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Stepping Up to the High Dive

Story by
Dow Constantine

Considering my family history with our alma mater, my decision to attend the University of Washington fell somewhere between unsurprising and inevitable. 

My grandfather enrolled as a freshman “Sundodger” at the dawn of the Roaring ’20s. My parents met and married as UW students in the early 1950s. I was born, right on schedule, during the University’s Centennial Month of November 1961.

My early experience of the UW campus of the late 1960s and early 1970s was gained walking alongside my father or grandfather through the bearded and braided throng en route to our Saturday appointment in Montlake. I was counseled along the way that this was a thriving university I was seeing along the walk, this institution attached to my beloved Husky Stadium. 

King Country Executive Dow Constantine (center) with fellow Huskies  Robb Weller ('71) and Sonny Sixkiller ('71).

King Country Executive Dow Constantine (center) with fellow Huskies 
Robb Weller ('71) and Sonny Sixkiller ('71).

So, I arrived for the game (to be specific, the 1969 Stanford game, a week before my eighth birthday. We lost, 21-7). Undeterred, and after another 65 or so mostly happier home games, I stayed for the education, ultimately spending about all of the 1980s as a University of Washington student. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, and seeing little to recommend leaving so soon, I continued on, earning first a law degree, and then a master’s in urban planning.

But it was my undergraduate liberal arts education that provided the foundation for the years that followed: young lawyer, community activist, political aide, and finally candidate for the state Legislature. I made the decision to run for office in 1996 despite the fact that the outgoing office-holder had already endorsed her expected successor. 

When I addressed our graduating Political Science students last fall, I likened the big risks we take in life to one’s first jump off the high dive. Many UW alumni of a certain age and temperament may have experienced the foolhardy leap from the unfinished Arboretum freeway ramps into the murky shallows of Lake Washington. Jumping into the 1996 legislative race felt a lot like that leap.

My steps up to the metaphoric high dive ran through the UW quad.

I remember sitting in a classroom listening to a candidate for the Legislature named Gary Locke. He was barely a decade older than me. For the first time, I could really picture myself running for political office. That image became even more real for me after I served as a legislative intern in Olympia—in a program pioneered some 50 years ago by UW Professor Hugh Bone. On the last night of the legislative session, I stood in the gallery of the Senate with two fellow interns and wondered aloud if we’d be coming back some day. Among my proudest accomplishments is having been elected to both the State House and the State Senate.

Of course, not all formative educational experiences take place in the classroom. I didn’t receive college credit for spinning records at KCMU (now KEXP) or for tending bar at the various watering holes that helped me pay the tuition, but I learned a lot doing both. As my arrival at the UW neatly coincided with the Reagan Revolution, I honed my undergraduate political skills by taking on the new batch of Young Republicans. Along with a snappier dress code, the Reagan Youth boasted a fully-formed ideological agenda and an already-completed reading list. Impressive to be sure, but more about insisting than inquiring; more about asserting than learning. And it was not about making government work for the people it serves. 

Every day or so as King County Executive, a different group of knowledgeable people will arrive in my office to deliver a major briefing. In one hour or less, they will outline a problem, its history, several possible courses of action, and a host of drawbacks for each. Often they expect a decision from me at the end of the meeting.

I feel I have an advantage during these briefings due to the broad liberal arts education I received at the University of Washington. Schooling in the liberal arts prepares us to keep learning after the class is over. We see the relationships between our major and the other fields of study. We learn not only how to ask questions, but to recognize a complete answer.

A job and a career aren’t handed out along with an undergraduate degree, but a liberal arts education provides the opportunity to grow and mature and to become an individual in the context of a place that provides intellectual challenge.

For thousands of Washington residents—myself included—that place was the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences.