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Originally published June 29, 2012 at 8:45 PM | Page modified June 30, 2012 at 4:18 PM

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Opera supporter Marion McCaw Garrison dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A great lady has passed away. MORE
@Eric the Red Please don't belittle her. This was a wonderful lady who supported... MORE
Seattle is a better place because of our lovely opera house and we have her to thank... MORE

Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison loved opera.

"She almost never missed a performance in these 29 years I have been here," said Seattle Opera's general director Speight Jenkins.

Mrs. Garrison died Tuesday in Seattle of what family members described as a brief illness. She was 95.

A longtime supporter of the arts, Mrs. Garrison served on the boards of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Opera, ACT Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Corporate Council for the Arts.

Seattle Opera's home at Seattle Center, which opened in 2003 — Marion Oliver McCaw Hall — is named after her. (Mrs. McCaw's maiden name was Oliver, her first husband's name was McCaw and her last husband was Bob Garrison.)

Born in 1917 in Centralia, Mrs. Garrison graduated from the University of Washington business school in 1939, one of the college's first female accounting graduates. With the help of her father, William Hugh Oliver, she bought 40 acres near Olympia and developed it into the waterfront subdivision Edgewater Beach.

"She always loved travel and the water and boats," said her son, wireless pioneer Craig McCaw. "She grew up around the water."

She also had a knack for business. She married John Elroy McCaw, from Aberdeen, who founded Centralia's first radio station, KELA, and owned the Lewis and Clark Hotel.

When her husband went to war, she handled the family business. Marion and John McCaw had four sons — Bruce, Craig, John and Keith — to whom they passed on their business acumen.

"We got the opportunity to be exposed to what she did," said Craig McCaw. "It was really seamlessly around us. The books were not sequestered in some office."

The family moved to Seattle in 1953. In 1969, John McCaw died suddenly. Facing lawsuits claiming all but $20,000 of his $12 million estate, Mrs. Garrison spent years resolving the company's finances, enlisting the help of attorney William H. Gates Sr.

She saved the business, and her sons took the helm, creating McCaw Cablevision & Cellular Communications. She remained as chairman emeritus.

In 1994, the family sold the company to AT&T for $11.5 billion.

In 1971, Mrs. Garrison married real-estate leader John L. Scott, who died in 1986. She subsequently married Seattle attorney DeWitt Williams, who died in 1995, and later, Bob Garrison, a childhood neighbor from Centralia, who died in 2006.

Mrs. Garrison was a founding member of the Seattle Opera board of trustees and a former board member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. When her sons donated $5 million each toward building a new hall in the shell of the old Opera House, they thought it only appropriate to name it for her.

"She introduced them all to opera," Jenkins said. "She loved the art form."

Seattle Opera regularly sent a singer for her birthday parties.

In addition to music, Mrs. Garrison loved Chinese culture and art and liked to play mah-jongg.

Craig McCaw recalled his mother as a dignified, serene person with "the demeanor of Queen Elizabeth" but with an "impish" sense of humor lurking in the background.

"People often didn't realize she had this funny sense of humor. She'd slip it in when people least expected it."

Mrs. Garrison is survived by her sister, Janice Burt; her three sons Bruce, Craig and John (Keith died in 2002); 15 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A memorial celebration will be held in late summer or early fall. The family requests no flowers.

Contributions may be made to Seattle Opera or other local arts and musical organizations or charities.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com


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