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Farewell to Advisory Council member Earl Cruzen, father of the Murals of West Seattle

By Clay Eals

The father of the famed Murals of West Seattle has died.

Earl Cruzen, a lifelong resident and longtime business leader in West Seattle, died Jan. 23, 2017, at his Duwamish Head condominium overlooking Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. He was 96.

Cruzen Earl portrait crop colorEarl was perhaps best known for conceiving and executing the art/history project called the Murals of West Seattle, centered in the West Seattle Junction.

On vacation trips with his wife, Virginia, and friends Moe and Bonnie Beerman, Earl encountered historical murals in Long Beach and Ilwaco, Washington, and Chemainus, B.C., and saw their potential for drawing tourists and bolstering local business.

Earl launched the Murals of West Seattle project in 1988, and over the next five summers 11 murals by world-renowned artists sprouted on the walls of business buildings in and around the Junction. The murals, depicting scenes from West Seattle history, were funded by local building owners and matching city and county grants. Nine of the murals remain to this day, with a 10th repainted in a new location.

An offshoot, affectionately called the “12th mural” in reference to its original intent, was Phillip Levine’s “Walking on Logs” sculpture. Depicting children balancing atop driftwood, it is part of the West Seattle Gateway along the Fauntleroy Expressway and was dedicated in 1996. Earl led not only its development but also the hands-on maintenance of its hillside grounds for 12 years.

Several awards recognizing the Murals of West Seattle came Earl’s way, including, most recently, the 2014 Orville Rummel Trophy for Outstanding Service to the Community. He typically credited his mentors and partners and promoted the value of service to others.

“It’s not what you are getting out of life,” he said when then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proclaimed Sept. 13, 2008, as Earl Cruzen Day, “but what you are giving to the life in your community.”

The mural project capped a full life. He was born Earl Robert Cruzen on Sept. 9, 1920, and raised in what was called the Dumar area of the Highland Park neighborhood in the southeastern corner of West Seattle.

A 1939 graduate of West Seattle High School, where he was a newspaper columnist and editor of the annual, Earl attended the University of Washington for a year before joining the World War II effort by working at Boeing, testing airplanes before they were delivered to the Army Air Corps. Later during the war, he joined the Merchant Marines.

Earl started and grew his auto-parts distribution business, Cruzen Distributing Inc., near the Georgetown neighborhood, over the next four decades. He also served as chair of the Junction Development Committee, an umbrella group of the Junction Merchants Association, the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce and West Seattle Trusteed Properties.

After his retirement, Earl continued his community involvement for 20 years with a variety of organizations. He volunteered at S.C.O.R.E. as a financial counselor. Underscoring his passion to help students pursue further education, he served on the foundation board for South Seattle Community College, establishing endowed scholarships for automotive students and in the name of the West Seattle High School class of 1939.

His involvement extended to the Rotary Club (downtown and West Seattle), Fauntleroy Church, West Seattle and Fauntleroy YMCA, Horizon House, Southwest District Council, the People to People International program for educational travel and the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, for which he was an Advisory Council member.

Earl was married to his first wife, Virginia, from July 21, 1943, until her death on May 2, 1998. Earl married Adah Rhodes on his 80th birthday on Sept. 9, 2000, and they enjoyed the Alki waterfront for his next 16-1/2 years.

Besides Adah, he also is survived by a daughter, Carla Friehe (Berend); grandchildren Katharina Rainis (Michael), Derek Friehe (Amber), Phillip Friehe (Justine), and Stephanie Cumaravel (Collin); great grandchildren Sebastian Friehe, Emma Friehe, Caleb Rainis, and Ethan Rainis; Adah’s stepdaughter Sally Crouch and Sally’s sons Garth Crouch (Nickie) and Scott Crouch (Yana).

Cruzen was preceded in death by his parents, Wesley and Ora Mae Cruzen, and sisters Bernice Tonkin and Vivian Floyd.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at Fauntleroy Church, 9260 California Ave. S.W. Arrangements are by Evergreen Washelli. Remembrances in lieu of flowers may go to South Seattle College, the Rotary Club of West Seattle, the West Seattle and Fauntleroy YMCAs or the Mural Restoration and Maintenance Fund of the West Seattle Junction Association.

Earl would summon a phrase from Joshua Green and say about the Murals of West Seattle, “When these you see, remember me.”

[Clay Eals, executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, worked with Earl’s family to prepare this obituary.]

Following are the remarks delivered by Clay Eals, on behalf of the historical society, during the Feb. 25, 2017, service at Fauntleroy Church:

Remarks for Earl Cruzen memorial service
Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, Fauntleroy Church

By Clay Eals

Is there anybody here who needs to be reminded that “mural” rhymes with “Earl”?

Of course, I’m talking about – and there’s no better way to say it – the father of the Murals of West Seattle.

Three decades ago, as president of the historical society, I was lucky to work with Earl on the mural project from the beginning. We were in the midst of history fever in West Seattle. We had just come off the West Side Story history book project, after 60 years J.C. Penney had just pulled out of the Junction, and the business district needed a shot in the arm.

And Earl had just the right tonic.

On vacation trips with his wife, Virginia, and their friends Moe and Bonnie Beerman, Earl found historical murals down on the Washington coast, in Long Beach and Ilwaco, and even way up on Vancouver Island in the tiny lumber town of Chemainus, about an hour’s drive north of Victoria.

These murals gave Earl a vision – and a mission. He knew they had great potential to lure tourists and bolster local businesses in West Seattle. And he was relentless. He found blank walls. He raised funds. He brought people together. He was the proverbial “driving force.”

Everyone in this room has experienced these murals. And the execution was as brilliant as the concept. Some of you remember this quite well.

For five summers in a row, from 1989 to 1993, a total of 11 giant pieces of art took shape all around us, like bouquets of blooming flowers. And it wasn’t just the art. As Earl would say, it was the “world-class muralists.” For weeks at a time, from morning to dusk, we got to talk with and get to know each of the artists as their brush strokes hit the walls. It was simply magic.

Earl was proud that every one of the murals was based on authentic, historical photos. “They are not wild art,” he said. “They just remind us of our past.”

So what was it about Earl’s past that sparked this enduring contribution to us all?

Earl was born 96 years ago, in 1920, in a small home right here in West Seattle – it was in what was called Dumar, which people today know as Riverview or Highland Park.

This was no wealthy enclave. The Cruzen home had one bedroom. Earl shared a bed in the front room. Outside was an outhouse – a three-seater. His family was the only one in the area to have a telephone, so they took messages for the whole neighborhood.

It was a world of woods and trails and logs and streetcars and roller-skates and plank sidewalks.

It also was good times at Highland Park Grade School, singing in the boys’ chorus, working on school patrol and playing soccer games way down in South Park, which meant running pell-mell down Boeing Hill to the Duwamish Valley, and afterward trudging up a trail back home.

“The first thing I was taught,” Earl said, “was self-reliance. I had no allowance. My parents didn’t have money to give me. My dad would say, ‘If you want money, go out and earn it.’ ”

So Earl did. As soon as he was old enough, he had newspaper routes, delivering the nearby White Center Record and the White Center News.

Then he graduated to selling magazines: the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal.

“One lady,” he said, “traded me for a dozen eggs every time I delivered a magazine. I thought that was pretty hot stuff. When my dad came home from work, I liked to tell him, ‘I’ve got the eggs. Do you have the bacon?’”

The magazine company gave Earl his most prized possession at the time – a bicycle. “I waited three years and passed up all the small rewards to get that bike. It was so precious. I kept it spotless. I always wiped it off and never dropped it on the ground.”

Using the bike, Earl sold Christmas trees to neighbors for 25 cents each. “I’d wait till I got a few orders, then bike down to the woods off Ninth Avenue. There were trees all over for the taking. I’d bike back home with a tree in one arm and a tree in the other arm. No one could see anything but a couple of little-boy feet pedaling along.”

About the time he entered West Seattle High School, his parents moved to the Junction, and Earl began his time at the high school with a bang.

Immediately, the faculty adviser named him freshman class president. Soon he became a sportswriter for the school paper, the Chinook, and picture editor for the yearbook, the Kimtah.

Along the way, he rubbed shoulders with people who are now legendary West Seattleites.

They included Rupert Hamilton, the first editor and publisher of the West Seattle Herald, for whom Earl worked one summer, and Ken Colman and Ken’s father, Lawrence, when Earl learned how to be a carpenter and worked on the first building at Camp Colman.

Surely there are people here today who remember Bob Greive. Bob represented West Seattle for 40 years in the state Senate and on the county council, and as you know, Bob was not a shy man. He also was one of Earl’s classmates at West Seattle High.

Earl said years later, “Bob Greive walked to school with me from the Junction every day. He was in debate, and he’d yak all the way to school about what he was debating, what the subject was. I was his first listener.”

Without intending to do it, Earl learned to be a natural salesman. As he put it, “If you could persuade people to do what you want them to do, you were a salesman, but you didn’t really know it. It was just the art of persuasion.”

This art really served Earl well in the coming years. After he graduated West Seattle High in 1939, he briefly attended the University of Washington, then served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, traveling everywhere from Holland to the Philippines.

Back home, he worked at Boeing for a couple of years. But he was frustrated. He said, “I didn’t want to work for anybody else. I wanted to work for myself.”

So he did. He launched an auto-parts distribution business, Cruzen Distributing, which he operated near the Georgetown neighborhood for the next 40 years.

But he didn’t just work. Earl gave. And his gifts came to West Seattle.

The list of organizations to which Earl contributed time, talent and treasury, well into his retirement, is long and diverse:

  • The Rotary Clubs of Downtown and West Seattle
  • The foundation of what’s now called South Seattle College
  • The West Seattle and Fauntleroy YMCAs
  • Fauntleroy Church
  • Horizon House
  • The Southwest District Council
  • The People to People International program for educational travel
  • The S.C.O.R.E. program for business mentoring
  • The Southwest Seattle Historical Society

But the organization that gave Earl the platform for what became his best-known legacy was the Junction Development Committee.

This was an innovative coordinating group that operated through the 1980s and into the 1990s, with a 17-member board, chaired by Earl, that represented three groups: the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Junction Merchants Association and the West Seattle Trusteed Properties, which owns and maintains the free-parking lots in the Junction.

Now they say that timing is everything. Right when Earl was bringing these three groups together for regular discussions about the future of the Junction was the exact same time that probably the biggest thing ever happened to – and for – West Seattle.

That was the planning and construction and opening of what we all take for granted today, but what was brand new in 1984, the high-level West Seattle Bridge.

The bridge was the talk of the town. And Earl was at the forefront of shaping how we should all think about it. It may be hard to imagine now, with today’s bustling Junction, but our peninsula’s main business district was in the doldrums. Empty storefronts were not uncommon. And our local merchants were anxiously awaiting the end of years of complicated and ever-changing traffic detours from the bridge construction.

Would the bridge, when it was finished, bring more outside shoppers to the Junction? Or would it just encourage more West Seattleites to leave and shop downtown and Southcenter?

Earl brought a welcome sense of humor to the speculation. As editor of the West Seattle Herald, I was fortunate to be there when Earl, tongue in cheek, told the mayor of Seattle, Charley Royer, that the best thing the mayor could do would be to designate the brand-new high bridge for westbound traffic only – and to make the 50-year-old, low-level Spokane Street Bridge the eastbound exit from West Seattle.

Earl also was a voice against complacency.

A few months before the bridge opened, Earl told me in an interview, “My worry is that people will be saying, ‘The bridge is coming and things are going to start happening.’ Well, it’ll only happen if we have something good to offer. Otherwise, those people are going to turn around and go right back out. When you talk about the bridge, all I can say is, we better get hopping.”

Two years later, in 1986, the future of the Junction was again a hot topic. One block east, Jefferson Elementary School was giving way to a new shopping center, and there were heated public hearings in West Seattle about the Junction’s maximum building height.

The city council finally voted for 85 feet (or eight floors), and again Earl counseled positive vigilance. He said, “The council is telling us, ‘We trust you guys to make the Junction what you want it to be and still maintain the West Seattle small-town feeling.’ Frankly, they’re telling us, ‘Go to work, guys.’ ”

Then came the murals – with a crowning touch, what some called the 12th mural, which was actually the sculpture along the Fauntleroy Expressway called “Walking on Logs.”

To unify community leaders and artists for this installation required Earl’s patient and sustained guidance. And after the piece was finally dedicated in 1996, astoundingly Earl volunteered his hands-on maintenance for more than a dozen years.

The murals project was both amazing and enduring, even as their condition today cries out for help. The project won many awards, and Earl was recognized repeatedly for making it happen. Perhaps the most fitting of these came three years ago – the 2014 Orville Rummel Trophy for Outstanding Service to the Community.

Earl was privileged to have two devoted life partners – making a home near the Fauntleroy ferry with his first wife, Virginia Cruzen, to whom he was married from 1943 until her death in 1998, and making a home with his second wife, Adah Rhodes Cruzen, who is here today. Earl and Adah married on Earl’s 80th birthday in 2000 and enjoyed their condominium at Duwamish Head for the next 16-1/2 years. Earl also was bolstered by a wealth of family in succeeding generations.

His legacy, however, is as geographical as it is familial. Earl’s devotion to this area ran deep. This was clear four years ago when the Seattle Times commissioned a cover story for its Sunday magazine about our peninsula. I was fortunate to be able to steer the reporter in Earl’s direction. Appropriately, she ended her lengthy piece with his wisdom.

Speaking in a whisper, Earl said of his beloved hometown, “It’s going to grow more and more, and higher and higher. There’ll be more people coming in here, too. They’re building houses on top of houses. It takes the good out of the area just to get more people in it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.”

Then the article described how Earl turned to his window overlooking Alki, raised his hand and pointed to the feature that has defined our peninsula and drawn people here for more than a century.

“They can’t take the tide away,” Earl said, “and they can’t take the water away.”

Though Earl is no longer living, I would say that they can’t take him away from us.

  • When we see little kids zigzagging around their neighborhoods and building their roots, we know that Earl is here.
  • When we see businesses in the Junction claiming and perpetuating their small-town character, we know that Earl is here.
  • And yes, when we enjoy – and someday fix up – our historical murals, we will know that Earl is still here.

Thank you, Earl.

 

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