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Saturday, May 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson, 1918-2001; Seattle loses its longtime chronicler

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The problem with writing a newspaper column, Emmett Watson once lamented, is that it can take over your life.

"It becomes a physical part of you, like having bunions or a nervous stomach that won't go away," he wrote. "You don't make friends the way you should; you make acquaintances and sources."

Even so, the man whose writing chronicled, celebrated and helped shape Seattle for more than half a century left this world yesterday with every indication that he had, despite the obstacles, made friends.

Mr. Watson, 82, died last night at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle of complications from a burst aneurysm he suffered in mid-March.

"He became popular, and his column was addictive because he revealed himself in those columns," said a close friend and journalist, Fred Brack. "And that's why people liked him."

In the pages of The Seattle Star, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mr. Watson wrote about sports and politics, night life and celebrities, lawyers and doctors, cops and criminals, and plenty of just plain folks.

His longest stretch was 30-plus years at the P-I, where his column ran six days a week at its peak. Counting Herb Caen of San Francisco as a mentor, Mr. Watson wrote in the "three dot" format, in which assorted items were strung together, giving the flavor of the city.

Memorial service


A memorial service for columnist Emmett Watson has been set for 3 p.m. May 21 at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., on First Hill in Seattle.

In keeping with the spirit of Watson, who died Friday night at age 82, the event will be light and unstructured, a mixture of readings from his work and people speaking about him, said his daughter, Lea Watson.

Watson, whose writing career spanned more than 50 years with columns in the old Seattle Star, The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and several books, had been hospitalized with a burst aneurysm since mid-March.

Mr. Watson's secret - if anything dolled out to hundreds of thousands of readers could be considered secret - was that he was never pompous or self-important. He'd have his readers believe that even his own boss couldn't remember his name and would call orders out to "Watkins."

While acknowledging a tendency toward gullibility and folly, friends say, Mr. Watson's virtues were many, including moral courage.

"He opposed the Vietnam War, subtly chipped away at racial discrimination, and celebrated ethnic diversity before they were fashionable stances and expressed the view without self-congratulation," Brack wrote.

In the 1960s, when a P-I editor posted a notice forbidding facial hair, Mr. Watson began growing a beard in support of younger colleagues. It wasn't long before the notice came down, Brack wrote.

Mr. Watson treasured Seattle to the point of wanting to protect it, inventing the mythical organization "Lesser Seattle" with a goal of allowing outsiders to visit but not stay. The concept struck a chord with locals who watched equity-rich Californians bid up housing prices here.

"I never wanted to set the city on fire, but I did have some fun," the gravelly voiced Mr. Watson said in May 1997.

Though he seldom spoke or wrote of his birth, he began life Nov. 22, 1918, as Emmett McWhirt, twin brother of Clement and the son of Lena and Garfield McWhirt. The next year, his mother and brother died in a flu epidemic that caused about 20 million deaths worldwide.

The tragedy left Garfield McWhirt in a bind with a young son.

"He was kind of an itinerant laborer," Mr. Watson said. "A streetcar conductor, a bartender and everything else. And he couldn't take care of me. For real, he couldn't."

Fortunately, McWhirt had friends - a contractor and his wife who had raised their own four children and had room to take in the 14-month-old child. The West Seattle couple, John and Elizabeth, gave the toddler their love, their care and their last name: Watson.

As a youngster, an infection caused some deafness, and polio left Mr. Watson with a slight limp. In his frequent self-deprecating way, Mr. Watson poked fun at his hearing difficulties, saying the two hearing aids he wore were "so powerful (they) can pick up talk shows in Taiwan."

After a West Seattle childhood and two years of West Seattle High School, he transferred to Franklin High School, where he graduated in 1937.

It was there he began to show potential as a baseball player, although he insisted that he gravitated to the position of catcher because "that's where they put you if you can't do anything else."

School was never Mr. Watson's strong suit - not because he lacked intelligence but because he'd often find something more interesting to do.

"I was never a licensed delinquent, but I ranked fairly high in the truancy department. An afternoon in a burlesque house was always more fun than a class in mechanical drawing," Mr. Watson confessed in the first of his four books, "Digressions of a Native Son."

After graduation, he sought to continue his baseball playing at the University of Washington, but he lacked the financial resources and carried an unimpressive 1.45 grade-point average.

He approached Tubby Graves, a legendary Husky baseball coach.

"He said he could only help me once I was in school," Mr. Watson recalled. "I was broke, so I borrowed the tuition from my mom. I think it was $32.50 a quarter back then. And when I got into school (on scholastic probation), Tubby got me jobs."

One of those was a "dreadful, mind-numbing" task at a Boeing plant, where he worked from 4 p.m. to midnight filing rough edges off aluminum pieces cut by a band saw. So dreary was the work, he'd sometimes cut a finger intentionally to get a half-hour visit to the infirmary.

And though he quit after a few months, Mr. Watson noted years later, "I'm glad I worked for Boeing once because this kind of puts the 'made in Seattle' stamp on me."

At the UW, he played baseball into the 1942 season, when he was drafted by the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. "I got to go on one road trip, and that was about it for that season," he said.

His baseball career reached its pinnacle the next year, when he made the team at spring training as a backup catcher and actually got into a game, going 1 for 2 in his only professional at-bats, for a lifetime batting average of .500.

Mr. Watson's lone hit, coming at San Diego's Lane Field, was a pop-fly single to right, despite his pleas to the manager to record it as a line drive.

"I figured since we were on the road, no one would ever know the difference," Mr. Watson said.

After leaving baseball - a departure he blamed on his inability to hit a curveball - Mr. Watson worked in Seattle and Tacoma shipyards during World War II. But he went to as many Rainier games as possible and with friends produced a newsletter to send to ballplayers in the service.

An editor at the now-defunct Star saw the publication and hired Mr. Watson to cover the Rainiers for the newspaper in 1944. The pay was modest, but for Mr. Watson it was a dream job.

The bigger and richer Times hired Watson in 1946. But after four years, he was again wooed away, this time by a "hotshot" from the Hearst newspaper chain who brought Mr. Watson to the P-I with an offer The Times declined to match.

Although Mr. Watson liked his Times editors, he felt the paper was becoming too stodgy and later called it "a benign, wealthy old community aunt, in whose parlors only soft voices are permitted." In his years at the P-I, he took an occasional friendly jab at his former workplace, referring to The Times as "Brand X."

The bout with polio weakened Mr. Watson and prompted his transition from a reporter who chased teams around the Northwest to a columnist who did much of his legwork by telephone.

A second transition, from sports to the city scene, came when a dozen restaurant owners approached the P-I and offered to subsidize an "around town" column that would interest people in downtown activities - and, of course, would include the occasional plug for a local eatery.

The "This Our City" column started in 1956 and by 1962 was running six times a week. Mr. Watson expanded the column far beyond the night-life scene, fielding items and finding worthy tidbits in nearly every aspect of Seattle life.

He particularly enjoyed the waterfront and Pike Place Market. He remained close to the local sports scene and became friends - against his better judgment, he'd say later - with a number of attorneys.

Of all Mr. Watson's friends, none was closer than a longtime companion who never spoke an ill word of the columnist - who never spoke at all, in fact, except for an occasional yip.

That was Tiger, a "1980 model" apricot-colored runt miniature French poodle, a constant traveling companion, whether it was in Mr. Watson's camper or private plane, or by commercial airline.

"When the old psyche needs therapy, Tiger and I take the Cessna out and bore a hole in the sky, high enough so we can admire the clouds, the greenery, the great waters and the ruggedness of this most beautiful of all countries," Mr. Watson wrote.

Few of his columns triggered the emotional outpouring of the 1995 report of Tiger's death.

"We had a little joke in our house," Mr. Watson told his readers. "Whichever one of us died first, me or him, the other was obliged to die of grief within a short time. ... I hope that Tiger will release me from our bargain."

Brack said that when a new P-I editor in the early 1980s treated Mr. Watson with disrespect, the columnist decided to leave the newspaper and join his friend Lou Tice at Pacific Institute, a personal-motivation enterprise.

Even after his departure, he continued to write two columns a week for the P-I on a free-lance basis. That ended after a column critical of George Argyros, then owner of the Seattle Mariners. Argyros, a California developer, had few friends in Seattle, but one of them was P-I Publisher Virgil Fassio.

"I picked up the paper and saw the column wasn't in there," Mr. Watson said. "The managing editor called and said he was thinking of cutting me back to one column a week. I said maybe we should make it zero columns a week."

Within days of his departure, Watson got a call from The Times, inviting him back. And because The Times had been Watson's "Brand X," he shifted gears, sometimes ribbing the P-I as "Brand Y."

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Watson suffered a heart attack. That ended his days flying light planes.

"He loved flying," said his daughter Lea Watson. "But the heart attack and surgery ended his flying career."

Mr. Watson wrote for The Times up to late November, when he went on strike with the Newspaper Guild. His column had been due to return last month until he was hospitalized.

Even in his last days, the bushy-browed, white-haired Mr. Watson garnered fans, Lea Watson said.

"One of his nurses, a young man, couldn't wait until Dad was lucid," she said. "When he was for a brief time, the nurse said, 'It is an honor to meet you, Mr. Watson.' "

Said Brack, "It's important to say Emmett was an institution because for Seattle, he certainly was."

Mr. Watson was married for 28 years to the former Betty Lea. Despite their divorce, the two remained cordial. His 1992 book, "Once Upon a Time in Seattle," is dedicated to his ex-wife and the couple's daughters, Lea Watson and Nancy Brasfield.

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