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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council curmudgeon George McGrath, who ‘had the courage to speak his truth to power,’ dies at 85

George McGrath is shown addressing the Spokane City Council in 2002. He died Sunday at 85.   (ROBERT J SHAER/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

George McGrath was never elected to the Spokane City Council but probably attended more Monday night council meetings than any member, past or present.

McGrath, who died Sunday at 85, was a fixture at the council chambers’ microphone for at least three decades.

He was passionate about a wide range of issues, some major and some minor. He’d introduce himself, give his home address on South Grand Boulevard, and launch, depending on whether one agreed with his position, into a discussion or a diatribe.

“He was a delightful curmudgeon,” former Councilman Steve Corker said.

Corker is a Democrat, while McGrath was a longtime Republican. The two would clash over some city issues but over time became friends.

“When the meetings were over, he’d come up and shake my hand,” Corker said Tuesday.

Council President Breean Beggs described McGrath as someone who “spoke his truth,” often punctuated with a bit of humor, dressed in colorful shirts, sweatshirts or a “Tickle Me Elmo” hat.

“I always appreciated it, even when he was going to say something negative about me or something I cared about,” Beggs said.

Born and raised in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, McGrath joined the Air Force after high school and served two years as a medic, much of it in Tokyo, his daughter, Sheryl McGrath, said. He returned to Prairie du Chien and reconnected with a long-time friend, Lola Moen. They were married in 1961, had a son, Erric, and Sheryl. George worked at the American Motors factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was a member of the United Auto Workers.

He attended KENTech Institute, studying sales, organization and leadership, and went to work at Kohler Plumbing after he graduated. In 1967, the company told him to pick between Spokane and Georgia. They picked Spokane, packed up the station wagon and drove cross-country, where George worked in sales for Kohler for 20 years.

“He always referred to himself as a peddler,” Sheryl McGrath said. “He loved the relationships more than the sale – but he always made the sale. He could be pretty persuasive.”

The McGraths bought a home on South Grand Boulevard in 1968, raised their children there and never moved.

“He loved the city,” Sheryl McGrath said. “When mom and dad moved to Spokane, it became their home.”

A staunch Republican, he ran once unsuccessfully for council, volunteered for campaigns and waved signs on street corners for candidates. He became interested in city government in the early 1990s, when the city announced plans to put a concrete island on a stretch of East 29th Avenue to block cars from driving straight across the arterial.

“It just ticked him off,” Sheryl McGrath said. “That was the beginning of his really vocal passion for the city.”

The island went in, but George McGrath continued to attend council meetings. He would receive a copy of the council agenda, sometimes more than 100 pages of ordinances, legal briefings and reports, and study it. He could be expected to upbraid the council on any change in taxes or fees, and question its spending.

“He very seldom missed a meeting,” said Rob Higgins, who served as the first council president after voters changed city government in 1999. Some people thought the council should limit McGrath’s time at the microphone, but Higgins said he didn’t feel that was appropriate.

“I think that at the local level, this is where the people come to speak,” Higgins said. “I said, ‘Let’s let the public speak on an issue, but let’s don’t repeat things over and over.’ ”

When McGrath turned 75, the council issued him a formal birthday salutation in recognition of his years of attendance. Then-President Ben Stuckart had a dancing Elmo doll on the dais and then-Councilman Jon Snyder, with whom he regularly clashed, produced a sock puppet when the council sang “Happy Birthday,” because McGrath had compared him to a sock puppet a few days earlier in the newspaper.

But McGrath could be repetitive as well as caustic, and there could be a feeling of “here we go again,” when he approached the microphone, Stuckart said.

In 2015, he set off a free speech debate by repeatedly calling the pedestrian bridge between East Sprague and the University District “the Bridge to Hookerville.” Council members and residents of the East Sprague neighborhood found it offensive. Stuckart asked him to stop. He wouldn’t. The council banned the phrase during meetings.

Some other people used it anyway, although McGrath referred to it as a $20 million footbridge “to a high-prostitution area.”

Eventually, city legal staff advised the council that the ban ran up against free speech rights, and it was lifted. Stuckart said he apologized, and McGrath went back to using the phrase.

“I respect his right to say that, but it is so offensive,” Stuckart said.

McGrath co-hosted a talk radio program with former Councilman Mike Fagan. He continued to attend council meetings until COVID-19 forced the sessions online. George and Lola didn’t have a computer or the internet in their home, Sheryl McGrath said.

In October 2020, he was diagnosed with heart problems, and later with a kidney disease that made it difficult to treat his heart problems. Last week he had trouble breathing, went to the emergency room and was admitted to the hospital, she said. He rallied briefly, but died Sunday.

The council plans for a formal tribute in the coming weeks when the family will be able to attend. It’s still being drafted, but Beggs said it will honor McGrath as a man who “had the courage to speak his truth to power.”

Stuckart said he ran into McGrath about a year ago in the Super One parking lot.

“We had a great conversation,” Stuckart said. “He had a long life, and he made his opinions known.”

Besides his daughter, George McGrath is survived by his wife, son, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. May 20 at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, 4320 S. Conklin St.