Ralph Munro leaving a career carved in stone

OLYMPIA--If you were to dismantle the Washington State Capitol Building, now and then you would come across stones bearing a distinctive zigzag marking left by a man named Alexander Munro.

A Scottish immigrant stone carver, Munro spent five years in the 1920s shaping the huge sandstone blocks used to build the Capitol. Like the other carvers of his day, Munro hammered his signature mark into the back of each stone he carved.

Three-quarters of a century later, several of Munro's rusted chisels sit on a desk in one of the Capitol's most spacious offices--the office of his grandson, Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

"It sounds kind of corny to say it," Ralph Munro said recently, "but I bet my grandpa looked into these luxurious offices when they were completed and never dreamed that one of his grandkids would work here."

Ralph Munro has worked in the Capitol for more than three decades, including the last 20 years as secretary of state. During that time, he has left plenty of his own marks.

At 57 years old and with his broad popularity, Munro could probably have stuck around as secretary of state, a job he says never felt like work.

Instead, he's moving on.

"I've watched too many old guys hang around the building too long, and I don't want to be one of those people," said Munro, who announced more than a year ago he would not seek re-election last November. "I'd rather leave on my own terms."

His last day on the job is Jan. 9. The next day, one of Munro's longtime friends, Thurston County Auditor Sam Reed, will be sworn in.

Already Reed is talking like the guy who has to replace Alex Rodriguez as the Mariners' shortstop.

"I hope people will be patient," Reed said. "There's no way I could do everything (Ralph Munro) is doing."

Since his election in 1980 to the first of five terms, Republican Munro has become one of Washington's best-known and most beloved politicians. Earlier this month, more than 800 people from both parties--including Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and all five of Washington's living former governors--showed up at Munro's retirement party.

He will be remembered around Olympia for many things, especially for the relief he provided from all the gravity and formality of the Capitol.

Munro was the guy in the kilt at the start of many legislative sessions. Occasionally he would even break out his bagpipes, which he learned to play years ago as a surprise for his father. Though widely praised for his statesmanship and candor, Munro frequently has been teased for his corn-pone ways.

"Oh my God, is he corny," said Greg Nordlund, a member of Munro's staff. "He tells the worst jokes."

In an age when politics was growing ever more partisan, there was Munro, preaching nonpartisanship. A moderate Republican, he says he has always tried to live by the words of former Gov. Dan Evans, another moderate Republican and one of Munro's first political mentors: "It's better to cross the aisle than cross the people."

Said Munro: "The people send us here to get something done. They don't care if you're Republican or Democrat."

Though the secretary of state's job historically has been viewed as a sort of doorman for state government, Munro has compiled an impressive list of achievements.

He was instrumental in preserving historic landmarks, such as the Walla Walla site of the state's 1878 constitutional convention. He became Washington's unofficial ambassador to the world, serving on numerous trade and cultural missions to foreign countries.

As the state's top election official, he helped push through major reforms to boost voter participation and modernize the state's election system. This year, while voter confidence was badly shaken by the ballot debacle in Florida, Washington's election system shone when put to the test by a recount in the tight race between U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell.

But Munro's most lasting legacy likely will be the examples he set not as a politician but as a citizen.

Over the years, he has taken up numerous causes and has a wall full of man-of-the-year awards from civic groups. Each year he rings a bell for the Salvation Army on the Friday before Christmas, a tradition he started more than a decade ago with his wife, Karen, and son, George. He still volunteers at his neighborhood elementary school in Olympia and serves on at least a dozen boards and commissions.

He also has been involved in numerous wildlife-protection efforts. He gained national attention 25 years ago when he led a drive to ban the capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. It was a cause he took up after watching a crew hired by Sea World use explosives to herd a group of whales into a net.

Munro is still working with a group trying to buy freedom for Lolita, the last remaining Puget Sound killer whale in captivity.

Munro attributes his civic activism to the influence of his parents. His father worked in the shipyards and his mother was a teacher. She used to take him with her when she went door-to-door to collect money for charities.

Another factor, Munro said, was growing up on Bainbridge Island: "When you live on an island, you're more independent. You learn to solve your own problems."

A few personal encounters in particular have moved Munro to action.

For example, 35 years ago while helping out on an annual Christmas boat trip for developmentally disabled children, Munro met a mentally retarded boy named Terry. The boy was 5 years old and had never spoken. At the time, Terry was living at Seattle's Fircrest School, where his mother had abandoned him as a toddler.

Munro started visiting Terry at Fircrest and became a regular volunteer at the institution. Terry spoke his first words while riding in a car with Munro.

"Terry wasn't difficult," said Munro, who eventually became the boy's legal guardian. "He just needed lots of love."

Around that time, Munro was finishing up his education at Western Washington University and getting his first taste of life in the Capitol, working in the basement as a supply clerk. A few years later, he was enlisted by then-Gov. Evans to become the state's first volunteer coordinator and then as a special assistant on education and social-service issues.

At Munro's recent retirement party, Evans told about the time Munro brought Terry by the Governor's Office for a visit. Evans said it was Munro who inspired him to push for improvements for the developmentally disabled.

"Ralph was the one who taught me how to care," Evans said.

In the mid-1970s, Munro went to work for a nonprofit organization that assisted families with developmentally disabled children. And he lobbied for their cause in Olympia, something he has continued to do as secretary of state.

With Munro's help, Terry was eventually moved from the institution to a foster home. Now 40, Terry lives in his own apartment in Marysville and frequently spends time with Munro.

When Terry came to the stage at Munro's retirement party, the two held hands through a long standing ovation.

Munro said he plans to keep working after stepping down as secretary of state, though he has no job lined up. He said he will probably look for something in world trade or charity, or perhaps try to tap into the nation's renewed interest in finding a better voting system.

Though Munro says he is not a religious person, when he talks about his life and career, the phrase "we've been blessed" comes up a lot. He attributes much of that to the opportunities he has found to help others.

"I see people today trying to find fulfillment in all these screwy places," Munro said. "If people would just go down to their local school and walk in and talk to the first-grade teacher and offer to volunteer, they'd find a hell of a lot more fulfillment than they'd find in the spa at Palm Springs.

"I know this stuff sounds corny, but it's how I feel."