By Chet Skreen
(From the July 3, 1977, Magazine of the Seattle Times.)
"HOLLER GUY" is a term usually associated with 20-year-old yell kings at college. Around Seattle, the phrase is almost certain to evoke the name Jack Gordon.
For a quarter of a century, the city has been calling on John Francis Gordon whenever a ship needed to be welcomed or a parade staged. Under a succession of mayors and civic-promotion groups, Gordon has been at the microphone putting the city's best foot forward.
The late Times columnist, John J. Reddin, wrote in 1961 about Seattle's welcome for the returning Korean War veterans of a decade earlier. On that occasion, Reddin saved his choicest descriptives for the "whirlwind operator" who introduced the dancing girls and band numbers, along with such visiting "greeters" as Bob Hope, Edward G. Robinson, Joe E. Brown and the Andrews Sisters, while exhorting the crowd to cheer the returning warriors as the troop transports docked.
"One guy," Reddin wrote, "could always be found at dock-side, even in wet or chill weather, or standing on a flatbed truck shouting 'Hey! Hey!' into a microphone. Above the wail of police-escort sirens and raucous honking of automobile horns as the Army-bus caravans rolled north through, the downtown business canyons was the cheerleader and sparkplug of Welcome Lane — Jack Gordon."
Gordon went on to other welcomes, including six Presidents and the Seattle and Spokane World's Fairs, but Pier 36 and the parades up Second Avenue in those grim days of the prolonged Korean "armistice" left an indelible mark on the sentimental big guy.
"More than a million men passed through here on their way home," Gordon said. "The men arrived on ships at all hours of the day and night and a few of us took it on ourselves to see that they got a real 'Seattle Welcome.' We did it for some 36 months, but it never became dull or routine. Each new boatload of faces — and there were more than 400 returning ships — gave us all a fresh emotional charge."
There was not much to indicate in Gordon's early years that he would one day turn into a Grover Whalen West as Seattle's answer to Manhattan's famed civic host of the '20s and '30s.
"Among my lesser accomplishments at O'Dea High School was student cheerleader. I never expected to make much use of a megaphone after that," recalled the man who in 1952 was selected by Time Magazine as one of the region's "Newsmakers of Tomorrow."
Fresh out of high school in the middle of the Depression, Gordon wound up working for a few years at all three Seattle daily newspapers. It was at that point that he picked up the name "Flash Gordon" from colleagues.
"It had less to do with the comic strip hero than the fact that I walked or ran from the newspaper office to my assignments. Newspaper pay was so low that my feet provided the only form of transport I could afford."
FOLLOWING three years with the Navy in World War II — "notably undistinguished," as he recalls — Gordon took jobs as publicity chief for Seattle University, city editor for The Catholic Northwest Progress, a weekly, and public-relations director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. (He recently completed a year's term as commander of Seattle Post No. 1, American Legion.)
One of Gordon's prime duties at Seattle U. was promoting the athletic glories of the Jesuit school. He had some assistance from a couple of basketball players named Johnny and Eddie O'Brien.
"I had a lot of help — and not just from the O'Brien twins," Gordon said. "We got hundreds of fans and students to deluge sports editors all over the country with newspaper clippings from the Seattle papers about the exploits of the O'Briens. That paper shower would have made a bureaucrat proud."
It was not until Gordon joined the fledgling civic-booster group, Greater Seattle, as public-relations director in 1950 that the 207-pound, 6-foot Irishman really became a voice to be reckoned with.
Gordon's arrival at Greater Seattle coincided with the birth of Seafair. For the next 14 years he served as chief barker, with duties that ranged from the hydroplane pits in Lake Washington to Queen of the Seas coronations at Green Lake.
From those years as the city's chief flak, Gordon developed almost a proprietary interest in Seattle.
"If loving the town is a crime, I plead guilty," he says.
At the same time, it is clear that civic-booster Gordon, 56, regards with considerable disdain those "misguided souls" who downgrade Seattle and continue to think of San Francisco as the Queen City of the Pacific. On this slope there is room for only one Queen City, in Gordon's slightly prejudiced view.
Years after his service with Greater Seattle, Gordon can even work up a mild case of indignation at the mention of a minor civic irritant known as Lesser Seattle. Questioned about, that fun-loving, cynical group, he is likely to respond, "Lesser WHAT?" The "hey, hey" guy is willing to grant co-existence with "those malcontent underachievers " at Lesser Seattle" — but just barely.
GORDON'S role as chief tub-thumper for Greater Seattle overlapped the groundwork for the Seattle World's Fair. In 1961 and '62, he took on the added assignment of consultant with the Department of Commerce, a post that involved negotiations with the governors of the other states for their participation in the fair. Off that experience, Gordon became adept at the arts of protocol.
Gordon designed the Plaza of the States program for the exposition. During the fair's six-month run he presided daily at ceremonies introducing visiting dignitaries and celebrities to fairgoers. At the request of Gov. Dan Evans, he would repeat his role as "official greeter" at the Spokane Fair.
One of Gordon's more unusual civic duties involved four years on the Board of Theater Supervisors — the city's censoring board — in the early '60s.It was a period when his fellow board members had nothing more to do than pass judgment on the Ridgemont's "racy" foreign films and such church-condemned "shockers" as "The Moon Is Blue" and "Baby Doll." (A notable lapse in the board's straight-laced judgment was the approval of bare-bosomed chorus girls for the World's Fair, but the city's reputation as a fun town was at stake.)
Once in a while we'd order a movie clip or two taken out," Gordon said, but looking back on those innocent years when the word "virgin" was taboo on motion-picture soundtracks, he admits to being stunned at what passes for theater today.
If I had the job now," he says, "I'd probably have every movie house in town shut down. I can't even believe some of the stuff I see on television."
GORDON'S career took a sharp turn in the '60s when he went to work in state government. He was summoned to Olympia by Gov. Albert Rosellini to head the state's Employment Security Department.
In that post, Gordon came under fire from the press for the first time. Argus Magazine, commenting on his assignment as medicine man for an ailing state economy, concluded that Gordon "may be great at cooking up ideas for Seafair, but his ability to create jobs for the unemployed is very questionable."
Such Gordon innovations as "Buy Now — Jobs Now" did not solve the state's 8.4 per cent unemployment problem overnight, but he did come up with the idea for a state Job Corps. He says the concept was adapted a short time later on a national scale by President Kennedy and Sargeant Shriver to provide work for the country's unemployed youth. Among those who were impressed by this effort was President Johnson, who in 1964 selected Gordon to head his war-on-poverty program in this state.
Although there were accolades in governmental circles, press criticism persisted occasionally. Gordon was accused of a "brainstorm" in advising all Washington residents, in the interests of stimulating the economy, to "spend every cent of their increased take-home pay" resulting from a federal tax reduction.
Gordon's admirers reply that he may have been a man ahead of his time. A decade later a couple of Presidents named Ford and Carter came up with pretty much the same suggestion for citizens to spend their tax rebates immediately to get a stagnant economy moving again.
Returning from government service in 1965, Gordon was appointed public-affairs director of the new Seattle Center, a legacy of the 1962 fair. A year later he was named general manager and executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of the State of Washington, a position he continues to hold.
As operations head of the association, Gordon looks after the welfare of 1,614 member restaurants from his offices in the Securities Building in Seattle. He oversees an annual budget of $500,000 and has a staff of 17 to deal with matters ranging from legislation affecting restaurant operations to employee grievances and consumer-group demands ("Truth in Menu" proposals).
Among Gordon's major tasks is masterminding the restaurant association's biennial "bash" in Seattle — the Pacific Northwest Restaurant, Hotel, Drive In and Fast Food Exposition. The trade fair draws 18,000 representatives of the hospitality business from throughout the West and British Columbia.
"Kristi Lee, our convention director, and several other staff members spend about six months on advance planning for the convention," Gordon said. "Educational seminars, display booths for new products and demonstrations of new restaurant equipment are all part of the show to update members of the industry."
The climax is a "food spectacular" — the convention banquet at The Olympic, which is regarded by the visiting restaurateurs — experts all — as the Northwest's gourmet event of the year.
"We play to a tough audience," Gordon comments.
Each legislative session, Gordon keeps a wary eye on Olympia. The restaurant association is reputed to have one of the most effective lobbies at the capital (who else has equal expertise at laying on a spread for jaded politicians?), but Gordon generally stays clear of his old government grounds.
"We hire a law firm to look out for our interests down there,"
Gordon says. "I just monitor their work and communicate to the Legislature the position of our directors on proposed legislation. Each session about 250 bills come up that have some bearing on our business."
After 12 years in that business, Gordon rarely is at a loss for answers. One question he refuses to speculate about: When can restaurant patrons expect to buy a cup of coffee at a reasonable price? (Even TV's Mrs. Olson doesn't know the answer to that one, he says.)
Here are his answers to other questions.
Skreen: You have been described by associates as essentially shy, modest and self-effacing in private, yet you have been the "go go" host for the city's major functions for years. Isn't there some kind of character contradiction there?
Gordon: You mean am I a Jekyll and Hyde? No, I don't think so. I became an extrovert emcee more or less by default. Morrie Alhadeff had been our regular master of ceremonies for Seattle's welcome-home ceremonies for the troops in 1953, but he woke up with laryngitis one morning. There was no one else available so I took over as stand-in. I found that facing a mike wasn't all that tough. I guess the ham in me got the better of my instincts.
Q. Religion seems to be pretty important in your life. You have served as president or member of the board of various Catholic organizations. What does religion do for you and do you have any thoughts about changes in your church in recent years?
A. Fundamentally I'm a conservative Catholic who is slow to adapt to change. I have reservations about some things that have happened in my religion, but the church is still the most important thing in my life.
Q. Thirty years ago you served as city editor of The Catholic Northwest Progress at a time when abortions, women priests and anti-war clergy didn't make much news. What did you write about?
A. A. We filled the paper with papal encyclicals and such news as archbishop pronouncements, bingo parties and first communions. We didn't have much occasion to run any Second Coming headlines. Actually, the most important news that happened during my two years on The Progress was meeting a staff member named Roberta Walsh. I wound up marrying her.
Q. What size family do you have?
A. A. Four kids — three in their 20s and the youngest 16.
Q. Victor Rosellini once said that "half the things that happen in Seattle wouldn't happen unless Jack suggested it." Have any of your civic promotions been flops?
A. A. Back in 1970 I proposed a Festival Americana for Seattle's celebration of the Bicentennial. It never really got off the ground. I choose to think it was because city officials refused to fence the Seattle Center and charge admission. If they had, we could have staged a show like the big exposition Vancouver puts on every August. I don't have much of an alibi, however, for a Crusade for Decency that I helped produce in the late '60s. It was part of a national youth rally to combat pornography, but it didn't drum up as much interest as your average X-rated movie.
Q. As the city's "nonpartisan" civic greeter over the years, you have welcomed many of the nation's Chief Executives to Seattle. On occasion, you have addressed college seminars on the subject, "How to Stage a Presidential Welcome." Do you have any close-range observations on "Presidents I Have Met"?
A. Truman — feisty, a bantam-rooster type.
Eisenhower — Everybody liked Ike — what else is there to say? He reminded me of my father. Ike visited here when he was recovering from one of his heart attacks, but he still had a friendly hello for everyone.
Kennedy — He came to town while the fair was under construction. We had a wild ride on a parade route down Fourth Avenue to the fairgrounds. Jack seemed to enjoy every minute of it, especially the crowds.
Johnson — The most demanding and toughest to please. He came here not too many months after Kennedy's assassination and everyone, including the Secret Service, was jittery about crowds. Still, he insisted on stopping a caravan at Fourth and Pike to get out and press the flesh. A hard-nosed, 100 per cent politician.
Nixon — I can't ever get out of my mind his arrival in 1960 during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign. We turned out the biggest crowd ever to greet anyone at Sea-Tac Airport. Thousands of people fanned out on the runways, tying up everything —including all incoming and outgoing planes. I'm told they would never allow that type of situation to develop again. Both Nixon and Pat were cordial and got an ovation from the partisan crowd.
Ford — "Nice guy," my son Joseph said. I can't improve on that.
Q. Are there any other notables that particularly stand out?
A. The astronauts were probably the greatest guests our town has ever played host to. Talking to Dick Gordon, it was hard to realize that here was a guy who not too long before had been out to the moon and back. It was a little like saying hello to Christopher Columbus.
And I'll never forget Haile Selassie, the little emperor of Ethiopia who was a hero to us kids in the Depression when he told off Mussolini before the League of Nations. The Emperor looked very regal and distinguished in his imperial uniform in the lobby of The Olympic. The state dinner at the hotel was one of the most memorable receptions that Seattle has staged. It was complicated by the presence in town of a Western States convention of Shriners who looked like Arabian royalty. Thank God for the language barrier — we never did learn what the Lion of Judah really thought about the rival "potentates."
Q. Tell us about local politicians you have loved and hated.
A. Hate is a little too strenuous emotion for me. I've never had any trouble co-existing with mayors. Gordon Clinton was one of my favorites. I had a tough time trying to fathom Dorm Braman. I never felt at ease around him.
Q, In 1969 you were called back from "retirement" to officiate at welcoming ceremonies for the first military men to return from South Vietnam. The mood and climate of opinion was decidedly different from the Korean welcome 16 years earlier. What are your recollections of the contrasting receptions?
A, President Nixon and General Westmoreland selected Seattle as host city for the first Vietnam War returnees on our record of hospitality for the veterans of the Korean War. Times HAD changed. Instead of unanimous cheers, we faced sizable crowds of jeering anti-war demonstrators. Security was extremely tight and we were all under a strain. The Vietnam vets had to walk uptown to the Welcome Lane ceremonies. All available trucks were in use in Vietnam, where the fighting was still going on. Veterans of other wars joined the marching, so it was still a pretty thrilling occasion — at least for this World War II swabbie.
Q. From time to time there have been rumors that Jack Gordon might run for mayor or the City Council. Any truth to it?
A. Let's say that the reports have been greatly exaggerated. Prospects are pretty dim. I've never sought public office and doubt if I ever will. All the same, it might he fun to BE a politician instead of meeting one.
Q. According to most testimonials, your greatest triumph as a restaurant official was the State Dinner at The Olympic for the United States Governors Conference in 1974. Your performance producing a show with a cast of 200 was likened to a TV director orchestrating a variety hour to the split second. Was this Gordon's finest hour?
A. As far as I know no governor was served a fallen souffle or a melting baked Alaska while we staged a miniversion of Meredith Wiffson's "Music Man" between courses in the Grand Ballroom. It took a lot of precision timing by the Olympic's staff and our cast to pull it off, but even the press gave us a pretty good "review."
Q. Any recollection of a peanut-growing governor from Georgia in attendance at that dinner?
A. Frankly, I didn't pay much attention to Jimmy Carter at that conference. I got to know him better at the Spokane Fair when he presided at the "Georgia Day" program. I confess he didn't look too much like presidential timber with those teeth flashing and wearing a pullover sweater. So much for my ability as a political prognosticator.
Q. As a professional restaurant-goer, it has been almost a duty for you to sample menus. How many times a week do you eat out? What is the national average?
A. I eat out eight to ten times a week. Of every $3 spent on meals in this country, $1 is spent on meals outside the home. A decade from now, the National Restaurant Association estimates the ratio may be one of every two dollars. More and more Americans are looking for new food experiences, ethnic food, different dishes. It's easier and sometimes cheaper than preparing a meal at home. The country's supermarkets are being hit hard because of new steakhouses and convenient, economical "takeouts," A big factor of course is the appetite of teen-agers, who sometimes average as many as two meals a day away from home. With many of them, dinner is the only real home meal.
Q. How do you rate your wife as a cook: lousy, good, great - or do her culinary efforts defy description?
A. If I say anything less than great, I'd be eating out even more than I do now. Confidentially, she really cooks a great roast.
Q. What kind of cook are you?
A. I don't recommend my cooking to any friends who value their health, I have trouble opening cans.
Q, Do you have any personal food fetishes?
A. No. As far as my taste goes, it would be hard to top a good American steak or roast beef.
Q. If you were facing the gallows, what would you order for your last meal?
A. Chateaubriand with Chateuneuf Du Pape for two. Be my guest — if you like going-away parties.
Q. What's the best meal to ever cross your palate?
A. A huge T-bone years ago at the Kansas City Steakhouse in Chicago. It was served to absolute perfection — no additional condiments needed.
Q. What was your worst meal?
A. Navy chow in World War II. All of it, and I had the ulcers to prove it. Providence Hospital's meals were a close second at one time, but they have improved in recent years.
Q. Based on your own dining experience, which restaurants would head your personal Guide Michelin list?
A. In Seattle, Le Provencale, Mirabeau, Rosellini's 410 and Canlis. Elsewhere, Maxim's and De-Puy House in New Orleans, Truffles at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver and Ambassador East, Chicago.
Q. That list doesn't include a San Francisco restaurant. Do you consider the city's reputation for dining overrated?
A. I lived there as a small boy and the city has changed a lot — not all for the better. Right now San Francisco is facing a strong challenge from Seattle and once we get a group of downtown apartments — a contained market of urban dwellers — this town will really liven up and become cosmopolitan.
Q. For years the complaint was that Seattleites who like to dine out had to fly to San Francisco to get a decent meal. You indicate this is no longer the case. Do you consider Seattle a major-league eating town today?
A. In my opinion, Seattle is the NEW San Francisco when it comes to quality restaurants. Does that answer your question?
Q. What does Seattle lack in restaurant facilities?
A. We've still got pretty much of a Friday-Saturday-night image. If we can persuade Seattleites to change their eating habits we'll have plenty of great dining rooms.
Q. Thousands of people who patronized restaurants regularly 20 years ago now find the prices of a dinner for two simply out of sight. Despite this, "reservations only" seem to be more and more the rule. Are Seattle's restaurants in any danger of pricing themselves out of business with ordinary diners? Are they becoming restricted to a wealthy clientele?
A. We have more than 1,800 food-and-drink places in the city and county, with new French and ethnic cafes popping up every month. Anyone who can't satisfy his appetite here isn't really trying. I believe the price range equals that of any other part of the country. No one has to be a member of the privileged class to dine out well at reasonable prices. A little careful review of what the area has to offer and a willingness to try some new dishes are the keys to dining out without flattening your pocketbook.
Q. In a country where quicker is usually considered better, do you regard drive-ins and fast-food restaurants as the wave of the future? How much do they take out of the national restaurant pie?
A. Roughly speaking, they have taken over most of the dollar volume of the food business, but still the so-called white-tablecloth dinner houses survive. Their share of the national restaurant business is over 30 per cent. Americans seem to be a people who "eat and run." Not even a Toots Shor or a Trader Vic has been able to change that philosophy. As restaurateurs, we favor the French and Italian attitude — two or three hours for a proper meal. And if it wouldn't grind the wheels of the American economy to a halt, it might be worthwhile if we copied the Latins, who regard the siesta as a necessary part of the meal. Certainly we'd have fewer heart attacks.
Q. Assorted authorities have insisted that the world is running out of food. There have been suggestions that some savings in food and presumably the price of meals would result if restaurants cut down on the portions they serve. At a time when conservation is a national rallying cry, the restaurants have shown little interest in this idea. Why not?
A. This is not true. Dr. Roy Prosterman, the University of Washington's expert on world food problems, came to us at an early date and suggested some action by restaurants to cut down on food wastage. We were one of the first restaurant associations to advocate smaller portions at lower prices and the use of grass-fed instead of grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is a little tougher and there are supply problems involved, but the key factor is what the customer wants. Many restaurants do feature the smaller, cheaper meals during off hours, with a number of choices at different prices — petite or small steaks at $1 or $2 off. And inflationary costs, of course, have worked to cut down portions.
Q. A lot of people regard tipping as a ripoff by restaurant operators unwilling to pay their help a living wage. What do you think of tipping?
A. I'm in favor of it.
Q. In any list of the world's greatest gastronomes, Henry VIII and Diamond Jim Brady would have to rate high. Would you like to see a Hall of Fame established to honor history's greatest trenchermen? Do you have any state or local candidates worthy of being enshrined?
A. Please. Henry was history's greatest glutton and Diamond Jim, from all accounts, died from overeating. Watching a good appetite at work is a thing of joy, as any good cook will tell you. No doubt about it — those with cultivated tastes should be suitably enshrined. Victor Rosellini and the late Henry Broderick would certainly rate — clearly a couple of gentlemen with discerning taste-buds.
Q. What's your opinion of the restaurant-review columns in the Seattle newspapers? Do you feel newspaper reporters are competent to judge the creativity of a chef?
A. It was a little like sending out a sports writer to cover a Shakespearean Festival when these columns first appeared in the Seattle press. I think I can tell you that the Friday reviews have a pretty solid readership at restaurants around town. Those places that get a really good review think the idea is great, of course, but morale can get pretty low among the staff members when a devastating pan in print appears. Basically, I think it is a fine service to the readers. And I think the recognition — or the lack of it — has had a commendable effect on restaurant operations. Do I think newspaper people are qualified to do the job? Well, I used to be a newspaperman myself. Next question?
Q. In 1969 you were presented Seattle University's "Distinguished Service Award." Was this the most notable moment in your life?
A. Yes. It came as a total surprise. My friends know me as a sentimental weeper. I cry at strange times — like when I get married or lose at poker. I did it again that night.
Q. On three occasions over the years, the governor, mayor and the Washington State Senate have proclaimed "Jack Gordon Day." How does it feel to be the subject of a proclamation?
A. Humble and overwhelmed. Actually, don't they figure you have to be dead or dying to be singled out that way? Maybe somebody .is trying to tell me something.
You are at JackGordon.org,
a salute to John F "Jack" Gordon, Mr. Seattle
Copyright © 2010, 2011 John R. Gordon