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Originally published October 2, 2013 at 7:48 PM | Page modified October 2, 2013 at 8:07 PM

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City’s ‘best-kept secret’ is out

The Women’s University Club of Seattle is marking its 100th year with a coffee-table book recapping its first century.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Book explores club’s first century

A 112-page coffee-table book, “The First 100 Years: Women’s University Club of Seattle, 1914-2014,” published by the club, is available to the general public for under $40 at several area bookstores. Call the club for details: 206-623-0402. For other information about the club, see womensuniversityclub.com.

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It’s way too late to meet Dr. Mabel Seagrave, which is too bad. Not only did she give informative medical lectures, she did dynamite impressions of President Theodore Roosevelt and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.

It’s also too late to watch a determined group of Seattle women making a half-million bandages a month for the Red Cross during World War II.

And yes, we’ve missed the visits of John Philip Sousa, Audrey Hepburn, James Beard, playwright Thornton Wilder, cookbook author Irma Rombauer and — perhaps the favorite — first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

But even though those moments have passed, it’s not too late to understand why they’re part of Seattle history. They all involve the Women’s University Club of Seattle, marking its 100th year by honoring its past while charting its future.

In addition to offering an oasis of sisterhood in the midst of a bustling downtown, the club works to remain vital and relevant, granting scholarships to outstanding high-schoolers and to women headed back to school, hosting fundraisers for school music programs and providing volunteers for community causes.

Kindly disregard the 1949 Seattle Times headline that proclaimed that the club was “growing old” with charm and dignity. At that point, the club was still in its youth.

Suzy Lantz, club president today, said the group has evolved with the times, but, “True to its founders’ vision [it] remains a learning center above all.”

A glance at its current catalog makes her point: Sessions are offered on topics from personal finance to ballroom dancing, conversational Spanish to creative writing. The club brings in speakers from businesses, the arts, education and other fields.

Celebration of the club’s centennial year started last spring and will continue into next year.

On Wednesday, club members got a look at a product three years in the making, a 112-page, illustrated coffee-table book recapping the club’s first century.

The project involved three dozen members, who split into 10 teams — each team taking on a decade.

Curious minds welcome

It was Feb. 10, 1914 — five months before the Smith Tower opened and a couple of years before William Boeing incorporated his aircraft company — when 14 college-educated women with a passion for continued learning filed the paperwork in Olympia to create the club.

By the time of its first annual meeting that May, the club had 276 charter members, with a $15 initiation fee and $12 annual dues. (Current entrance fee for members 40 and over is $400, plus $119 a month in dues and fees. Lower rates are offered for younger members and nonresidents.)

Some of the club’s founders were professionals with careers outside the home. Others were wives of prominent men, who after raising children had time on their hands and a desire to use it constructively, with other women.

Today the club has about 900 members representing 400 colleges.

In recent years, to attract a younger and more diverse membership, the club set aside its requirement for members to hold four-year degrees. A curious mind, Lantz said, is a better prerequisite for membership than a framed diploma.

Chances are you’ve seen the Women’s University Club’s distinctive green awning along Sixth Avenue just north of Spring Street, marking a three-story brick building.

If you didn’t know what’s inside, you’re not alone. Lantz calls it “the best-kept secret in town,” a distinction the club would like to shed.

Many locals, Lantz said, have the mistaken impression the club is affiliated with the University of Washington. But the club has always been a mix. The 14 women who started it were graduates of 14 different colleges and universities.

The club has always attracted women interested in public service.

Its first president, Edith Backus, a graduate of Columbia University and the wife of a real-estate developer, played a leading role in the founding of Seattle Day Nursery, which provided child care for young mothers in the workforce.

Dr. Seagrave, another early member, traveled to France on a medical mission in World War I and was put in charge of a hospital, staffed entirely by women, caring for 10,000 patients. Back at home, her humorous impressions of powerful leaders were part of “Stunt night,” a monthly night of levity at the club.

Seattle’s first (and still only) female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes, was a member of the club, and spoke in the 1930s about the need for women in elective office to be “civic housekeepers.”

Historic landmark

When the club was just 6 years old, and outgrowing its first home, word came that the building it leased on Fifth Avenue — and every other structure on the block —- was to be razed to make way for the Olympic Hotel.

Determined to have stronger control over its own destiny, the club raised enough money to build its own building in 1922. That building, which the club still occupies, has been designated a local and national historic landmark.

The 1939 visit by Eleanor Roosevelt, during her husband’s second term as president, was such a high-profile occasion for the club that members will re-create it in January, with an actress standing in for the first lady.

According to a Seattle Times article, Roosevelt told club members that in the White House, her reading had shifted from fiction to the letters from the public. “It is real life, it is real drama, real tragedy, real comedy or real success,” she said. “It is the greatest picture of the United States.”

Creating a book for the centennial started in 2010 as a suggestion from member Karen Lane, who became the book’s editor-in-chief.

The sheer volume of documents, clippings, minutes and other records kept by the club was both a boon and a challenge to the volunteer researchers, Lane said. “The hardest part was deciding what to leave out,” she said.

Newspaper clippings posed a challenge: Many had been stuck in scrapbooks, without the dates or the name of the publication noted.

The book tells of club priorities shifting over time. In its most recent decade, the club strengthened its commitment to public service.

Members contributed more than $20,000 toward Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005. They have also helped out as guest chefs at FareStart, a restaurant and cooking school in Seattle that helps the homeless.

Membership to the club is by invitation, or by application with two sponsoring members. Lantz said newcomers can be introduced to potential sponsors by contacting the club.

Like many civic organizations, the club has seen its numbers dip in recent decades, as younger generations turn to other outlets, activities and ways to connect with one another. Membership is down more than 40 percent from its peak at about 1,600 in the 1980s.

As more occupations and opportunities have opened to women over the years, the need for women’s’ clubs as sources of networking may not be the same as it once was. But Lantz said the club’s activities and resources still serve vital roles.

Boosting membership is a priority, Lantz said, but one she thinks the club can handle, “compared to its first 30 years, when the Women’s University Club weathered two World Wars and one Depression.”

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2222

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