Part 7: Bill Cowles and the Obligations of Power

Here was a powerful family, in legend and in fact, which very few people knew much about. If Cowles’ power was exaggerated or its uses distorted, who was to blame for that? One could not learn otherwise by reading the newspaper.

By William Stimson

William H. Cowles, 3rd, the Spokesman-Review’s publisher from 1970 until his death in 1992, would be interesting if for no other reason than it is unlikely American society will see many more of his type.

He was groomed and educated to handle exactly one job, the job his father and his grandfather held, and that was to be a publisher and community leader in a particular western American city.

Cowles graduated from Yale (his grandfather’s alma mater) in 1953, served three years as a deck officer in the Navy, then graduated from Harvard law school in 1959.

When he returned to Spokane, he continued his other education, planned by his father, which was to work in every department of the family business. Bill Cowles delivered a newspaper route, sold subscriptions and advertising, worked as a copy boy, edited the copy of reporters who got the bylines, and finally worked as a reporter.

Cowles’s father, William Cowles, Jr., had never seemed comfortable in the role of publisher. (In fact, he had not expected to become publisher, but his older brother, Major Cheney Cowles, was killed in a plane crash while in training during World War II). The publisher of the Review between 1946 and 1970 did a dutiful job, but let the quality of the newspaper slip precipitously and turned over most of the business side of the Cowles interests to a competent but thoroughly obnoxious employee by the name of Bill Hyde.

Hyde, a financial whiz trained as both a lawyer and accountant, had the Cowles power without the benefit of the family reticence. He hectored Cowles employees perpetually, and those who persisted in displeasing him found themselves out of work.

He felt he was too important to require tact, and his approach to negotiation was to bully people. When Hyde learned street work around the Cowles parking garage was costing the Cowleses parking garage money, (the streets were torn up in preparation for Expo ’74), Hyde got the city manager on the phone and demanded the city finish the work quicker. Because of who Hyde was, city engineer Glen Yake went in person to explain that the work was on schedule and couldn’t be finished faster. “He didn’t listen for ten seconds,” Yake recalled. Hyde shouted he wanted the thing fixed, and invited Yake to leave his office.

With Hyde, a complaint was always a threat. Once in the 1960s when Mayor Neal Fosseen declined a request from Hyde, Hyde asked, “Neal, how would you like the full force of the Cowles Publishing Company turned against you?” Fosseen said he never felt consequences of Hyde’s anger, but he is convinced that it was only because Hyde had no practical way to punish him.

Yet Fosseen continued to work with Hyde. This was one of the curious facts about the old “establishment.” Because many of the people involved had known each other their whole lives, it was easy to assume it was made of good ol’ boys who supported each other as an extension of their social relationships. In fact, the establishment contained many deep personality conflicts, business competitors, and grudges. That these were not allowed to derail the tasks all had in common was proof the establishment was a political system and not just a club.

In 1970 Bill Cowles and his brother, Jim, took over and soon dispatched Hyde to Florida and retirement. The Spokane establishment breathed easier.

Bill Cowles was not like either his father or Hyde. Bill Cowles entered the newspaper business with verve, and in his dealings with others was quiet, respectful, and conscious of the unsettling effect his power sometimes had on people.

In the 22 years he was publisher, Cowles set down a record of civic contributions matched by few people in the city’s history, including only the likes of the city’s founder, James Glover, Cowles’ grandfather William Cowles the 1st, Aubrey White, and a handful of others.

Bill Cowles was groomed and educated to handle exactly one job, the job his father and his grandfather held, and that was to be a publisher and community leader in a particular western American city.

Fierce attacks against the Cowleses would be matched by defenders who were just as adamant.

Bill and Jim Cowles were not only the largest single private contributors to Expo, but they were day-by-day participants in the harrowing work of getting it open by May of 1974. After Expo, the Cowleses provided downtown construction that kept Penney’s Department Store in Spokane and drew Nordstrom.

Cowles saved the historic 1891 Review Building at considerable expense and constructed a new office building adjacent to it. He installed new presses that put the Spokesman-Review at the forefront of newspaper technology.

Cowles pumped money into the editorial content of the papers as well. He brought in an editor from Chicago, Don Gormley, and gave him money to expand the staff. As a result, the newspaper Spokanites made a hobby of criticizing became (except for its obvious handicap in covering local politics) a pretty good paper. In the years before Cowles died, he had a newsroom with writers like Jim Defede, Jess Walter, Bill Morlin, Karen Dorn Steele, all of whom had national reputations in their fields. The staff Cowles had brought together was in competition in 1992, against the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times, for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Ruby Ridge shootout.

In 1987 Bill Cowles became one of four co-chairs of Momentum, the post-Expo community-wide effort to reconfigure Spokane’s lagging economy. After Cowles died, his wife recalled that he had said, when the pressure was on him to be one of the leaders of the Momentum effort, “I’m just one person. I can’t get all the things done.” It turned out to be a grueling and frustrating effort that wore down many who were involved.

Cowles almost had to be involved. For him to beg off any all-community effort would have suggested to many others that the effort was not worth their full time, either. Bill Cowles was a conscientious man, and he was trapped by his position. In a very real way, he was a public servant assigned, as few people are, a set of tasks and pressured to perform. Though he had a personal worth of tens of millions of dollars and could easily have been cruising the Bahamas, he spent the bulk of his days listening to the drone of civic meetings.

Virtually every new charity, cause or campaign went first to Cowles. He was, at various times, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Spokane Centennial Committee, chairman of the Spokane Symphony fund drive, president of United Crusade, and on the boards of Gonzaga and Washington State University. He was active in the Boy Scouts throughout his life and won its highest national award. Beyond Spokane he was chair of the Washington Round Table, the prestigious gathering of state business executives. He sat on the boards of Yale University, the Associated Press, and a half-dozen other professional organizations.

This dedication, noticed by thousands of people who dealt with Cowles, explains something about Spokane’s political divisions at the end of the 20th century. Fierce attacks against the Cowleses would be matched by defenders who were just as adamant. Cowles’s former minister, Rev. Richard Coombs, emeritus dean of Saint John’s Cathedral, wrote to the Spokesman-Review: “I have . . . known personally. . . every member of the Cowles ‘dynasty’ for four generations. Today, I am greatly distressed as I read and listen to what is being written and spoken about them, and further, what is imagined but not verbalized. . . . Most, perhaps all, is untrue, and comes from those who neither know nor understand.” Spokane, Coombs thought, owed “thanks to the Cowles family for all the leadership, gifts and distinction they have given our city over the past 100 years.”

Many people grew accustomed to thinking of the Cowleses’s money and connections as a kind of community repository that could always be drawn upon in a fix. Defenses of the Cowleses often begin, “Yeah, but they sure came in handy when. . . . ” Expo-era mayor David Rodgers recalled that he felt better that, at many tense meetings leading up to Expo, Washington Water Power president Kinsey Robinson and Bill Hyde, representing the Cowleses, were present. “They usually sat in the room and didn’t say much, but just their presence was reassuring.” Banker and long-time civic activist Ric Odegaard offered the Centennial Trail as something many people worked on, but, “It wouldn’t be here except for the Cowleses.”

Yet, those who were suspicious of the Cowles could hardly be blamed. Here was a powerful family, in legend and in fact, which very few people knew much about. If Cowles’ power was exaggerated or its uses distorted, who was to blame for that? One could not learn otherwise by reading the newspaper. The Cowleses’s fortunes were privately held, so they were not open to scrutiny the way most giant corporations are. There was a Cheney Cowles Museum, but no Cowles papers in it.

Many people, especially those with long experience in Spokane affairs, understood and approved of the Cowleses’s role in Spokane politics. But many others could not help but be suspicious. For various reasons, the latter group was growing in the 1990s.

Next-Part 8: “Naysayers” and Government Structure

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