Bamboozling and Warming the Heart of Downtown Tacoma in the 1970s

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Nov 26, 2017 in Rat News | Subscribe

It was a deathly quiet time in downtown Tacoma. There were more vacant lots than people. The Tacoma Mall had lured away most of the shops and those left were struggling. In 1969, the Downtown Tacoma Association was created to promote and develop retail trade in the City of Tacoma. During the same time I became a member of the Tacoma Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees). It was a young man’s organization (21-35), but I actually joined for my wife. They had an auxiliary. Our second child was born in 1968 and we were pregnant with our third. We had just moved back into town from Long Lake. Peggy, my wife was looking for a life outside of mothering three children under the age of three.

It was a deathly quiet time in downtown Tacoma. There were more vacant lots than people.

When I told my supervisor at Boeing that I had joined the Jaycees, he responded with a “humph” and the put down “They don’t do anything but drink beer.” Boeing management wasn’t too enlightened at the time. I worked afternoon shifts so I could attend the University of Puget Sound. On New Year’s Day one year later Boeing freed me to explore other options. This was after they had also freed dozens of my friends. Peg had been enjoying her involvement in the Tacoma Jaycee-ettes, so I began attending Jaycee meetings. I took a leadership course and learned to set goals. I was introduced to the CPG (Chairman’s Planning Guide) a project management tool, took Speak-Up (public speaking) and financial management. “Leadership training through community involvement,” was our slogan. The most valuable training was learned by hosting a Wive’s Appreciation Night. Our Tacoma Jaycee president was Rohn Burgess. Tacoma is a small town. I remember as a child my parents shopping at Burgess Furniture on K Street. Rohn was the director of the Downtown Tacoma Association. Rohn was old school. Soon Rohn became more and more involved in the Downtown Association and phased out of Jaycees (age-wise too).

With other new Jaycee members along with their wives and girl friends, we did our best to stir things up. We sold roasted chestnuts on the Broadway Plaza (the street was closed to encourage people to walk around and shop) during the Christmas season. Roasted chestnuts are an acquired taste, by the way. They sold well, but nobody liked them. We played Donkey Baseball in Lincoln Bowl against the disc jockeys of radio station KTAC. We sponsored an uphill bicycle race and held a Big Wheel competition as well. We chose one of the many empty lots in the downtown core for a greased pig chase. The City of Tacoma and the Humane Society said, “No.” One of our members made up a sign that said, “The Humane Society Loves Pigs, Too.” We also ran the KTAC Haunted House for several years. The first one was in the closed Weisfields store on Commerce Street.

One of our members made up a sign that said, “The Humane Society Loves Pigs, Too.”

Weisfields had a display window. People lining up to enter the Haunted House would have to stand right by it. I thought we should entertain our guests. We left the display windows dirty and murky. We carved some evil looking Jack O’ Lanterns, hung some old railroad chip nets (they look like giant spider webs) from Burlington Northern, put some fake bones on the display surface and put in a couple of spot lights. Opening day I went to the B I Circus Store on South Tacoma Way and bought pet rats. Before people arrived I added the rats to the display.

As people lined up to buy tickets and enter, they peered into the display window. When a rat crawled out of the eye socket of one of the Jack O’ Lanterns a woman screeched, “Oh, my god, there’s live rats in there!” The next day the Humane Society called. We did really well, however . . . even without the rats.

The monies that we raised from our projects went back into the community of course. One of our favorite Christmas holiday projects involved taking children (waiting for Big Brothers and Big Sisters) to K-Mart on Sixth Avenue. The store would open early for us so each child could shop for presents, up to $5 worth. $5 was two hours wages at Boeing . . . if you still had a job there. Some children bought for themselves, but many bought for the their brothers and sisters and a few for their mothers.

Eventually, the Jaycees met up with a community group that wanted to do something similar at Christmas time, but much larger. We would need a location. I stuck my neck out and guaranteed a location so we could proceed. I talked to Gary Ellis, who ran Amtrak in Tacoma and Union Station. We would give away brand new toys and used clothing for children. The entity of Christmas House was born. We took over a large section of the middle floor. Union Station was decorated with banners hanging in every window and was absolutely beautiful. Thank god. My backup plan for the guarantee had been our KTAC Haunted House . . . without the rats of course. For our grand opening we had TV’s Brakeman Bill, Seafair Royalty, and a rotunda full of guests. Christmas House became it’s own 501 C-3 organization and provided toys and warm clothing for Pierce County children for over twenty-five years.

Union Station was decorated for Christmas House with banners hanging in every window and was absolutely beautiful.

My last involvement in Jaycees was the creation of the Tacoma/Seattle Bacon Bowl. This was run by the executive board of the Washington State Jaycees. We were top heavy with Tacoma Jaycees. The event involved members of the police departments, fire departments, and sheriff offices of both Seattle/King County and Tacoma/Pierce County in an annual football game. The first year the game was played at the King Dome (Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn signed fifty Nerf footballs which we threw into the stands. The second year the battle was fought in the Tacoma Dome. Over twenty years a quarter of a million dollars were raised for Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and other children’s charities.

In the late 70s, a new club, the Tacoma Mall Jaycees was formed. Many of their members only used initials for their first and middle names. That was our way to bring in women (incognito) into the organization. Peg joined as M.H. Doman and became a Jaycee. Today there are only 15,500 members of Jaycees world-wide, but in the 70s we had around a quarter of that in Washington State alone. We did drink a little beer . . . and had a great time. I think we improved Tacoma and Pierce County. Many of my oldest friends were Jaycees. We don’t talk much about the old days, but we remember them. On the really bright side, now there is always something going on in downtown Tacoma.

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