Kirkland’s elder statesman

(Part Three of a three part series highlighting three men who helped define the Kirkland of today.)

Chuck Morgan still has plenty to say, plenty to do

(Part Three of a three part series highlighting three men who helped define the Kirkland of today.)

Chances are you’ve heard of Chuck Morgan.

Kirkland’s former newspaper man, Charles “Chuck” O. Morgan’s legacy of activism from his printed pulpit is so vast, not even the former wordsmith can quite describe it. So local residents have just settled on “Mr. Kirkland.”

“Oh, I’ve just been here so long,” he said. “I was always active in all sorts of things, and I didn’t hesitate to report the news.”

Active is an understatement. As publisher and editor-in-chief of the East Side Journal, Morgan remembered a bit of wisdom a journalism professor imparted on him years ago: “In journalism you have a choice. You can either tear down a community or build it up.”

He chose the latter.

“I was interested in people primarily. That’s what I would find the most rewarding when I was reporting,” he said. “People are identified and understood. To me that was the strength of the publication … It’s always about them and their activities.”

He championed countless causes and initiatives to improve the lives of Kirkland residents and citizens of the Eastside. Since moving here in 1946, he’s mounted successful campaigns for a clean city water supply, advocated paving city streets, pushed for a strong city-manager form of government and backed the merger of Houghton with Kirkland (to name but a few). Down in Marina Park, he was one of a handful of people who came up with the idea for building the Plaza of Champions. And he was involved in the construction of the Evergreen Hospital Medical Center, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, Interstate 405 and the Kirkland Performance Center. He even played a part in a musical there in 2005.

Morgan has ink in his veins. In fact, his public writings and connections with Kirkland run so deep he’s been both sued by the city and unintentionally gotten the city sued.

The scoop: His work on a city commission produced a parking ordinance that charged merchants who didn’t provide private parking. Downtown businesses sued and overturned it. Years earlier, the Kirkland Police Department sued Morgan and the East Side Journal for libel after it ran a story about the Kirkland Police Chief being cited for public drunkenness on an out-of-town trip.

“The judge gave us a 3-cent penalty,” he said with a chuckle. “There wasn’t much sympathy for them for bringing the lawsuit. It was recorded as the lowest libel payment in the history of that time.”

According to Morgan, the chief was quickly replaced to much embarrassment.

The East Side Journal is now long gone (merged in 1976 to form the now defunct Journal American daily newspaper), and Morgan, 96, is slowed down a bit by his advanced years. But don’t tell him that. Last year he celebrated his birthday by going for a hot-air balloon ride a 1,000 feet up with two female companions.

“His zest for life is so admirable,” said friend and former Seattle Times and Journal American columnist Sherry Grindeland.

Initially familiar with him only through his reputation as the Journal American’s “Publisher Emeritus,” Grindeland said she was professionally introduced to Morgan as a source of local news for her column. Years later, in a pique of thespian providence, the two found themselves playing the parts of “townpeople” in a 2005 production of “Music Man” at Kirkland Performance Center.

“He was one of those people that I would always run into,” she said. “Our paths kept crossing.”

After he confided in her that he needed advice on writing his memoirs, Grindeland said she would help. Thousands of pages and three years later, she said the work is nearly finished, barring a few edits.

“Chuck has so many interesting stories from over the years, the hardest part is trimming them down so they can be printed,” she said.

Indeed, one could say Morgan’s crammed enough variety into 96 years to occupy three lifetimes. He grew up on a family farm outside Grand Rapids, Mich., until the property was lost to the Great Depression. At that time his was head in the clouds with dreams of being an engineer in South America — building bridges and dams while finding time to romance a foreign beauty. But he wound up heading to Alaska for “adventure” and met a lovely girl from Idaho (Florence, his wife) instead. They were married for 63 years until she passed away in 2004.

He also fondly remembers his childhood friend, President Gerald Ford, who attended the same high school, but a year behind. Ford dated a friend of Morgan’s, and the group would often go together to downtown Grand Rapids or to beach parties on Lake Michigan. Despite the decades that passed, the pair stayed in touch. In honor of Morgan’s 90th birthday, the Fords sent a him a personally signed note of congratulations.

It reads: “Just a note of congratulations with my highest compliments. Betty and I extend our admiration and warmest, best wishes. You have earned the label — Kirkland’s Elder Statesman.”