John Spellman

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John Dennis Spellman

18th Governor of Washington State
In office
January 14, 1981 – January 16, 1985
Preceded by Dixy Lee Ray
Succeeded by Booth Gardner

1st Executive of King County, Washington
In office
May 1, 1969 – January 14, 1981
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Ronald W. Dunlap

Born December 2, 1926
Seattle, Washington
Died January 6, 2018 (aged 91)
Seattle, Washington, U.S
Resting place Calvary Cemetery in Seattle
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Lois Elizabeth Murphy Spellman (married 1954-2018, his death)
Children Margo, Bart, David, Jeffrey, Teresa, and Kat
Alma mater Seattle University
(Bachelor of Business)

Georgetown University
(Juris Doctor)

Religion Roman Catholic

Military Service
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1944–1946
Battles/wars World War II

John Dennis Spellman (December 29, 1926 – January 16, 2018) was an American attorney and politician who was the 18th Governor of his native Washington State. Prior to his single gubernatorial term from 1981 to 1985, he had been from 1969 to 1981 the first executive of King County, the state's most populous, with the passage of a home-rule charter for county government. With his defeat for a second term in 1984, by the Democrat Booth Gardner (1936-2013),[1] Spellman remains the last Republican to have served as governor of the since heavily Democratic Washington State.


A Seattle native, Spellman was the son of insurance executive Sterling Bartholomew "Bart" Spellman (1895-1955), and the former Lela A. Cushman (1895-1985), a teacher.[2] His paternal grandfather, Dennis Bartholomew "Denny" Spellman (1863-1925), was an Irish immigrant who became a plumbing contractor. His maternal grandmother, America Vespusis Kirk Cushman Guion (1867-1934), was one of the first white children born in the former Oregon Territory and settled in the community of Brownsville in Linn County in western Oregon.[2] His father, Bart, played in the 1917 Rose Bowl for the University of Oregon in Eugene. Later he was an assistant coach at both the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.[3]

Spellman was reared in the suburbs of Hunts Point and Bellevue with his sister, Mary Catherine Spellman Tully (1924-2013);[2] his older brother, David Bartholomew (1925–1951), a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, was killed in the Korean War at the age of twenty-five.[4] Spellman graduated in 1944 from the Seattle Preparatory School. The same year, he left high school midway in his senior year to enroll in the cadet program of the Merchant Marine during World War II, and then served in the United States Navy.[3] After the war, under the G.I. Bill of Rights, Spellman studied at Seattle University, a private Jesuit institution, from which he received in 1949 a Bachelor of Business degree. In 1953, he graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.[2]

Spellman met his wife, the former Lois Elizabeth Murphy (1927–2018), a native of Havre, Montana, in a Spanish class at Seattle University.[5][6]The two were married in 1954 and had six children, Margo, Bart, David, Jeffrey, Teresa, and Kat (full names unavailable).[3] Mrs. Spellman died only nine days after her husband's passing.

Political career

Spellman ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Seattle early in 1964.[7]Then he campaigned for Daniel Jackson Evans in Evans' successful bid to become governor which came despite the heavy losses sustained by the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign later in 1964. Spellman was elected to the three-member King County Commission in 1967. With the home-rule charter adopted in 1968, the office of County Executive was established and Spellman was elected in 1969 as the county's first executive. He defeated Albert Dean Rosellini (1910-2011), who had preceded Dan Evans as governor.[8]

Spellman worked to consolidate departments and to replace the old patronage system with one based on merit. Spellman supervised the building the domed station, the Kingdome, that provided the first home for the former Seattle Seahawks and the current Seattle Mariners, and initiated early efforts to deal with uncontrolled growth in the sprawling county. He was re-elected as the county executive in 1973 and 1977.[9]

Spellman first ran for governor in 1976 and was the top Republican in the state's blanket primary, but he lost the general election to Democrat Dixy Lee Ray even thoug Gerald Ford carried Washington State in his campaign against Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Spellman defeated state Representative Duane Lyman Berentson (1928-2013) in the gubernatorial primary. Berentson campaigned for Spellman in the general election against Dixy Lee Ray. Ronald Reagan won the presidential election and is the last Republican presidential nominee to have carried Washington State.[10]

During Spellman's four-year term, Washington's economy endured a major recession marked by rising unemployment and disappointing tax revenues.The state legislature was deeply divided over how to address the revenue shortfall but voted to increase the state sales tax rate from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent. Despite campaign promises that he was opposed to higher taxes, Spellman raised $2.5 billion in new taxes to address the shortfalls.[11]

Spellman was strongly committed to environmental protection. He vetoed a bill that would have permitted a development project in a sensitive shoreline area of Whatcom County, but the state Senate overrode him.[12] He successfully blocked a proposed oil pipeline sought by the Norther Tier Pipeline Company which would have dredged under the Puget Sound. Spellman maintained that the pipeline could cause potential damage to the ecology of the waterway and persisted in his stance despite much popular opposition.[13]

In September 1983, upon the death of U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson, Spellman appointed Republican former Governor Dan Evans to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat. The appointment aroused fierce Democratic opposition. As state law required an immediate election for the remainder of the Senate term, a primary election was held just three weeks after Evans' interim appointment.[14]

Later years

After leaving office, Spellman returned to his law practice, Carney Badley Spellman.[9] In 1990, he ran for election as a justice of the Washington Supreme Court but lost to future Washington Supreme Court chief justice Richard P. Guy (born 1932) of Spokane.[15]

Spellman fell and broke his hip on December 27, 2017, and died of pneumonia on the morning of January 16, 2018, at the age of ninety-one.[9][16]


  1. John Dennis Spellman (1926-2018) - Find A Grave Memorial, accessed August 10, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "Lela Spellman dies; mother of former governor," The Seattle Times, May 12, 1985, p. C6.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart. Office of the Secretary of State. Retrieved on August 11, 2021.
  4. David Bartholomew Spellman. Retrieved on August 15, 2021.
  5. Jim Camden (January 25, 2018). Former Washington First Lady Lois Spellman dies. The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved on August 11, 2021.
  6. Lisa Pemberton (January 25, 2018). Former Washington first lady Lois Spellman dies days after losing her husband. The Olympian. Retrieved on October 11, 2021.
  7. "Seattle Election Returns," The Seattle Times, February 12, 1964, p. 4.
  8. Former Washington governor John D. Spellman dies at 91. (January 16, 2018). Retrieved on August 15, 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Jack Brunner (January 16, 2018). Former Washington governor, King County executive John Spellman dies. The Seattle Times. Retrieved on August15, 2021.
  10. Richard W. Larsen and Lee Moriwaki, "From rivals to friends: Berentson stumps for Spellman," The Seattle Times, September 18, 1980.
  11. Bill Dietrich, "Will the real John Spellman please stand up?," The Seattle Times, January 9, 1983.
  12. "Senate votes to override oil-rig veto," The Seattle Times, April 9, 1982.
  13. Eric Pryne, "Spellman refuses to read 7,500 letters on Northern Tier," The Seattle Times, March 28, 1982.
  14. Richard Larsen and Dick Clever, " "Evans to replace Jackson in Senate," The Seattle Times, September 8, 1983.
  15. Joel Connelly (August 8, 2012). Washington voters: No retreads, Seattle mayors. Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved on August 15, 2021.
  16. Rachel La Corte (January 16, 2018). Former Washington Governor John Spellman Dies at 91. The Columbian. Retrieved on August 15, 2021.