On Wednesday, the rebuilt Witter Pool will be dedicated at Mission Park in northeast Spokane. Renaming the pool for a corporate sponsor might have made economic sense, but sometimes history trumps revenue. The pool will remain “Witter,” named after Stanley G. Witter Sr., director of Spokane’s parks from the 1930s to 1960.
Read a bit of his life story here, and you’ll understand why.
“He never made a lot of money, but his name was worth a million,” said his son, Stan Witter Jr.
In 1914, Spokane’s first municipal pools were built in northeast Spokane because of “repeated drownings in Hangman Creek and the Spokane River,” according to newspaper accounts. There were two pools, one for boys, the other for girls, and both were called the Sinto Pool.
Spokane’s legacy of safe and clean swimming for its children was born.
In 1914, Stanley Witter was 19 years old. He’d grown up in Thornton, Wash., north of Colfax, a farming community where his father ran the grain elevator and served in the state Legislature.
Witter served in World War I and taught school when he returned. He worked in Spokane schools for 13 years as teacher and principal. He liked best his assignments in the city’s poorer schools.
In 1934, Witter beat out 23 other applicants to become the recreation director for Spokane’s park department. His salary: $162 a month. By 1941, when Witter left Spokane to serve as an officer in the Navy during World War II, he was considered indispensible.
City leaders declared: “Witter will be given a leave of absence. His assistants will carry on in his capacity.”
He resumed his parks duties after the war. A 1947 newspaper photo of the park board shows Witter surrounded by names still famous in Spokane: Louis Davenport, Joel E. Ferris, E.A. Shadle and L.R. Hamblen.
The park system grew and grew in this golden era. Witter was known as a straight arrow and a progressive leader. He appointed women to the park board, and he understood that employment helped children rise out of poverty.
“He hired kids from poor families as locker boys,” his son Stan, now 81, recalled. “Some became highly successful later, and they’d say, ‘Your dad meant so much to me as a kid.’ ”
His public integrity mirrored his private practices.
Son George, 88, remembered that when the Navy sent his father to San Diego on business, he only spent half of his per diem, and sent the other half back to the U.S. government.
He never drove his city car on personal errands – ever.
“He hired a lot of coaches and teachers for the parks,” Stan remembered. “I said, ‘How about giving me a job?’ He said, ‘You’ve got the wrong name.’ ”
By the late 1950s, Spokane pools were showing their age.
“Four of the five Spokane pools are of a type which became obsolete 25 years ago,” declared T. J. Meenach, park board president.
The state department of health was threatening to shut down three pools. City voters, however, had turned down a pools replacement bond. So Witter got busy.
His grandson, Steve Witter, said: “He had an expression: ‘If you can’t find a way, you have to make a way.’ He put that into action when the bond issue failed. He personally went out and raised the money for a campaign to make sure it would pass the second time.
“This was 1958; he was 63. The end was in sight for retirement. Most people in his circumstances would have said, ‘I’m going to be gone in two years. The next guy can worry about it.’ He wouldn’t leave it bad for the next guy. He wanted it perfect when he left.”
In 1958, voters approved a $797,000 pools bond to modernize three existing pools and build three new ones. The two ancient Sinto pools were replaced by an Olympic-size pool. Witter lobbied for the larger size, so Spokane could host national swimming meets.
“He worked all year with the architects,” George remembered. “When it was finished, Mom said, ‘Are we going to the dedication?’ He said, ‘No, I’m finished.’ So she called me to take her. Dad finally said, “OK, OK, I’ll go.’ ”
Witter was stunned when a metal plaque was unveiled revealing the pool’s name: Stanley G. Witter.
“I am so overwhelmed, I can hardly speak,” he said, choking back tears.
Witter retired in July 1960. He died in 1989, at age 94.
The pool that bore his name became home to area swim teams, due to its Olympic size. Generations of lifeguards and swimming champions rose up from those waters.
By 2005, Spokane’s six pools were on life support. History was repeating itself.
At Witter Pool, pipes corroded; a sump pump was always on the blink.
During the resulting campaign for a parks and pools bond, proponents often referenced the legacy of that 1958 bond issue, spearheaded by Witter.
In November 2007, Spokane voters overwhelmingly passed a $42.9 million parks and pools bond. Four new pools opened last summer. Witter and Liberty “go live” this summer.
But Spokane’s six new pools were built in a different society than existed in 1960 when public and private projects were often named for people who made a difference, regardless of their wealth – or lack of it.
In modern times, public and private groups are open to naming their new facilities after corporations with big marketing budgets. Spokane County built two new aquatic centers in recent years, but didn’t name them for anyone, leaving the door open for an outside sponsor.
Leroy Eadie, director of Spokane Parks and Recreation, said his department also looks for sponsorships to create revenue, such as the naming of future dog parks.
But renaming Witter was not a consideration, he said, because “our parks and recreation system exists today because of the insight of key people. That’s important for future generations to understand.”
Katie Witter, 19, will attend Wednesday’s dedication. She is one of Witter’s 22 great-grandchildren.
When she gazes into the Olympic-size pool, Katie will see her great-grandfather’s words made visible.
In June 1960, Stanley G. Witter Sr. summed up his public-service career with these words: “You don’t make a lot of money in this kind of work, and you don’t go into expecting you will. But by golly, I can look back over the years and think of things that are worth much more than money.”