The recent memorial service at the Arboretum for Alec M. Fisken, who died March 28, drew an eclectic crowd of those who knew him or were affected by him in positive ways — as I was.
Fisken was a unique combination of banker, reformer, fiscal conservative, author, and humanitarian. He was a most useful citizen who tried, in his lifetime, to make things better for people. At the memorial there were old school chums, waterfront friends, banking associates, Seattle city coworkers, fellow academics and, of course, his friends and colleagues from the late, great Seattle Sun newspaper, me included.
He was not an easy man to define. Here was The Stranger’s awkward attempt to capsulize him in 1999, when he sought a Seattle City Council seat:
“Alec Fisken is from a different world than you and I.
“Fisken is a fifth-generation Seattleite, a downtown-business-connected, wealthy, older white guy. He’s got deep ties to the oldest families in town, went to Yale and Harvard, and ran a business-publishing company for the last 10 years.” In the end, the article finally granted a measure of respect: “But Fisken is the neighbor you’d want to trust with your extra set of house keys.” And the paper ended up endorsing Fisken.
But flash back to 1974. Fisken, his Yale degree in hand, was back in Seattle and the established order was in crisis. The Vietnam War was not quite over, though the Kissinger-crafted ending is in sight. Fisken was just 26, and became involved with community activists who wanted to create a better media for the “people.”
I was a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time. I was curious about this group, not necessarily for a story, but out of my own experiences with alternative newspapers in California.
Fisken and I met for the first time at that gathering of activists seeking to establish a new alternative newspaper to serve the Capitol Hill, U District, and Central District. At that meeting, the group decided that nobody was to be more equal than anybody. A form of anarchy prevailed. Everybody would get to have their own page to design and decide what was printed on it. The results proved to be rather chaotic, but it was a beginning.
I was sitting in the room, watching, listening. I couldn’t help the amused smile that kept creeping over my face as arguments flared about who would do what and nobody would be boss of anybody. I turned and saw Alec looking in my direction. I nodded and he gave a very slight nod back.
Oddly, I was drawn to this “people’s” news effort. Everyone was so eager to make it work and no one was more earnest than Fisken, who would end up taking the newspaper and running with it. We were all wanting to fix the world then.
Alec and I met days later. Somehow, he managed to talk me into quitting a secure, union job at the P-I to become the editor of the Seattle Sun. Things were taking shape in Fisken’s mind.
Alec, the banking whiz, had, with lawyerly advice, put together a stock prospectus that was approved by the state Securities Division on one condition – The Sun must guarantee that if people invest in this stock, they will never, ever see a dime of their money again. Investors would have to satisfy themselves with “intangible” returns, much like donating to KUOW.
Meanwhile, David Brewster and Darrell Oldham had created a business plan and funding to launch the Seattle Weekly, drawing some of the city’s deep pockets into his efforts. Not to assume that any of that money would have flowed to the Sun, which had a rather different content profile. Seattle Weekly did turn out to be a good thing for Seattle and I wrote for it myself on occasion.
Former Seattle City Councilperson Nick Licata often shows up in archives as the “founder” of the Seattle Sun. Not to detract from Nick’s early organizing efforts, but Fisken was the founder of the new tabloid that finally hit the streets in late 1974 and survived for seven years, partly due to his rabbit-from-the-hat financial wizardry.
Feedback was fast coming, some negative, but mostly positive. We were hard at work in the little house on 12th Avenue. Alec was already sweating over the bills as the $50,000 in investor money was almost gone before the first edition rolled off the presses.
Some have referred to Alec as a “stoic,” a philosophy that calls on one to focus on what can be done and stop fretting over the impossible. I saw that in Alec. It was, perhaps, what enabled him to be calm amid the storm, which often was when bills had to be paid.
Alec’s support of the editorial staff was absolute. He often took complaint calls that he never passed on to us, unless there was a matter of serious error.
After some months of trying to stretch income with outflow while supporting a family, I had to move on. But the Sun kept drawing on a pool of terrific editors and writers, enough to last years longer than your average alternative weekly. Alec kept the Sun alive through some kind of financial sorcery. As it passed into history, the Seattle Sun was to be remembered fondly by its readers.
Alec eventually did move on. His banking expertise was key in his various Seattle city jobs, including City Light, and his assistance to small municipalities in packaging bond issues. His most visible role came as a Port of Seattle commissioner, where he was a thorn in the side of the Port establishment.
For some observers, the Port Commission had too-long functioned as a rubber stamp for management. It is, after all, a poorly paid, part-time position. Thus, the commission was dependent on the same staff for information as the staff that worked under the direction of the Port director, the dominating Mic Dinsmore.
Though never a bare-knuckle political brawler, Alec was not afraid of confrontation, as attested to in his long-running feud with Dinsmore over the direction of the Port. Dinsmore, over his 15 years as director, had expanded the Port’s business portfolio beyond a primary focus on maritime business.
Fisken, who published Marine Digest for several years, wanted to wean the Port off its dependence on the tax levy that was financing non-maritime uses on Port real estate. Fisken also was devoted to the idea of Seattle’s working waterfront, union maritime jobs, and environmentally clean port operations. Ultimately, the 2005 commissioner elections tilted that body away from Alec’s point of view. He was narrowly defeated for re-election in 2007.
He would have made a very good state treasurer if he had prevailed in the 2016 election. Sadly, he didn’t project very well on the stump. Neither a glad-hander, nor speaker of comforting platitudes – that was Alec.
Alec told me four years ago during a visit in Kauai that he had been diagnosed with stage-4 prostate cancer. He did not expect to live more than six months longer, give or take. Instead, he lived four years longer, thanks, he said, to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which provided access to some experimental, life-extending drugs. But the options finally ran out and his body was failing. On March 28, my friend, surrounded by close family, pressed a button that would legally end his life.
In his own, quiet way, Alec altered Seattle’s economic and political life. Maybe not by any single, sweeping motion, but by taking the little things and making them better.