Work of a columnist: Emmett Watson's city

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The noted local columnist died May 11 at age 82, leaving a legacy of more than 50 years of newspaper writing that chronicled the life of this city as perhaps no other has. In his day, he penned tales for the old Seattle Star, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times and, lastly, the Seattle Union Record, last winter's strike paper of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.

And he took on, ticked off or simply told amazing tales on everyone from himself to his dog Tiger.

Today we share just a few excerpts, from his columns and one of his books, "My Life in Print," published in 1993.

Memorial for Emmett Watson

A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street in Seattle.

(Note: Address corrected at 7 p.m. Sunday)

Mr. Watson loved baseball, about as much as he loved his dog. Well, close. In his early days as a baseball scribe, he wrote about the craft.

"On Sportswriting," The Seattle Times, Oct. 22, 1946

Most guys who talk about their business are strictly squares and frightful bores, so, if you don't want to be bored for the next five minutes, go fix the furnace or something.

Because we are going to talk about sportswriters for a while.

You think the athletes you read about are glamorous characters? Fascinating people? Full of wit and sparkling conversation? Nuts.

There is much more fun in one screwballish sportswriter than a whole roomful of muscle-headed guards, left-handed pitchers and canvasback fighters. The guys who glamorize the goons are the elite guard of the sports racket to my mind, and we should have a Hall of Fame for them, like at Cooperstown, or some place where the beverage laws are liberal.

Mr. Watson said he was glad journalistic doggerel went the way of the old presses. But these lines from a poem/column he wrote might argue otherwise.

"Song of the Bleacherite," The Times, April 14, 1947

Now the pitchers toe the rubber, and the coaches bark their cry; the fielders, tense, are waiting for a welcome outfield fly.

Then the crack of ball on wood, the runner digging in ... a streak of white across the sky ... the pitchers' dark chagrin;

On and on it travels ... up and on some more ... growing smaller in the distance ... where only birds can soar;

The fielders back up to the wall, in helpless gesture there; and sadly, oh, so sadly! look up in the air;

And then you know it's over, and you know the game is won; a mighty homer did it, and the slugger's work is done.

So I've only tried to tell you of the game I love the best; let me keep on watching baseball, and you can have the rest.

Here's a bit of the man's history, taken from something he wrote when he first went to work for the Post-Intelligencer. He would later term the way his column was promoted there as "altogether a grotesque Barnumesque build-up."

"A Reluctant Autobiography," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 30, 1950

Re the request for a synopsis of my life, up to and including this morning, the following is offered as a short summary, with almost no regrets:

As a small child, I was born hard by the Duwamish mud flats on November 22, 1918, and immediately struggled through a phase of diaperism into a stage known, roughly, as adolescence. My family has been of no help in compiling details of this latter stage, possibly because they want to forget the whole thing.

My school years were marked by a trail of broken and defeated English teachers and one high school principal who developed a nervous "tic" as the result of our association. The last I heard he was under the care of a psychiatrist. Prognosis: doubtful.

About 1934 I began an assault on professional baseball which fell somewhat short of beating Mickey Cochrane out of a job. My failure in baseball can be traced to two deep mysteries of the game - the fastball and the curveball.

I stayed with the Seattle Rainiers long enough to learn the bunt sign and drink two cups of coffee. Bill Skiff, the manager, released me in 1943.

"Kid," he said, "you have a great future. Offhand, I cannot imagine where it might be, but I'm sure you have a great future. Drop back and see us sometime."

In 1956, Mr. Watson launched "This, Our Town," a weekly about-town column, his foray out of the world of sports. It ran once a week. Three years later the name was changed to "This, Our City," which he wrote three times a week. In 1962, the column moved to five days a week. They were called "three dot" columns, a term that became a fixture in column writing across the United States. The name refers to the three dots that separate column items. Here's the introduction from his first column.

"This, Our Town," the P-I, Aug. 14, 1956

Editors of the Post-Intelligencer are understandably joyous about this new experiment. They argue (and rightly) that people who don't read my stuff in the sports pages have been getting off too blamed easy. Hardship, they say, toughens up a reader. This column, only a few words old, already has much in common with those produced by Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Herb Caen and Cedric Adams. When I say "much in common," I mean it will appear in a newspaper. For the most part, this column will touch on general topics, like books, plays, alimony, dining, starving and up-to-the-minute trends in bee culture. Don't worry. It will be the kind of a column that children can read - if you force them to.

And a quick three-dot example:

Mrs. Kid Matthews, who filed for divorce a week ago, called it off and returned to Harry's corner. ... If you're making a confidential call to Olympia, don't bet that it's confidential - tap, tap, tap. ... While S.S. Sayres maintains a steady silence about plans for Slo-mo IV and Gold Cupping, a rival owner cracked: "Stan will wait until everybody guesses he's going to run - then he'll run."

Gradually, Mr. Watson said, he found he could write about his city with wisdom, some modicum of grace and lots of humor. Perhaps no excerpt gives a better idea than this, which sprang from one of many city disagreements that Mr. Watson not only found hilarious but something he might be able to do something about.

"Vice Squad Follies," the P-I, Jan. 18, 1979

I tell you, friend, this was one shocked columnist who read some accounts in the papers this week. Stunning revelations came out of discussions between Police Chief Vanden Wyer and Mr. Bob Royer, deputy mayor of Seattle. All about the question of robing, or disrobing, among vice-squad agents making a pinch (that is street slang for arrest; nothing more). Vanden Wyer came out like a monk against disrobing. He said he "halted operation" when some officers took off their shirts in the company of prostitutes. The Chief did not say if he burst in the room and halted the pinch (slang term again), but he seemed to speak from firsthand knowledge.

Deputy Mayor Royer had a vastly different view. He said he understood the cops would strip to their underwear to make a pinch (again, street slang). He said he understood "they have an underpants rule, that they can strip but they can't drop their pants."

Clearly this is a matter for the Police Guild. If disrobing is outlawed, only outlaws will disrobe. The Police Guild must prepare for another initiative campaign. It sponsored (and helped pass) an initiative that prescribed how officers can shoot people, and with what bullets. A prominent Police Guild member sponsored an initiative to de-citizenize homosexuals. Plainly, another initiative is called for - if we unshackle police with guns, we should undress them in the cause of morality.

Mr. Watson promoted Lesser Seattle Inc., a loosely knit "organization" begun to counter the promotion and lure of Greater Seattle. Mr. Watson was Lesser Seattle's self-proclaimed president. His exploits in Lesser Seattle's behalf, most notably to keep out Californians, gained national notoriety - and mailbags full of response. Its motto: "Have a nice day - somewhere else."

"Love That Rain," the P-I, Dec. 26, 1969

The committee on rain would travel extensively - especially to places like California, the East and the Midwest. Texas-style, they would boast about our rain to a point where nobody would want to come here. Those damned Californians are overrunning us now, and the trend must be stopped. Keep Seattle small and comfortable by inserting large, institutional ads in Life, Look and Holiday proclaiming: "If rain gets you down, stay away from Seattle."

"President Speaks," the P-I, Feb. 18, 1979

Report to Stockholders,

Lesser Seattle Inc.

Subject: Sinkable Bridges

The disappearance of the Hood Canal Bridge shows what can be accomplished with a little luck. Does any red-blooded Lesser Seattleite fail to dream of a giant rock slide at Snoqualmie Pass? Mother Nature accomplished the Hood Canal sinking with no injuries or loss of life; surely, she can do the same at Snoqualmie Pass. One envisions it happening, with no injury to anyone, at precisely the right time: just after the last resident has traveled safely over the pass, leaving on the other side a convoy of Winnebagos and other highway battleships, bound here from all over the Midwest.

Another of Mr. Watson's exploits, this one involving his poodle Tiger, turned out to be a winner among readers. But if only Tiger could have written in response!

"Journey's End," the P-I, Aug. 16, 1981

Dear P-I Executive Committee: I hope this interoffice memo reaches you gentlemen before you set the business agenda at your next prayer breakfast. I realize you are all terribly busy making Important Decisions, but I hope you have found a few spare minutes to read the paper. If you did, you will know I have been out "on the road," as we say in camperdom. My 1971 GMC truck and my 1973 camper and my 1980 dog, Tiger, have been out foraging around the countryside looking for material to write about. In case you missed any of this exciting stuff, we called it "Travels with Tiger." My stuff was very well received according to people back in the office who are authorized to open my mail. I will quote one excerpt from a particularly glowing letter: "Once you pick up a column by Watson on his `Travels with Tiger' it's hard to put it down, unless you have a table handy."

In case any of you read these pieces you might think I overwrote about Tiger, my dog. He is undersized and oversexed. Thus, we ran into some embarrassing moments at various campgrounds and way stops. In fact, I have just received a picture, forwarded over here, showing Tiger trying to commit an atrocity on a female dog five time as big as he is. This picture, I am sure, was taken by the Channel Town Press in La Conner. I suspect the editor, Al Pentz, is behind this. Anyway, if you get a discreet note asking the P-I to cough up a little in exchange for the negative, don't pay it. Tiger's reputation as a canine satyr is so well known that it's useless to try to suppress this picture.

The food-loving Mr. Watson and a friend, Sam Bryant, opened an oyster bar at the Pike Place Market in 1979. He often opined about the mollusk, and its smaller-shell relative, the clam. But, this, too, had a decidedly Northwest bent.

"Bar Tomatoes From Chowder," The Times, Feb. 6, 1990

And so it was that our land-grabbing forefathers finally arrived on Puget Sound. These beaches - indeed, all the West Coast beaches - were alive with clams. Free for the taking. Energy-giving grub. It was inevitable, then, that our Puget Sound forebears would put class in clam chowder. New England chowder came west, but there were setbacks. One setback involved the first idiot who put tomatoes in chowder. He was obviously a transplanted New Yorker because the term "Manhattan clam chowder" describes his awful marriage of clams and tomatoes.

It was then advertised here as "Puget Sound clam chowder." What a travesty.

Let us be blunt. The kind of person who would put tomatoes in clam chowder is the kind of person who could slurp champagne from a spoon.

And, finally, how would he define himself? Even that question drew a typical Mr. Watson roundabout.

"A Columnist Defines Himself," the P-I, Oct. 14, 1980

Most columnists I know make less money than most engineers and certainly not as much as a plumber. "I read your column every day," is a nice thing to hear, but should not be taken seriously. Nobody reads anything every day. What they are saying is, "Well, I've heard of you."

I said that being known as "a columnist" can make one insecure. The other day I dropped off some cleaning, and the guy recognized the name. "Oh, yeah," he said, looking up brightly, "how long have you been retired now?"

At his memorial tomorrow afternoon, Emmett Watson will, no doubt, go out in the same way he came to be known in this city: wrapped in plenty of wit, shrouded in saucinesss and capped by a whole lot of the best storytelling you've ever heard.