Media, timber heiress lived simply, gave grandly
Seattle Times staff reporter
A daughter of old Seattle money, Priscilla “Patsy” Bullitt Collins devoted much of her life to spending her family fortune for the public good. Her status within city history secure, she will be remembered as Seattle’s unassuming heiress.
Mrs. Collins died, surrounded by family, at her First Hill home yesterday afternoon of complications from cancer. She was 82. Her philanthropy reflected an eclectic spirit, the gifts benefiting diverse causes including environmental conservation, the arts, childhood education and global poverty. Her unpretentious nature and dedication to others helped define an upstart city trying to fashion its own personality.
“We have lost someone awfully precious,” said longtime civic leader Jim Ellis. “Patsy lived an exemplary life. She believed that we are not born for ourselves alone, and she lived that philosophy.”
Mrs. Collins’ family made its mark in the timber and media industries. She chaired King Broadcasting, founded in 1946 by her mother, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, from 1972 until the family sold the company in 1992.
The end of the King empire signaled a windfall for the region, as the sale poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Bullitt Foundation, a philanthropic organization committed to the protection and restoration of the Pacific Northwest environment. Gifts to the community
Mrs. Collins also made a fortune from the sale, which allowed her to explore her own charitable interests in her later years.
“My mother was good at making money; I’m good at giving it away,” Mrs. Collins liked to say.
Mrs. Collins’ personal gift of $800,000 last summer allowed the Cascades Conservation Partnership to acquire a four-mile stretch along the Yakima River, part of which was under threat from logging. It was one example of her dedication to preserving Pacific Northwest habitat.
Mrs. Collins’ support of the local arts scene was possibly unsurpassed. Her patronage is audible through KING-FM (98.1), which she and sister Harriet retained after the sale of King Broadcasting. The sisters donated the commercial radio station in 1994 to a nonprofit arts collective dedicated to preserving classical music on the frequency.
The innovative gift also funnels $500,000 to $750,000 in yearly profits to the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and ArtsFund, formerly Corporate Council for the Arts, which divides its share among 13 classical music groups in King and Pierce Counties.
Mrs. Collins had a favorite saying about giving: “When you see a thousand people running toward a cliff, you either build a fence along the top or a hospital at the bottom.”
She preferred building the fence. Many of her gifts established programs that helped shape young minds.
In a city resistant to airs of nobility, Mrs. Collins demurred from spotlights casting her as an aristocrat. Yet the endurance of the Bullitt dynasty is undeniable, and Mrs. Collins played a primary role in nurturing the evolution of the family legacy from broadcasting tycoons to community caretakers.
A lady of class, modesty
Her personal life remained humble. She was known to attend symphony performances wrapped in a basic raincoat. Thirteen years ago, her family replaced her old clunker of a car, much to her chagrin. She drove the replacement, a modest coupe, until she could drive no more. While she had the means to buy a penthouse with a sweeping view, she chose a simple two-bedroom condominium on First Hill.
Mrs. Collins was the second of three children born to A. Scott Bullitt and Dorothy Stimson, who were married in 1918. He was a distinguished lawyer; she was the daughter of timber mogul D.C. Stimson, who owned Seattle’s largest sawmill. The Bullitts raised their family within the sheltered setting of The Highlands, an exclusive North Seattle enclave of mansions where the Boeing family also lived. Within that culture of well-bred dignity, Mrs. Collins learned to be a lady, even as a girl.
“To be interested in our roots is good,” Mrs. Collins said in a book on the ancestral history of her parents, written by brother Stimson Bullitt. “But let us not be concerned with pride in our ancestors. Let us rather be concerned to live in such fashion that our descendants may be proud of us.”
Proper and classy but unafraid to startle others with her booming laugh, Mrs. Collins’ friends and family enjoyed her sense of humor.
“She had a quick and funny tongue,” recalled Peter Donnelly, president of ArtsFund and former chairman of KING-FM’s board of directors. “It was never cruel but often very, very wicked.” Pains of war
Mrs. Collins donated the Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall, a grove that combines landscaping and flowing water with a memorial to Washington’s war dead.
“The Garden of Remembrance is not a political statement,” Mrs. Collins once wrote. “It is not a memorial to war. If anything, it is a reminder of war’s high cost and terrible pain.”
Mrs. Collins experienced the pains of war firsthand. After graduating from Vassar College in 1942, she became engaged to Larry Norman, whose family lived on Orcas Island. An Air Force bombardier, he was shot down over Germany in 1943.
She married Josiah Collins Jr., also a descendant of a prominent Seattle family, in 1947. They raised three sons before divorcing about 30 years later.
Mrs. Collins’ father died of cancer when she was 11 years old. She paid tribute to him through $2 million in donations to the Seattle Public Library Foundation. The new downtown library’s history and biography collection will be named for Scott Bullitt, as is a recurring lecture series.
Mrs. Collins gave another $1 million to the Library Foundation to create a program for preschoolers that combines storytelling with classical music.
“To her credit, she never tried to micromanage the programs her money created,” said Terry Collings, foundation executive director.
She was a founding board member of the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center on Bainbridge Island, now known as IslandWood, a 255-acre natural habitat that invites students to explore. Her gift of more than $1 million helped launch the center, said Debbi Brainerd, chairwoman.
Mrs. Collins’ style of philanthropy went beyond writing checks, Brainerd said. She involved herself in the causes she supported.
Peter Newman, program director of KING-FM, said Mrs. Collins was an active board member who listened to the station, attended all meetings and pored over budgets.
“She knew most, if not all of our station staff — a weekend board op, a receptionist, anyone around for any length of time — on a first-name basis,” he said.
Mrs. Collins refused to let organizations she supported name anything in her honor — with one exception. When the local YMCA looked for a role model to be the namesake of its leadership program for middle-school girls, it chose Mrs. Collins, a longtime contributor. The Patsy Collins Adventure in Leadership for Girls of Promise is an 18-day summer camp.
Mrs. Collins’ compassion stretched beyond U.S. borders. She served on the local board of CARE, an international organization fighting global poverty. Her gifts directed through CARE have helped improve educational opportunities for girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America.
“Patsy was an inspiration — always engaged, thoughtful, committed and warm-hearted,” said Peter Bell of Atlanta, CARE president.
Mrs. Collins was a Red Cross worker for a year in Japan after World War II and traveled through Hiroshima four months after the nuclear bomb hit. The experience did much to mold her liberal, anti-war philosophy.
“Five-year-old street urchins learned very quickly the way to survive was to sell their burns, because they were so terrible the soldiers couldn’t bear it and would give them food and candy,” she recalled in a 1990 interview. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of thing war does to people.’
“It started coming home to me that war doesn’t stop when it’s over.”
She donated vans to orphanages and hospitals in war-torn countries. In El Salvador, when it was unclear the van would ever be delivered, she flew there with a delegation of other women to drive it there themselves.
Using her bully pulpit as King Broadcasting’s chairwoman, she spoke out against what she believed to be a pro-Israel bias in the U.S. media. She also denounced government support of the contras, CIA-backed counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.
Mansion meets low-income
Mrs. Collins never lost touch with her social conscience.
On the one hand, she bought the Stimson-Green Mansion, where her mother grew up, eventually donating the $2 million home to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
On the other hand, she financed a housing project for low-income people to be built next door to the mansion. Her condo on First Hill is one block away — a testament to how she viewed her world.
Mrs. Collins is survived by sons Jacques Collins of Bainbridge Island; Charles Collins of Sedona, Ariz.; and William Collins of Woodway; brother Stimson Bullitt of Seattle; sister Harriet Bullitt of Leavenworth; sister-in-law Kay Bullitt of Seattle; and nieces and nephews.
Services are scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Memorials may be made to the Peach Foundation, 1017 Minor Ave, No. 1201, Seattle, WA 98104.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company