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Friday, February 9, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A voice of Seattle faces a challenge

Seattle Times staff reporter

With 12 hours left on his voice, Walt Crowley popped in a tape at the party in his Phinney Ridge home Thursday night. On it, a 20-years-younger Crowley delivered a speech to Vietnam veterans at Seattle Center, his tone true, his pitch sure.

When it stopped, he turned on the mic. Without it, the crowd would not have heard Crowley's voice. It's now just a gravelly rasp.

Crowley, the longtime chronicler of Seattle's people, places and things, has cancer of the larynx.

The party, dubbed "Famous Last Words," was a last chance for friends to hear him speak. Former Seattle mayors Norm Rice and Wes Uhlman and about a hundred other friends mingled over hot dogs and chocolate cake.

Today, "I'm having my throat ripped out," Crowley said. In an eight-hour operation, surgeons will remove his larynx and cut a hole in his throat for him to breathe through — good-bye to his trademark bow ties, he has blogged.

"It's really famous last natural words," Crowley said of the party. "We'll find a way to make noise on the other side."

Rather than suffer privately, Crowley, 59, has turned his disease into a real-time historical event. This past week, Crowley took his voice on a farewell tour, appearing on public radio and local TV news stations. He has blogged about his disease, with photos of him rubbing his bald head and holding up the fist of Black Power in his Che Guevara beret. (Crowley is Irish-American-English.)

Crowley is perhaps best-known most recently as the co-founder and executive director for the nonprofit that runs HistoryLink.org, an online encyclopedia of Washington history. He, his wife, Marie McCaffrey, and Paul Dorpat, a local historian and Seattle Times contributor, started the site in 1998. It now has about 4,500 essays written by staff, contributing writers and volunteers.

But Crowley has a long history of his own in Seattle. He has been a newspaperman, a television-news commentator, a speech writer for former Gov. Mike Lowry and a policy planner for the city of Seattle. He has written a dozen books on local institutions, including the Rainier Club, the Blue Moon Tavern and Seattle University. Crowley was also an early board member on the defunct Seattle Monorail project.

John Carlson, the conservative radio commentator and former Republican gubernatorial candidate who used to debate Crowley on KIRO TV's "Point-Counterpoint" segments in the late 1980s, called him "the institutional memory of Seattle."

In July 2005, Crowley, a former smoker, was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. While most of his work on HistoryLink.org is written, he relies on his voice to fundraise, speak on television and in community meetings, and to do interviews as a resource on local history. He said he wishes he could be in Olympia this week to lobby for state funding for the site.

His greatest fear of having cancer, he has said, is that people would write him off as dead. "That's not good for fundraising," he said.

He makes his living as a freelance writer so he didn't have health insurance. Group Health, for which he was updating a history, hired him on and covered his medical expenses. He went through four months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

But in December, his doctor said the cancer had returned. It was time to remove his voice.

After he recovers from surgery, Crowley plans to use an electric larynx. He quips that he will sound like physicist Stephen Hawking, who Crowley figures is the smartest guy in the world.

The past 18 months have been the most touching of his life, he said at the party. Friends have teamed up to give him rides to the hospital for his cancer treatments and patiently waited with him and his wife, Marie, for hours in doctor's offices.

As he toasted his guests Thursday night, Crowley said he has decided what his last natural words — and his first electronic words — will be: "I love you, Marie."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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