Obituary: Seattle attorney who defended the downtrodden dies at 95
Ken MacDonald took on discrimination and represented clients targeted by McCarthy-era witch hunts, has died at 95. He once headed the Washington State Board Against Discrimination and helped force the city to allow the African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson to appear at Civic Auditorium.
Seattle Times staff reporter
If Seattle attorney Ken MacDonald had a motto, it was "go like hell."
He said it to fire up other lawyers; he repeated it to his family; and he took the words to heart himself, building a career fighting the powerful — and helping to shape the city in the process.
MacDonald died Monday at age 95, after a short illness. Though an East Coaster by birth, he leaves a legacy here that stretches back to the 1950s, when he had the gumption to take on clients that other lawyers were afraid to — targets of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts.
"When he started out, he was kind of the radical fringe," said Timothy K. Ford, now a partner in the firm Mr. MacDonald helped found, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless. "At that time, the whole legal system was a very conservative force. It's changed enormously."
Raised in Quincy, Mass., Mr. MacDonald graduated from Dartmouth College in 1939 and married his wife, Elinor, a year later.
Mr. MacDonald was an isolationist at the start of World War II, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed that. He got a Harvard law degree in 1942 and promptly enlisted in the Army. Assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, he went through a grueling training program in the mountains of Colorado, learning to climb and rapel and ski long and hard, with a rucksack on his back. His military service would become a defining experience, something he brought up often, sometimes moved to tears.
Mr. MacDonald used to recall being in the mountains of Italy, walking across a field with two other men. An explosion killed the two; he was wounded and received a Bronze Star.
"You go on a mountain and all the best people die," his daughter Lindsay MacDonald said. "I think you can see how you'd come back with a conviction about what democracy meant, and what freedom meant."
After the war, Mr. MacDonald and Elinor settled in Boston, where he worked for a big white-shoe law firm. Restless, he went West in 1946, looking for a new home. He didn't like Portland, his son, former state Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald, said. He thought Tacoma didn't seem to have enough promise. He settled on Seattle, enamored of the water and the geography and the city life, which at that time was pretty rough-and-tumble.
"Dad came to what he saw as a young city with all this vibrancy," Lindsay MacDonald explained. "It wasn't really rigidly stratified like where he came from. He saw an opportunity to have an impact that would be game-changing for the city." In a legal community that was just beginning to establish itself, "he was on the ground floor with his idealism," she said.
Mr. MacDonald worked several years for a title company, but in 1952, he and two other Seattle newcomers — Fran Hoague and Alec Bayless — founded the firm. "Streetfront lawyers," they called themselves; Mr. MacDonald said their practice back then was "hardscrabble."
The firm quickly established itself as a defender of the downtrodden. They took on fair-housing cases; they represented victims of discrimination, and most famously, Mr. MacDonald helped clients hauled before tribunals such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, set on hunting down Communists.
In one hearing, Mr. MacDonald's client calmly knitted while being interrogated, infuriating the committee. The Seattle Weekly later recounted this exchange:
"I can tell by the look in his eye, Mr. Chairman, that the witness' attorney is in contempt of this committee," one committee member said.
"(T)hen you'd better call the sheriff and have me hauled out of here," Mr. MacDonald responded, unfazed.
The chairman pressed him, but Mr. MacDonald did not back down.
"The son of a bitch blinked," he would later recall of the chairman.
Mr. MacDonald may have wound up on the right side of history, but the experience was not always easy on the family. Strangers would sometimes call their home: "Commie lover," they would practically spit.
Mr. MacDonald also represented University of Washington employees who refused to sign a loyalty oath and helped force the city to allow the African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson to appear at Seattle's Civic Auditorium. He headed the Washington State Board Against Discrimination, and was involved from the beginning with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, among other activities, most of which had a left-leaning bent.
"He had a huge social conscience," law partner Mel Crawford said. "I do not know of him being motivated by personal gain."
Today, the firm maintains some of the early ideals, representing clients in death-penalty cases and suing the police in misconduct cases.
"He set the tone here for people to take these kinds of cases," said Kay Frank, a lawyer at the firm.
While he could be aggressive in the courtroom, he was known as friendly and warm, always asking after people's families and finding connections. Everywhere he went, he ran into someone he knew.
"One of the things he always said was 'we're very fortunate,' " Frank recalled. " 'We should be very grateful.' "
In addition to Douglas MacDonald, of Seattle, and Lindsay MacDonald of Bellingham, he is survived by son Garth MacDonald of Vermont, daughter Leslie MacDonald of Lopez Island, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Elinor MacDonald died in 2007.
Donations in his name can be made to the ACLU Foundation of Washington. A service is being planned for January.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org