Civic leader, dead at 75, championed education, technology center, ski area
Allison Stacey Cowles, a longtime Spokane civic leader, education activist and matriarch of the family that owns The Spokesman-Review, died Sunday morning at the age of 75.
Born Allison Florence Stacey on July 12, 1934, in New Jersey, she died in Spokane of pancreatic cancer.
She met future Spokesman-Review publisher William H. Cowles 3rd in Cambridge, Mass., where she received a master’s degree in history from Radcliffe College, the women’s college affiliate of Harvard University. Bill Cowles was a Harvard Law School student. They married on March 28, 1959, in her hometown of Westfield, N.J.
Allison Cowles lived in Spokane for 36 years, raising two children, William Stacey Cowles and Elizabeth A. “Betsy” Cowles.
She became deeply immersed in many civic causes. Her interests were multifaceted; she worked to improve skiing at Mt. Spokane and foster economic development, and supported abortion rights before Roe v. Wade.
“She was always, to me, the consummate private public servant,” said U.S. District Court Judge Bob Whaley. “She wasn’t looking for public recognition. She just wanted to get things done.”
Whaley and Cowles lobbied for the formation of Sirti, a state-funded technology assistance agency. They also helped form Federal Community Defenders, a private organization that provides criminal defense services to the indigent.
“There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to help out,” said Wendell Satre, a former chairman of Washington Water Power, now known as Avista.
When Sirti was starting up, supporters applied for a $15 million federal grant. But the young organization didn’t have enough researchers to qualify. Cowles and Satre drove to Richland to meet with top administrators at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, where Cowles persuaded the administrators to assign researchers to Sirti for six months. Sirti got the grant, Satre said.
“She was very driven to accomplish things,” said her son, Stacey Cowles, who is president of Cowles Co. and publisher of The Spokesman-Review. “She was very interested in policy issues.
“Education was a huge theme with her, even from grade school,” he recalled. “She was involved in the school volunteer program (in Spokane Public Schools), which was relatively controversial at the time. The teachers didn’t want parents in the classroom.”
Her interest in education soon expanded. For 12 years she served on the Washington State Council for Postsecondary Education, including a three-year stint as chairwoman, and also was a member of the Governor’s Temporary Committee on Educational Policies, Structure and Management. She was also a trustee of Whitman College and Wellesley College and a member of Washington State University’s Spokane Branch Advisory Board.
“She was very busy,” said her son. “My very first real recollection of her is that she is on the phone, and I had one of those little Fisher-Price phones, and, of course, I was always imitating her on the phone.”
She was also deeply involved in one particularly controversial issue: family planning and reproductive responsibilities. She served for a time as a board member for Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest. This is a cause she inherited from her mother, who had been an early advocate of family planning while working as a public health nurse.
“My brother and I … grew up believing it was immoral to bring children into the world who were not wanted, well-supported and loved in a loving family,” Allison Cowles wrote in an essay for a Planned Parenthood magazine in 2004.
She was both politically conservative and strongly feminist, said her daughter, Betsy Cowles.
“She was a very independent woman who just by her example mentored a lot of younger women,” said Betsy Cowles, chairwoman of Cowles Co. “That generation laid the groundwork for our generation. … A woman could have both a career and a family.”
According to her son, Allison Cowles always encouraged her children to live fully to their potential.
“One of the things she always told us – and I think she channeled her father, who was a sort of stern Englishman – was, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ ” said Stacey Cowles. “That was always her operating philosophy.”
She had plenty of energy for hobbies, notably sailing, tennis and other outdoor sports, including backpacking and fishing. She was an avid skier and in the 1990s became involved in the development and expansion of Mt. Spokane Ski Area.
“She took great joy in knowing that families of all backgrounds could enjoy recreation there,” said Betsy Cowles.
She was also a key supporter and board member of many Spokane cultural institutions, including the Spokane Symphony and the YMCA of the Inland Empire.
In 1992, her husband died suddenly.
“It was devastating for her, because they had always talked about all of the things they were going to do when he retired,” said her son. “And then they never got the chance.”
After Bill Cowles’ death, family friend Lloyd Schermer tapped her to serve on the Smithsonian Institution’s national board. Cowles had a “bright and practical” mind, said Schermer, the former chief executive officer of Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain. “When Allison spoke, people listened.”
She stayed in Spokane until 1996, when she married Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, who was the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. The families had known each other for years through their newspaper connections.
After their marriage in Spokane, the couple moved to New York and had homes in Manhattan and Southampton.
“She said she was fortunate to have had two terrific loves in her life,” Betsy Cowles said. “Her connection to both families meant a lot to her.”
Recently, the health of both Allison Cowles and Sulzberger began to fail. She was diagnosed with cancer, and Sulzberger had a stroke and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Earlier this spring they moved to a house on Spokane’s South Hill, where they could receive home health care and where Allison could be close to her family.
Memorial services are pending.
Her name will live on at Mt. Spokane, where one of the ski runs was named in her honor.
“It’s called Allison’s Way, and it’s a great legacy and she was very proud of that,” her son said in an interview just before her death. “Of course, we all think Allison’s Way is a good title, because … that’s what she usually gets.”
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