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Originally published Monday, January 7, 2013 at 10:44 PM

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'Last of old-time newsmen' Shelby Scates dies

Shelby Scates, a longtime reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, died Thursday from complications of dementia. He was 81.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter and columnist Shelby Scates spent 35 years writing about politics without becoming a cynic.

"It is the pursuit of ideals, not wages or prestige, that kept most reporters of my generation on their beats and at their desks," he wrote in his 2000 memoir.

Without ideals, he continued, "the reporter is as hapless and ineffective as a combat infantryman without a rifle."

Mr. Scates, a titan of Washington state political reporting, died Thursday (Jan. 3) in Seattle from complications of dementia. He was 81.

He covered wars and presidential campaigns. His investigative reporting ended more than one political career. He wrote three books in addition to his memoir. He skied, sailed and climbed mountains.

And he never got comfortable with computers.

"He was the last of the old-time newsmen," said Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden, a former P-I colleague. She said she saw Mr. Scates about a year ago and he told her with some pride that he still was writing on a manual typewriter.

John de Yonge, a former P-I editorial-page editor, said that when the newspaper began using computers, Mr. Scates would come to work early, peck out his column on his typewriter, pencil-edit it — then painstakingly retype it on the computer.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times recruited Mr. Scates, de Yonge said, but "he told me, 'There's not enough powder snow out there to keep me interested.' "

Former Washington Gov. and U.S. Sen. Dan Evans climbed mountains with Mr. Scates, starting with Mount St. Helens in its pre-eruption days.

But as a journalist Mr. Scates never let him off easy, Evans said. "I would call him a friend — a pretty good friend — but that didn't stop him from sticking the needle in on occasion. ... He didn't let things go. He would dig and find out what was really going on."

Mr. Scates was born in Obion County, Tenn., in 1931, one of 10 siblings. In his late teens he headed west, hitchhiking and working odd jobs, and wound up in Seattle.

He studied history and philosophy at the University of Washington, working as a merchant seaman to help pay his way. He graduated in 1954, then spent two years in the Army.

Mr. Scates reported for International News Service, United Press International, The Associated Press and the weekly Seattle Argus before joining the P-I. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University — one of journalism's top honors — in 1962-63.

He met Seattle attorney Joan Hansen, his companion of 41 years, in 1968, when she was volunteering on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and he was covering it. They led an adventurous life together, she said: "We climbed Mount Rainier. We sailed around Vancouver Island three times."

In covering politics, Mr. Scates distinguished himself by seeking out "the why, and not so much the what," de Yonge said. And he didn't stop reporting when he became a columnist, the former editor added.

One of his biggest scoops came in 1979 when a former legislator who had disappeared for 18 months in the face of federal extortion and tax-fraud charges agreed to meet Mr. Scates at a British Columbia airstrip and confess his crimes. Mr. Scates then shepherded the miscreant across the border and accompanied him when he turned himself in to surprised authorities in Seattle.

Mr. Scates wrote well, former Seattle P-I and Seattle Times journalist Casey Corr wrote in 2000, and told stories even better:

"His West Tennessee accent and cackling laugh made even the most routine legislative hearing a three-act tale of fools and knaves. Scates always seemed to have golden sources who revealed the private deal or personality tiff that drove a public outcome."

In addition to his memoir, Mr. Scates authored a biography of Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson, a history of Seattle-First National Bank, and a volume on one of the architects of the downfall of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

In addition to Hansen, survivors include two daughters, Jane Scates Meininger, of Portland, and Margaret Scates, of South Korea; and two granddaughters.

A celebration of his life is not yet scheduled, Hansen said.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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