The little brick storefront at 905 James St. doesn't look like much.
But for years the city's top executives, doctors, stockbrokers, judges, attorneys or anyone else who wanted a shirt cleaned and pressed to perfection patronized the Ding Ho Laundry, one of the last semiautomated shirt-pressing operations in the city.
"It's not a hand laundry but darn close to it," said 68-year-old York Luke, who with his wife, Arlene Luke, 63, operated Ding Ho for more than 30 years.
Ding Ho is still operating but no longer under Luke's hand. The Lukes sold the business and retired with the New Year.
"When I walked in there last Thursday and found out he had sold it, it was like one of our family had died," said Tom Marx, a senior vice president at Seafirst Bank.
"The quality of his work was incredible," Marx said, adding that his wife would take the buttons off her blouses - too many buttons for Luke's kind of pressing - "so York could clean them."
Another customer, Dr. Richard Ross, an oral surgeon, said he's seen "$30,000 Mercedeses parked on the sidewalk" as executives had their laundry picked up.
PRAISE FROM ON HIGH
The laundry tickets on the racks were a veritable "Who's Who" of Seattle, Ross said. Seattle developer Martin Selig was among them. Luke said he never met Selig - his shirts were delivered and picked up - but Selig praised the Lukes' handiwork.
"They did just a great job," Selig said. "We've been using them for years."
Another customer, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, said he has been sending his shirts to Ding Ho for eight or nine years.
"It was recommended to me by Mike Weinsten at Michael's Bespoke Tailors in Rainier Square," Blethen said. "When I had Mike make some shirts for me, he recommended that the only place in town to go . . . for shirts to last, where they won't break the buttons, was there, and he was right."
A 15-year customer, David Wyman, chief executive officer of a forest-products firm, said the Lukes' work was the closest he's seen to the Chinese hand laundry he once patronized.
The Lukes epitomize "the old-fashioned American success story" of hard-working immigrants who take pride in their work, Wyman said. In the bargain, he noted, "they put their four kids through college."
"Nobody is going to duplicate this kind of work," said a competitor and admirer, Albert Eng of A-1 Laundry. "You can't put that type of labor in on it and make any money any more. He was semiautomated, but he did hand-laundry work."
Eng and most other laundry operators now use automated equipment that presses shirts dressed on a dummy, while the Lukes continued to use aging but durable five-unit "lay-down" press.
The Lukes were born in mainland China. He came to the United States about 1935. "My dad used to have a hand-laundry business in the University District, and I grew up in it," Luke said.
Luke left Roosevelt High School in his junior year to join the Army Air Corps when the United States entered World War II. He was a corporal in the 407th Service Squadron, stationed in China.
In 1985, along with their oldest son, Rob, the Lukes took a 16-day, eight-city tour of China. It was her first trip back since they were married in China after the war.
Besides Rob, the Lukes have a son, Dale Luke, and two daughters, Jo Anne Lee and Faye Hong. All reside in Seattle, except for Hong, of Federal Way.
Luke said he and his wife put in 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week in the laundry, "but we just had pride in our work." Retired for several days now, Luke said, "We don't miss the laundry, but we do miss our customers . . . We feel that all our customers we were associated with are part of the Ding Ho family."
The customers also miss the Lukes.
Dr. Charles Nolan, an infectious-disease specialist with the Seattle-King County Health Department, said he admired the Lukes not only for the quality of their work, "which was never less than excellent," but for their relationship with their customers.
"I was always fascinated that in this time in our society's evolution there was still a small family-run business that operated in the way I suspected businesses ran in this country 50 or 60 years ago," Nolan said.