Holt Webster Of Airborne Express, An Executive Of Ability And Heart

Holt Webster was a Seattle contributor in a big way. With little fuss or fanfare he helped the community in several ways.

He built his company, Airborne Express, into the small-package big-leagues. He led a variety of civic groups, from the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to the board of Senior Services of Seattle and King County. He sat on boards of directors of prominent business institutions.

At the same time, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Airborne Express was competent, thoughtful and easy to work with, said his friends.

Mr. Webster, who lived on Bainbridge Island, died Monday in a Bremerton hospital after a short illness. He was 72.

Born in Portland on June 15, 1919, Mr. Webster was a graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and attended Reed College in Oregon.

His first major job was at Portland Gas & Electric in the complaint department, although earlier he hustled work as a golf caddy, deckhand on Columbia River boats and other odd jobs.

He was drafted during World War II and served as a captain in the military Air Transport Command from 1942-46. He spent time in Brazil, Europe, Africa, China and Indochina, flying over the famous Burma Hump in the Himalayas.

After the war he worked for Northwest Airlines in Seattle from 1946 to 1951, as a reservations clerk and later in cargo and sales. He joined tiny Pacific Air Freight in 1951.

He became Pacific's president and chief executive officer in 1962 and led the 1968 merger with Airborne Freight of California that resulted in the creation of Airborne Freight Corp., operator of Airborne Express.

He retired in 1984 but served on the board of directors, most recently as chairman of the executive committee.

Airborne last year had profits of $31 million and sales of more than $1.19 billion and for the seventh consecutive year was the fastest-growing carrier in the domestic air-express industry.

He would have retired from the board at the April 27 annual meeting.

"Holt gave so much to this community and to this company," said Robert Cline, Airborne chairman. "He was loved by all and will be sorely missed."

George Duff, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, described Mr. Webster as a "straight-shooter" who didn't take himself too seriously and didn't make it easy for others to do so, either.

Kerry Killinger, chairman of Washington Mutual Savings Bank where Mr. Webster served on the board of directors, also praised Mr. Webster's ability to focus on the most important issues. "He had a good intuitive sense and was a great help to the bank."

He and John Ellis, chairman of Puget Sound Power & Light, where Mr. Webster also served as a director, also recalled his refreshing wit and sense of humor.

"He was so good with people," Ellis said. "It was interesting to watch him ask perceptive questions of staff, but he left the other person feeling right about it. He was a tough thinker and a pillar as far as we are concerned."

Ellis recalled that Mr. Webster was hit by a falling tree at a ground-breaking ceremony at the home of William Jenkins, former Seafirst chairman. But that didn't slow him down.

"He gave his final (farewell as president) speech over a loudspeaker from his hospital room," Ellis said.

Mr. Webster also served on the board of United Way of King County and was president of the Citizens Council Against Crime. He was a volunteer on the board of the Seattle Central Community College Foundation and a member of the Washington Athletic Club and the Seattle Tennis Club.

He is survived by his wife, Kate Belcher Webster, whom he married in New York City in May 1947; daughters Kate W. Scribner and Anne W. Fox; and a son, Craig Lewis Webster.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E. Remembrances may be sent to Children's Hospital and Medical Center or Seattle Central Community College.