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Tuesday, December 28, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

Like The Rain, Dave Beck Was Utterly Seattle -- Ex-Teamsters Leader Made Own Power

Dave Beck, who died Sunday, was utterly Seattle, as pervasive as the rain, as mysterious as the fog, as Bunyanesque as Babe the Blue Ox in Northwest mythology.

He lived too long.

Dave was six months short of his 100th birthday when the end came to this remarkable, contradictory life. Though there were books by and about him, his true biography should have been written in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

Like Gatsby, he admired wealth and status; he yearned for the peerage of successful capitalists, to be one of the fellows, though he never would have been admitted to Seattle's Rainier Club, the city's epicenter of true establishment.

No labor leader, as Dave was, would ever be allowed into Seattle's portals of power. So he made his own power.

It is hard for today's citizens to comprehend the economic and political muscle Dave wielded from his office at 5th Avenue North and Denny Way.

Later, in Washington, D.C., as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, it was said of him, "Not a wheel turns in America without Beck's approval."

He was Seattle.

He was tide-flat smell, tough as a tree-topper, bold as a Klondike miner, patriotic as an Elk's tooth, louder than a Skid Road orator.

As a boy, early in this century, he delivered newspapers all over First Hill and what we now call Pioneer Square. He shot rats for bounty under the University Bridge to help support his mother. He ran errands for whores and cadged free lunches in Skid Road saloons.

I got to know him quite well. He would spin these stories, laughing until tears came to his eyes. He liked me, but I'm sure he liked me only because I had a newspaper column. This tough, ill-educated but well-read man loved to play the nuances of publicity. He was ruthless when he had to be.

Once, when Los Angeles was an "open," or nonunion town, he set out to organize it. He met with Jim Casey, who founded United Parcel, in Seattle.

The Teamsters had driver contracts all down the coast, well into California, but not Los Angeles. "You can't organize Los Angeles," Casey told him. "The employers' association has $10 million to fight you."

"I don't care about their goddamned 10 million. When those contracts are up," Beck said, "there will be no deliveries into Los Angeles. You will sign up your drivers now."

Casey protested. He didn't want to betray the L.A. employers. "I would be in a terrible fix," he said.

Beck's cold blue eyes bored into the head of United Parcel. Dave said, "Yes, you'll be in a hell of a spot, won't you?"

Beck used violence on nonunion truckers going into L.A. But in a relatively short time, the Teamsters organized Los Angeles, even much of the movie industry.

During the 1936 Post-Intelligencer strike, Beck sent his burly Teamsters to provide muscle on the picket line. They protected the strikers from William Randolph Hearst's hired goons.

The Times owner, C.B. Blethen, was apoplectic. "How Do You Like the Look of Dave Beck's Gun?" blared a Times headline, parroted by Hearst's hired radio hands.

Beck sued for libel and collected $25,000, an immense sum in Depression years. Again, tears of joy came to Beck's eyes as he told me the story. "That money got me started in real-estate investments," he said.

Real-estate investments. He was big on those. He invested for the Teamsters, but he got careless. He borrowed union funds and this would come back to haunt him.

Power? No fewer than three presidents - Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower - tried to make him secretary of Labor. Eleanor Roosevelt, the liberal first lady, used him for favors. And he could deliver the Teamsters' vote.

When he became International president, he took $8 million in Teamster funds out of Indianapolis banks and transferred the money to Seattle First National Bank. It was the least a man could do for his home town.

Later, he was sent to federal prison on McNeil Island on two counts of filing false income-tax returns and on a state charge of misusing $1,900 from the sale of a union-owned car.

It always hurt Beck that Seattle businessmen shunned him when he got into trouble. "Today," he once told me, "I can't borrow a goddamned nickel from Seafirst."

His speech was laced with "damns" and "hells," but Dave was a personal Puritan. He never womanized, did not drink or smoke, and never used sexual obscenities.

The Great Gatsby of Seattle, at the height of his strength, was feted and fawned over, but never truly accepted in the business community.

Yes, he lived too long. New generations arrived, and when his name came up, they asked, "Who was Dave Beck?"

When Dave became too old to go out anymore, I was shut off from some great stories. Then one day Dick Klinge, one of Beck's closest friends, called me. Klinge laid out a few notes; he wanted it on record what Dave had done for his city. It was a long list.

He helped save St. Mark's Cathedral; he built swimming pools for the YWCA; he gave financial help to Seattle Pacific College and Ballard General Hospital; he raised money for the Ryther Child Center; he built houses for servicemen after World War II.

As much, perhaps, as Sen. Warren Magnuson himself, Dave helped found University Hospital; he bailed out Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma and helped Seattle U. When Children's Orthopedic hospital was moved to its new building on Sand Point Way Northeast, once again, Beck showed his muscle: On his orders, the Teamsters moved the kids and hospital equipment for free.

One thinks well of the dead when their time comes. Now and again I think of the young narrator who told the Great Gatsby, who was never accepted by the respectable rich, "You are better than all of them."

Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesday and Friday in the Local section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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