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March 16, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Former Gov. Booth Gardner has died at 76


Former Gov. Booth Gardner in 2011. (Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Gov. Booth Gardner, Washington state’s 19th governor, has died from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 76.

Gov. Gardner, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, died late Friday at his Tacoma home. He served two terms as governor of Washington, from 1985 to 1993.

Arrangements for a public memorial service will be announced shortly.

“We’re very sad to lose my father, who had been struggling with a difficult disease for many years, but we are relieved to know that he’s at rest now and his fight is done,” Gov. Gardner’s daughter, Gail Gant, said in a news release.

“I learned so much from Booth because he was a man that led by example,” Sen. Patty Murray said after learning of Gov. Gardner’s death. “He demonstrated that governing is about the people you serve – and serve with – by learning everyone’s name, what issues they cared deeply about, and by taking the time to work with anyone that shared his desire to make Washington state a better place to live. Booth also showed that compromise and compassion were not competing ideals by being pragmatic when he needed be, but by always working to protect the needs of the most vulnerable.”

Under Gov. Gardner’s tenure, with an economy that was largely booming, the state took notable steps on education and the environment and on expanding social and health services.

The state started instituting requirements for students to pass standardized tests before graduating from high school, raised state university faculties’salaries, enacted the Growth Management Act, started the Basic Health Plan and began First Steps, which helps low-income pregnant women get health and social services.

Gov. Gardner also had an astute eye for talent, assembling a cabinet whose members — including former Gov. Chris Gregoire — have gone on to further prominence.

“Gov. Gardner was a progressive visionary ahead of his time, said Gregoire. “His leadership helped give us environmental and land-use laws that shaped the successful Washington of today.”

“He brought people together and he had a vision,” said John C. Hughes, author of the book “Booth Who?,” a biography of the former governor that is part of the Office of the Secretary of State’s project documenting Washington’s history makers.

For Gov. Gardner, “the importance of educaton was paramount — investing in programs that helped young people escape poverty and drugs,” Hughes said. And he had “just his sunny optimism and idealism. He had this bully pulpit that investing in people was crucial and would pay real dividends.”

In recent years, Gov. Gardner was perhaps best known for championing an initiative allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their own deaths. Voters passed that measure by a wide margin in 2008.

Throughout his life, Gov. Gardner had a likability that served him well, from his days as a business leader to those serving as the first Pierce County executive, from the statehouse in Olympia to working as a U.S. deputy trade representative in Geneva.

The late David Olson, former professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington, once said of Gov. Gardner, “He had his opponents but I don’t know that he had enemies.”

Born in Tacoma, William Booth Gardner was 4 when his parents divorced. Young Booth spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between his parents, Evelyn Booth Gardner Clapp, a socialite, and Bryson “Brick” Gardner, a sales manager for a car dealership whom news stories described as a free spirit with an alcohol problem.

His father remarried, as did his mother. She married Norton Clapp, whose family members were substantial investors in Weyerhaeuser Corp., and who ventually became president of Weyerhaeuser. He also became Gov. Gardner’s stepfather.

When Gov. Gardner was 14, his mother and sister died in a plane crash in California.

After his father moved to Hawaii, Gov. Gardner attended a boarding school in Vermont, then finished high school at Lakeside Academy. While attending the University of Washington, he didn’t fit in at the fraternity he joined and moved into his aunt’s house.

His aunt pushed him to find a part-time job with the city’s parks department and it was there that Gardner had an epiphany, coaching and tutoring kids at parks and recreation centers in the Central Area.

“I realized I could make a difference in people’s lives,” he is quoted as saying in “Booth Who?” At the UW, he met his first wife, Jean Forstrom, who encouraged him to run for student body vice president. They married four years later and had two children: Douglas and Gail.

Gardner earned an MBA from Harvard, and at 25, inherited his mother’s fortune. Though he still penny pinched in his day-to-day life, he contributed money to everything from establishing the Central Area Youth Association to creating Seattle Treatment Center, an alcohol detoxification program. And he invested money in businesses including the Alpental ski resort, an oil-recycling business and apple orchards. He became associate director of the University of Puget Sound School of Business Adminsitration and Economics.

And he began to think about entering politics.

His entrée into politics began in 1970 when he won a Pierce County seat in the state Senate against Republican incumbent Larry Faulk. He wasn’t a standout legislator, according to news accounts at the time.

When his stepfather asked him to take over running the family’s corporate empire, he agreed, managing for seven years Laird Norton Co., which included building-supply, real estate and property-management operations. He also succeeded Clapp in serving on the boards of major coporations including Weyerhaeuser.

The pull of politics drew him back in and he won the 1981 election for Pierce County executive.

He distinguished himself as county executive, erasing a $4.7 million deficit by freezing top salaries, cutting back on contributions to some nonprofit groups and eliminating some jobs. He also cleaned up the reputation of the then-scandal-plagued government.

In 1984, he decided to run for governor, despite a lack of statewide name recognition that prompted his campaign staff to come up with the slogan: “Booth Who?” It wasn’t a question statewide voters asked for long, as he defeated incumbent Gov. John Spellman.

Gov. Gardner’s family requests that memorial donations be made to the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, 400 Mercer St., No. 504, Seattle, WA, 98109.

To read the full story, click here.

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