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Monday, March 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At age 99, parking-lot mogul reminisces

Seattle Times staff reporter

There was a time not long ago when most everyone in Seattle had a strong opinion about parking-lot mogul and maverick lawyer Josef "Joe" Diamond.

Some comments were flattering. Others — like those from people who had returned to a parked car only to discover a 50-gallon barrel attached to it — well, not so much.

Hard-driving and hard-working, Diamond played hardball in a town known to favor softball. And he became a huge success at it, both in the business and legal worlds.

Today is Diamond's 99th birthday. To acknowledge the release of the authorized biography "Joe Diamond: Time in the Life of a Seattle Icon" by John Pierre, we sat down with Diamond to reminisce.

"He has mastered the art of forgetting what he does not want to remember," cautioned his wife, Muriel Bach Diamond.

We figure that's his right for reaching 99.

Q: Your biographer says you have had a motto for many years: "Wait to worry." What did this mean?

Josef "Joe" Diamond


A Seattle icon turns 99 today

Birth: Born March 6, 1907, to Russian immigrant parents in Los Angeles; moved to Seattle as a toddler.

Education: Member of Garfield High School's first graduating class of 1924; graduated from University of Washington School of Law in 1931.

Diamond Parking: Amid post-World War II labor shortage, devised slotted coin box for unattended lots, becoming known as "father of the self-serve parking lot" through family business that grew to 1,000 garages and lots in nine Western states.

Gov-Mart: Started members-only discount store that became model for Costco.

Budget Rent A Car: Became investor in Washington and Oregon franchise that offered free parking at any Diamond lot, including those in downtown Seattle.

Law practice: Argued reverse-discrimination case of Marco DeFunis before U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, challenging UW Law School's acceptance of minority applicants over white applicants with higher grades; case lay foundation for precedent-setting Bakke decision.

Today: Lives with his wife, Muriel Bach Diamond, in condominium on Queen Anne Hill.

Words of wisdom: "You should approach most people thinking they have done the right thing."

Source: "Joe Diamond: Times in the Life of a Seattle Icon" by John Pierre

A: I've been practicing law since, what, '31. People would come to see me and most of the time they were upset about something. It wasn't doing them any good to worry, so I would try to take the worry off their shoulders: "Let me worry about it. You forget about it. We'll get something done one way or another. If I can't, then you can't either."

Q: You went to your office daily until very recently, right?

A: I worked every day, all day, until about a year now when I've been laid up, which I've been very unhappy about. I want to get straightened out. I want to go back to work.

Q: You are considered the father of the self-service parking lot. How did you come up with the idea of the coin-slot box for unattended lots?

A: It was just after the war and I was having trouble getting employees, so I decided we would use a mechanical means to track who paid for parking. The only thing I could find was a little box that had postcards in it. Mostly they were in parks overlooking nice views, and you'd put 10 cents in the slot and pull out a thick card that had a picture of what you were looking at.

I made it so you would pull out thick parking tickets. That way, I didn't have to have a man at every location and could run them that way.

Q: Most people in Seattle know you from Diamond Parking, but you were also a successful lawyer. How did you get your first job after law school?

A: It was the Depression era and there weren't any jobs available. Well, I got turned down at every law office in Seattle. I contacted them all. I'd take the elevator to the top floor of a building, walk down the stairs and stop in at every law office there.

Finally, I decided I'd like to get a job with Caldwell and Lycette. Hugh Caldwell had been mayor of Seattle and city attorney. He was very accomplished, an excellent lawyer. So I went in to see him and he said he didn't need anybody.

I continued looking and got nowhere, so I went back to see him and said, "Well, Mr. Caldwell, I know you don't need anybody, but I want to learn how to practice law and I'd like to learn from your office. I don't need to be paid anything. I just want to see what you do and how you do it."

He said, "We don't have any room for you."

So I said, "I'll just go in the library and hang my hat up, and let me do it for 30 days. And after 30 days, you won't have to fire me. I'll leave."

So he said, "If you want to hang your hat in the library, help yourself."

So I did that for 30 days and the time was up and I had to leave. Well, he didn't want me to leave then. He asked me how much he was paying me. I told him I wasn't getting any money, and he says, "Well, you're getting $100 a month now," which was pretty good pay at that time. "I'll get you an office so you don't have to sit in the library."

So he put me to work.

Q: You like talking about your legal career, don't you?

A: Practicing law is what I enjoyed most, and I think I was quite good at it. Making money in the law business was not my first incentive. It was to handle things for people, make them happy, win, get a good result, which I did. I settled most of my cases. Instead of going to trial, we'd compromise — give a little bit, and take a little more.

Q: People who know you only from Diamond Parking would say Joe Diamond was someone who didn't compromise. Did you approach business a different way?

A: I always tried to get along with people, not to quarrel or fight with them. When I started out, we had the problem of how do we collect the rent [for parking]. You can't always collect the money in advance. Early on, I started out by locking a car to a 50-gallon drum that we had at every lot.

Q: That's not a way to make people happy.

A: That's right. That's right. But if you are above board and honest about it, no one can object to my telling them if you don't pay for parking and you don't intend to pay for it, I'm going to hold your car.

We started out chaining the barrel to a car, and that was kind of rough. Then I got to the point where I'd disconnect the battery so the car wouldn't start. Then people would blame me for breaking their car's mechanical system. So I quit doing that, too.

Q: A colleague has a name for the barrel and chain that you used at your lots: "Diamond bracelets."

A: (Laughs.) I've never heard that. People were not very happy with them, but if people paid their bills, we would never put a barrel on their car. And if the barrel was on, we would immediately remove it once they paid their bill.

For a while, we would have the cars towed someplace else, and they would have to pay to get their cars, and they wouldn't even know where it was. But that caused a lot of problems. And we didn't like to cause problems with people.

Q: I think people got mad because they actually paid, but for whatever reason, you would say there was no money in the slot.

A: If they told us they paid, we'd accept their word. We'd take their name down and their license number to make sure that next time they were in there that they paid. ... And there were occasions when you might have an attendant who would steal the money, or who did not keep proper track and blame the nonpayment on the wrong automobile. But most people try to be honest and they're fair, and I agreed when they tried to do that. I leaned over backwards not to impound them, not to call them a thief unless I'm darn sure they are. ...

Sometimes we got the wrong car. We all make mistakes, and that happened once in a while. But if we made a mistake like that, I'd tell them to release the car. I'd rather not have a dollar than to have an enemy.

Q: What does it take to run a successful business?

A: First of all, you have to like what you're doing. If you don't like what you're doing, you're not going to do a good job, you're not going to be successful, you aren't going to be happy with it. I enjoyed what I was doing. I'd take problems and solve them, and I enjoyed taking worries away for people.

Q: What words of wisdom can you impart upon leaders in the city on how to keep Seattle a nice place to live?

A: I think our politicians and our workers, they've got to look not at the amount of money they make. They've got to look at whether the decisions they make are right or wrong, are they helpful to people and making things better for them.

Q: If you could go back and do one or two things differently, what would they be?

A: No, I like my life. I like what I did. I'm happy with it. I'm happy with my relatives, mother and dad and the family. The work I got into I enjoyed. I had three good wives — excellent.

I couldn't improve on that. And I wouldn't want to live any place other than Seattle.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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