Bob Dellwo’s record of public service was long, colorful and varied. He spied on Soviet spies during World War II, ran for Congress in the 1950s, served as a Spokane Park Board member and city councilman in the 1980s, and a plan commissioner and freeholder in the 1990s.
But Dellwo, who died Tuesday at 97, was known for other things in other circles, too. He was a champion for Native American rights for decades, serving as attorney for several Northwest tribes.
A runner long before it became chic or even common, he built a reputation as Spokane’s fastest senior citizen, winning his age category in Bloomsday for many years and holding records in the senior category for national competitions. Among them was being the oldest man to run a mile in under five minutes, his son Dennis Dellwo said.
Born in Polson, Montana, in 1917, Dellwo came to Spokane to attend Gonzaga, graduating from the university in 1940 and Gonzaga Law School in 1942. Accepted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation right after finishing law school, he was stationed first in Washington, D.C., and later Denver and Portland.
One of his jobs during World War II was tracking Soviet spies who were sent to Portland under the guise of securing war supplies from U.S. allies. The FBI knew that some of the Soviet delegation had backgrounds in chemistry and physics, and they were sent to get information on activities at Hanford. Dellwo bugged their apartments, meeting rooms and cars; he posed as a telephone repairman to bug the offices of the Communist Party in Portland.
He also posed as an engineer for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, and took some Soviets on a tour of Eastern Washington. He kept them well away from Hanford, Dellwo told The Spokesman-Review in a 1995 story, shortly after details of that World War II spy program were declassified. When they asked what was going on at Hanford, “we told them it has to do with hydroelectric power,” he recalled.
After leaving the FBI in 1948, Dellwo settled in Spokane, where he and his wife, Madeline, raised eight children. When he was the Spokane County Democratic chairman, he ran for Congress against Rep. Walt Horan, the longtime Republican incumbent, in 1950 and 1952. He built a law practice that involved government law and representing tribes including the Coeur d’Alenes.
“He was instrumental in fighting for the sovereignty of the tribe,” Ernie Stensgar, Coeur d’Alene tribal chairman, said in a 2004 ceremony at GU Law School.
He was appointed to the city Park Board in 1983 and the City Council in 1986 to fill the vacancy created when Vicki McNeill was elected mayor. He was elected to the seat in 1987. Politics ran in his family: His father was the House speaker in Montana; his son Dennis served in Washington’s House of Representatives.
After losing his council seat in 1991, Dellwo stayed active in local civic affairs, serving on the city Plan Commission and later winning a seat as a freeholder in an effort to write a new county charter. And he continued to run, in Bloomsday, of which he was an early supporter, and in other competitions.
He’d slowed and become frail with age in recent years, Dennis Dellwo said, “but he hadn’t been sick at all.”
On Monday night, he went out to dinner with his wife and some family members at one of their favorite restaurants, Linnie’s, formerly The Shack, on Third Avenue. “He went to bed and didn’t wake up,” Dennis Dellwo said. “He looked so content.”
Bob Dellwo is survived by his wife, Madeline, four sons and four daughters, and numerous grandchildren. Services are pending.
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