John Fahey, the undisputed dean of Inland Northwest history who wrote about mines, Indian tribes, settlers and numerous regional characters in magazines and books, died Tuesday. He was 84.
“We’ve lost not only our greatest historian, but a great person,” said Nancy Compau, retired director of the Northwest Room historical collection in the downtown Spokane Library.
The University of Washington Press, which published several of his books, released a statement Thursday that called Fahey “the most important historian working in the Inland Empire.”
His books have sold more than 11,000 copies. Two UW-published books are currently in print: “Saving the Reservation” and “Shaping Spokane.” He wrote nine books, starting in the mid-1960s.
Friends described Fahey as an impish, modest man who offered frequent encouragement and sly humor. He’d often visit history buffs in Spokane, including those at the Museum of Arts and Culture, which he helped develop by expanding the collection, and the law offices of Bob Dellwo, a longtime friend and cousin to Fahey’s wife, Peggy.
Fahey began his career as a journalist, then moved into teaching and administrative positions at Eastern Washington University.
EWU’s history department still gives out an annual Fahey Award to a student who’s produced the best historical work.
Compau never forgot the camera Fahey loaned her as she began her graduate work in history.
“One day, the doorbell rang and there was John, and he handed me this shoebox and said, This will work a lot better for some of the things you do. It’s my old one, and I’m not using it. You should use it.’ That’s the kind of guy he was,” Compau said.
Fahey was born Aug. 6, 1919, in Spokane. He attended Gonzaga Prep and was captain of the state championship football team in 1936. He earned his undergraduate degree at Gonzaga University in 1941 and attended Medill’s graduate school of journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago in fall of 1941. He went to school full time while working as a news editor for NBC in Chicago, according to archival newspaper articles and family accounts.
During World War II, Fahey served in an Army program to expose German prisoners of war to democracy. By 1949, he began teaching journalism at Gonzaga University. He went on to publish articles in Time magazine and work as news director at numerous Spokane radio and television stations.
By the mid-‘60s, Fahey worked in EWU’s administration as director of grants and research. He also taught in the radio-television and history departments and was at one time head of the school’s public relations department.
Longtime friend Dellwo said during the early days of his law practice, when one of his earliest clients was the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, Fahey came along to help with documenting the history.
“I needed a writer and photographer,” Dellwo said. “This was in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. I immediately turned to John Fahey.”
Fahey later testified in the Coeur d’Alene Indians’ successful effort to regain control of the southern portion of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Fahey went on to produce books about the Flathead Indians of the Salish and Kootenai, the Kalispel and Coeur d’Alene Indian leader Joe Garry.
In 1970, while Fahey was researching the Flathead Indians, he told The Spokesman-Review that most Indian history “has been written by white men talking to other white men in a language derived from European culture.”
Ed Nolan, head of special collections for the Washington State Historical Society, said Fahey was instrumental in building the Eastern Washington Historical Society collection. “He’d done so much of the research he knew where to find the materials in private collections,” Nolan said.
Fahey was an absolute gentlemen and great friend who used his journalistic training to write lively historical accounts, Nolan said. “He didn’t write that leaden history that you so often see,” he said.
Through all the work, Fahey maintained a sense of humor and modesty.
“He never really blew his own trumpet,” Nolan said. “I never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone. He had a terrific sense of humor. It was kind of subtle, but it was good. It was really a pleasure to be associated with him.”
Bill Youngs, an EWU history professor, said, “He’s definitely a great loss of scholarship and history to the Inland Northwest.”
As historians go, Fahey produced work more often, more frequently and more readably than his colleagues, Youngs said. “I just bow down to Fahey for his persistence and the terrific achievements,” he said. Youngs produced a book called “The Fair and the Falls,” about Spokane hosting the 1974 Expo. “I’d be pleased to come near his achievements.”