Seattle, 1960. The latest census had pushed the city’s population over half a million. Labor leader (and former UW regent) Dave Beck was on his way to prison on corruption charges. Otherwise, things were pretty good. Those who knew about Seattle recognized it as sitting in the middle of a glorious natural playground. People had jobs. But Boeing, lucrative as it was, was the only industry in town, and some worried that the city had become complacent. Governor Rosellini thought that Seattle suffered from negativism, “too much inclination to suppress the confidence that lies naturally in many of the people.”
But then two things happened, perhaps not quite of equal import. But they were related.
First, the Seattle World’s Fair, officially known as Century 21 Exposition, had emerged as a shaky reality, not just a pipe dream.
Second, Jay Rockey returned home to take over as the fair’s publicist.
As great an idea as the fair was in hindsight, convincing Seattle that it should, even could, be done was something of a miraculous feat.
Originating at a legendary, and perhaps apocryphal, martini lunch at the Washington Athletic Club in 1955, the idea of a fair soon took the form of a resolution before the city council. Interestingly, as Murray Morgan points out in his lively and idiosyncratic history, Century 21, there was no mention of funding in the proposal, which suggested a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
Fortunately, the idea had legs and made its way to the legislature. Then-governor Langlie signed, with little apparent enthusiasm, a bill calling for a feasibility study. But if he had wished the idea would go away, he made a historic mistake. He appointed longtime friend and UW frat brother Eddie Carlson to chair the committee that would explore the feasibility of a world’s fair in Seattle.
Carlson, who would soon become president of the Western Hotel chain, was dogged and bright. Maybe he couldn’t walk across Puget Sound, but he had the determination, connections, and charisma to bring the fair to reality, against the odds and in spite of what some saw as a significant part of Seattle’s population that was determined to stay small and out of the limelight.
Things proceeded. A commission was formed. Money was designated and eventually raised. A director, Ewen Dingwall, was appointed. Century 21 Exposition became a nonprofit corporation. Seattle was on its way to being presented to the world with a fair that was not only fabulous, but made money for the city and investors.
But maybe that’s moving a bit too quickly. What started as a bold vision hit a wall in 1957. A group of civic leaders, including all the members of the Century 21 Corporation, met for a preview of the fair. The preview was indeed impressive. But the estimate for what was proposed came in at $32 million dollars more than had been promised the corporation by the city and state. Their dismay precipitated what Morgan depicted as “great waves of discontent, threatening disaster” during 1959 and 1960.
Let’s now return to our second significant event.
Jay Rockey ’50 had grown up in Olympia, enlisted in the navy during the last days of World War II, then went off to Washington State College to major in English and journalism, play second-string basketball, and sing in a quartet called the Spectacles.
After graduation, he returned to the navy for the Korean War, then worked for a while for the United Press, covering the state legislature. Next to him sat Jim Faber, with the Associated Press. Eight hours a day, for four months. They got to be good friends.
Through a college friend’s father who was regional public relations director for Alcoa, he landed a PR job with Alcoa in Vancouver. There he met Retha Ingraham, and they married. They headed East, where Jay manned Alcoa’s New York office. He loved it—the job, the city, everything about it. But after five or six years and three children, he and Retha started thinking about moving back West, where their family was.
One day, Jack Ryan, formerly with the Seattle Times, now working the finance section of the New York Times, called and said there’s a press conference you ought to be interested in. Washington governor Albert Rosellini was giving a press conference over the phone. The guy directing the conference from Washington was Jay’s old friend, Jim Faber. Rosellini announced that Seattle was going to host an exposition.
“I called [Faber],” says Rockey. “He was actually working for the fair.”
A little later, Faber was in New York. Rockey took him to Sardi’s, and they talked. Then Rockey flew to Seattle, just to check out the job scene. He had a meeting with Faber at the fair’s planning headquarters.
He walked in and asked the receptionist for Faber, but was told Faber had quit the night before. But, she says, let me check with Mr. Dingwall, who invited Rockey into his office.
“Half an hour later they offered me a job,” says Rockey. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I wanted to work for Boeing or Weyerhaeuser.”
But as Rockey left for the airport, Dingwall said, let’s keep talking.
That was January 1960. In May, he drove into Seattle with his family, ready to spread the word about Century 21.
Shortly after they arrived, the PI ran an editorial claiming it could not see how the fair could possibly make it. “Do you really know what you’re doing?” Retha asked Jay.
Now, from an actual 21st-century perspective, we realize that the fair left Seattle with much more than the Space Needle, the Monorail (at least, the elevated track), and one of Elvis’s less-memorable movies. Nearly ten million people visited the fair the summer of 1962. Somehow, Rockey got the fair on the cover of Life. Twice. And on a postage stamp, to boot.
After a six-month run, Seattle found itself discovered. (As a fourth grader in Indiana, I’d have been hard pressed to locate Seattle, until my teacher, Mrs. Kuhn, sent me and my classmates postcards of the Space Needle from the World’s Fair.)
In other words, the fair was a fabulous success, and Seattle had joined the ranks of the world’s great cities. Jay Rockey, of course, did not do it by himself. But he got everybody to notice.