TO LOOK AT the late writer/activist/historian Walt Crowley—pint-sized, brainy, prickly, and opinionated—you wouldn’t think he was one of history’s great lovers. Marie McCaffrey, his wife, knew better.
Their four-decade romance rekindled Seattle’s own romance with its past. It unfolded in the swirl, sometimes at the center, of great events, both local and national events. And it began, though Walt didn’t know it at the time, at one such event, a 1970 antiwar demonstration at UW. Anger surged over Cambodia and Kent State, and the crowd seemed on the verge of rioting. Suddenly a skinny guy with long hair and wire rims stood up. Though she’d never met him, McCaffrey recognized Walt Crowley, star alumnus of her high school (Nathan Hale), now an editor/cartoonist for the underground paper The Helix. “He made a speech, said something funny, and drew the violence out of the crowd. I thought, What an amazing guy! I think I fell in love with him right there.”
They met three years later, when he’d cut his hair and become a policy whiz kid at City Hall and she was waiting A year-long tango of mutual infatuation and separation ensued: He thought monogamy wasn’t natural, so she split for Alaska to run a bakery. She came back, he got over it, and they cleaved together, inseparably, for the next 36 years.
They formed a natural team: McCaffrey, its versatile editor, organizer, and graphic designer, kept the trains running and Walt’s mercurial energy grounded. They worked on political campaigns and preservation crusades, pulled City Hall strings for good causes and wayward bohemians, brought outsider art and UFO culture onto gallery walls, started an ad agency for labor unions and a literary quarterly for gonzo mossbacks, and rescued the historic Blue Moon Tavern—twice.
When an idea seized them, they just did it. They were two of many news junkies outraged when Whitewater Special Prosecutor Ken Starr clapped Bill and Clinton’s old real estate partner Susan MacDougal in jail for not turning against them. But they were the only ones to hop a plane to Little Rock and spend six months as her volunteer media and general support team.
Walt, whose total recall made him a one-man civic memory bank, dreamed of creating an encyclopedia of Seattle history. “Let’s do it online,” said Marie—a novel notion then, in 1997, than it would be today. The result, HistoryLink.org, is now indispensible—an institution in itself, and a model for similar projects across the country.
Walt’s own history was cut short. An inveterate smoker, he was diagnosed with throat cancer at 58. Radiation and chemotherapy failed, and in February 2007 he returned to Group Health to have his larynx removed. The night before, he and Marie hosted one last rollicking, noisy party. To a house packed with friends, and to her surprise, he announced “my last words in my natural voice…. I love you, Marie.”
He died seven months later, but his memory lives on in more ways than one. “Even now,” says Marie, “mostly when I’m alone, I feel like Walt’s around.”