washington.''
Munn said he gathered commitments for $200,000, then decided to drop the effort.
His objections were based on the Soviet threat to boycott the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and take their allies with them. Munn said he feared that the Goodwill Games gave the Soviets extra leverage to disrupt the Olympics because they had gained an alternate competition.
``That was the beginning and end of my concern,'' said Munn. When the Soviets announced they would be in Seoul, he called off his campaign.
Walsh, as the most readily identifiable figure associated with the Games, has had his share of detractors over the years. But with the event only days away, civic leaders and the business community have closed ranks behind Walsh and the Games. It is hard today to find discouraging words.
One businessman who has worked with him, however, said Walsh still carries a reputation in Seattle for promising more than he can deliver, and for being full of big ideas but weak on follow-through. He still believes Walsh is ``vastly in over his head on all of this. A lot of people who have had extensive dealings with Bob feel the same.''
That kind of criticism doesn't go down well with the Walsh loyalists.
``For whatever reason, people who get way out in front get vilified and praised,'' said Kathy Scanlan, executive vice president of the SOC. ``The personal and professional abuse he's taken is outrageous.''
Even those who were initially chilly to the idea of the Games generally concede Walsh has built a reservoir of credibility and recruited a talented team.
Hiring Scanlan was a particular stroke of genius, when the Games were wavering between life and death early in 1988. A woman known respectfully as ``the ultimate bureaucrat,'' Scanlan had a superb track record as deputy director of Seattle Center, as well as business and operations manager of the Woodland Park Zoo.
``Kathy Scanlan was the turning point, in my honest opinion,'' said Paul Schell, Port of Seattle commissioner and co-chairman of the Goodwill Arts Festival. ``With Kathy running things, I started breathing a lot easier. She's a hero now.
``Everyone knows Bob's kind of a whirlwind of activity. His strengths are promotion and vision and diplomacy. He's not an administrator and not a detail person, and the Games were clearly a very complex event.''
Scanlan said she'd met Walsh only once in a ``horrible dispute'' over a bill for a 1988 Seattle Seahawk anniversary event.
Walsh, as the promoter, refused to pay because the elevator in the Opera House broke down with the Mount Zion choir aboard, causing the singers to miss their cue from Doc Severinson by 20 minutes.
But Scanlan prevailed in the end.
``I told Bob when I took this job that I was not as nice a person as he was,'' Scanlan said.
Scanlan's reputation for administrative wizardry and take-no-prisoners negotiating laid many doubts to rest.
``She opened doors that couldn't have been opened otherwise,'' said Royer.
The ice-breaking big sponsors stepped forward a few months later, in the fall of 1988 - Group Health Cooperative, The Boeing Co., U.S. Bank, Cellular One and Alaska Airlines.
Now, as SOC staffers scramble in the final days, Ewen Dingwall watches from afar with a sense of deja vu.
Dingwall, retired director of Seattle Center and manager of the 1962 World's Fair, said many of the controversies arising around the Goodwill Games have been identical to the flurry of doubts about the World's Fair.
``There were a lot of the same questions,'' Dingwall said. ``Parking, traffic, whether any people were going to come - or whether too many people were going to come. Somebody gets out these old tunes and starts playing them.''
Although the late Eddie Carlson is revered as one of the modern-day fathers of the city, he once had something in common with Walsh - as a little guy with a big idea to sell to Seattle. Hindsight is rosy on the World's Fair, but it too drew a swirl of skepticism.
Walsh said that, before Carlson's death in April, Carlson often provided advice and morale-boosting as they talked late at night on the telephone, at Carlson's invitation. Other leaders from the World's Fair era, such as Dave Cohn, Howard Wright and the late Ned Skinner, were also ``very helpful'' to Goodwill organizers, Sullivan said.
``Those people were very encouraging because they said to us, `This is going to be tough, you're going to run into opposition,' '' Sullivan said.
``Most people in this town have forgotten that the World's Fair was postponed for a year. They were going along in their preparation and they suddenly said, `We are not going make this.' And they postponed it for a year. So yes, there are a lot of parallels.''
Among the parallels is a grueling work schedule. Dingwall landed in Swedish Hospital for a few days in 1962, three months before the World's Fair opened.
Walsh's habits don't threaten to exceed any Red Cross standards.
In the past four years, he's flown to the Soviet Union 30 times, frequently enough to pop the springs in any body clock. He smokes. He partakes in vodka diplomacy. He gets regular calls from Moscow at 2:30 a.m. He scrapes by on an average of five hours of sleep. He marinates his nerves in caffeine and he is often indifferent to eating.
``I've had periods where . . . the weight of the situation was getting depressing,'' he said. ``But it's never been like I don't want to continue this, let somebody else take over on it.''
McMillan noticed Walsh looked thinner when he saw him recently.
``I asked him whether he was on a diet,'' McMillan said, ``And he said, `Worrying.' ''
Sullivan grew concerned enough to use his authority to ``order'' Walsh on short vacations on two occasions. Walsh went to Palm Springs - where he sat by the pool and wrote thank-you notes to SOC staffers.
Walsh has a sensitive streak, which seems to leave him especially vulnerable to the rough-and-tumble aspects of life as a public figure. Scanlan describes him as ``a very passionate and a very emotional person.''
``I'm not sure Bob has a tough enough shell,'' she said. ``He takes it very personally.''
When the Games suffered setbacks with sponsors or governmental agencies, or when Walsh believed news accounts were negative, he felt wounded.
``He bleeds with every news article,'' said Bernie Russi, Walsh's special assistant. ``But he's a fast healer.''
This experience has afforded Walsh the chance to perfect a personal filing system: The good articles are mailed to his 78-year-old mother in West Seattle; the bad ones become toilet paper for his seven cats and two birds. On balance, the pets have probably received the lion's share.
One of the things that pains him are implications that he's doing the Games for personal profit. He earns at least $125,000 a year in salary, but his salary has dropped at his own business, Bob Walsh and Associates, which organizes entertainment events.
``We've never done anything for money,'' he said of the Games. ``It's never been a driving force. I would be richer financially had I not been involved in the Games and had just stayed at BWA.''
Walsh's name has become golden in the Soviet Union, at least. Working from his Games connections, he arranged a number of humanitarian projects, such as airlifts of food and medicine to Armenia after the earthquake in 1988.
``I was involved during the `Evil Empire' days and during the Cold War,'' he said. ``We were bringing medicine into the country and bringing kids over here when it was not fashionable to do it.
``The Russians, particularly, are very loyal to people who got involved when it was a real risk. They know that and they remember it.''
Walsh's Kremlin relationships have occasionally helped when even the U.S. State Department couldn't. For example, when U.S. Rep. John Miller, R-Seattle, was unable to get approval to travel to the Baltic states, Walsh made some calls on his behalf and resolved the problem.
Ironically, Walsh's influence in the Soviet Union is greater than in his own country. Some important people in Seattle still treat him as an arriviste, a sort of civic carpetbagger because he's been here a scant 17 years.
``People call me an outsider, but I've been here since '73,'' Walsh said, with obvious exasperation.
How long does it take a highly visible newcomer to become accepted as a Seattleite?
``I think with certain segments, you could be here forever,'' Walsh said ``I think I probably always am going to be an outsider, to some people.''
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