Bob and Micki Flowers have a history of breaking down racial barriers. She was the first female African American broadcaster at KIRO television; he was the first black executive at Washington Mutual bank. They once successfully sued the U.S. Army over discriminatory housing practices. They have often been the first or among the first African Americans to take leadership positions in the many educational and nonprofit organizations that they support as volunteers and philanthropists. They trace their willingness to serve as trailblazers to their parents and grandparents, people who pushed through barriers of their own, beginning in the segregated South during the Jim Crow era. "They were adventuresome and fearless," said Micki. "If they saw a door they could open that would provide opportunities for others, they were willing to walk through it, no matter what the risks or the costs or the challenges. We saw the changes they were able to make because they took chances" (Tate interview).
Micki and Vicki
Micki Eileen Giles and her identical twin sister, Vicki Adrienne, were born in the Okmulgee Colored Hospital in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on October 28, 1948, the only children of Leslie and Ross Giles. Their parents were both members of ranching families from Texas. Both had graduated from Prairie View Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Prairie View A & M), a historically black university near Houston. Micki's maternal grandmother, Gertrude Rydolph, also had graduated from Prairie View. "Education was very, very important in our household," Micki said (unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the Tate interview).
The family moved back to a ranch in south Texas shortly after the twins were born. In addition to raising cattle and growing crops, both parents were teachers: Leslie (their father) taught math; Ross taught everything from elementary school to business. They were also active members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When their daughters were in the first grade, they enrolled them in an all-white elementary school. Micki remembered hearing them talk, years later, about the apprehension they felt about sending their children off to integrate that school, "but they knew it would make a difference." In 1955, at their grandmother Gertrude's urging, they moved to southern California. Rydolph had visited friends there and decided California offered better opportunities for blacks than Texas. Their parents bought a small produce farm near Los Angeles. The family split its time between the farm, a house in the city, and the ranch in Texas.
The girls were very close as they grew up. They dressed alike until they were in third grade, when they told their mother they didn't like the attention they were getting as twins and wanted to dress differently. "What was funny was that we would go shopping individually and come back with the same clothes," Micki said, laughing. "We still do that, to this day." (Her sister, Vicki Giles Fabre, in 2015 is the Seattle-based executive vice president of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association.)
They graduated from St. Mary's Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Los Angeles, in 1966, and went off to college together, to the University of Washington in Seattle. Both were good students and had been recruited by a number of other schools, including some in the Ivy League, but they chose the UW. They had visited Seattle during the summer of 1962 (their parents were taking graduate classes at the UW at the time) and liked the city. It was away from home but not too far, it had a good academic reputation, and it was co-ed. After attending an all-girls high school, they wanted a different kind of experience in college.
Micki Giles met Bob Flowers at a party shortly after arriving on campus. She was a freshman; he was a 6-foot-1 former basketball star who was in his first year of graduate school at the UW. "She swept me off my feet," he said.
Growing Up in the Central Area
Robert James Clifford Flowers was born at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle on January 16, 1943, the son of Robert J. and Myrtle Flowers. Like Micki Giles, he came from a family that strongly valued education. His father was one of the relatively few black students to attend the UW in the 1930s. He graduated with a bachelor's degree and later earned a master's in social work at Seattle University. Like his son, the elder Flowers was also an athlete. He went out for football as a member of the Husky freshman team in 1934, but was injured and never made the varsity squad. In the late 1930s, however, he played semi-pro football for the Ubangi Blackhawks, a predominantly black team sponsored by the Ubangi Club, a popular nightspot in Seattle's famed Jackson Street District. He also played semi-pro baseball for a team in the Negro League.
Bob's father was a platoon leader for an African American unit stationed in the Philippines during World War II. From 1947 until 1957, when he took a job in California, he was the director of the East Madison Young Men's Christian Association, the so-called "colored branch" of the YMCA. The branch, then located in an unprepossessing frame building at 23rd Avenue and East Olive Street, was a community center, a hub for youth programs, and a venue for some of the best-known names in Northwest jazz and rhythm and blues. Quincy Jones (b. 1933), the legendary trumpeter, arranger, and composer, got his first paying gig at the East Madison Y in the fall of 1947, at age 14. His take from the evening: $7. "Quincy once told me that my dad got him his first job," Bob recalled. "I said, if you say so Quincy, it must be true."
Bob grew up in a house on 22nd Avenue, in the heart of the Central Area, one block from Garfield High School. He walked to each of the schools he attended, beginning with Horace Mann Elementary, then Washington Junior High, and finally Garfield. His parents had divorced by the time he started school, but his father remained involved in his life and actively supported his early interest in sports. He taught him how to play baseball, volunteered as a Little League umpire, and traveled to games with Bob's teams, including the Nisei Yanks, defending champs in the Little League International Circuit in 1955.
Bob's mother was a clerical worker who trained herself in accounting. She worked as a bookkeeper and accountant for the Seattle Tennis Club for more than 20 years. She had not been able to attend college herself, but drummed into her son the mantra that he had to go to school, stay in school, and do well in school.
High School Hoop Star
Bob continued to play baseball in high school but his major sport at Garfield was basketball. He won a basketball scholarship to the UW on the strength of his performance during his senior year, in 1961, when he was team captain and one of the top scorers in the Metro League, averaging more than 13 points a game. Garfield won the Class AA championship that year. Bob, whose extra-curricular activities included serving as sports editor on the school newspaper, wrote an article about the tournament for The Seattle Times; it was headlined "Garfield Star's Tourney Views."
He had less success on the Husky basketball team. He won a starting position in 1963, as a junior, but was relegated to the reserves by the end of the season. The Seattle Times reported that he had been sidelined by a foot injury. According to Bob he was actually "sidelined by a coach" -- Wilbur "Mac" Duckworth (1928-1974), head basketball coach from 1963 through 1968: "I had a coach who for whatever reason decided I was not one of his chosen ones. I went from being a starter to sitting on the bench. Sometimes I didn't even play in practice."
He considered transferring to Seattle University, where he could play basketball on a good team (the Huskies had losing seasons throughout Duckworth's tenure as coach) with some of his friends, but his mother encouraged him to stick it out. He ran track, specializing in the triple jump. He doubled down on academics. As a senior, he won the 101 Club Scholarship Trophy for having the highest cumulative grade point average on the team. He graduated in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in political science.
His experience on the basketball team was frustrating but taught him something about how to deal with adversity: "You could complain but you had to figure out a way to make it work. For me it worked because I was able to take tough courses, get good grades, and go on to graduate school." Micki, listening to Bob's comments, added, "What I know from living with him is that Bob is one of those people who always makes lemonade out of lemons. That's just his makeup. If there's an adverse situation, he's going to focus on how to make that a positive situation."
You're in the Army Now
Bob Flowers completed a master's degree in public administration at the UW in the spring of 1968 and was immediately hired as assistant director of a new statewide Multi-Service Center, located at 23rd and Jackson in Seattle. The center, established by Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), brought a number of social-service agencies together in one building. It was both a response to and a reflection of increasing racial tensions in the inner city. One of Bob's first assignments was to serve as a mediator between Franklin High School administrators and black students who had occupied the principal's office during a protest on March 29, 1968.
Meanwhile, the army called. Bob had been enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at the UW and was obligated to complete two years of active military duty after finishing graduate school. He left Seattle for two months of training in the Signal Corps at Fort Gordon, Georgia, in October 1968. He and Micki were married when he returned, in December. Then they set off together for Fort Lee, Virginia, and his first tour of duty.
At Fort Lee, the newly commissioned first lieutenant and his wife lived in a motel while they tried to find housing. The army did not provide housing for officers at Fort Lee; instead, it posted listings of housing that was supposed to be available off base. The Flowers would call a realtor, be told housing was available, show up at the realtor's office, and then be told the unit had just been rented. After several weeks of this, they filed a housing discrimination suit against the army. "What was happening was that there were communities around the base where white officers could live but black officers could not," said Micki. "We were the case that opened up that housing." Although, she added, laughing, "We lived in a trailer. We didn't open up much." It wasn't just a trailer, Bob protested, also laughing; "We got us a double wide."
Bob was reassigned a few months later to Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord), near Tacoma. Their first son, Christopher, was born there in 1969. Bob had been told that he would be stationed at Fort Lewis for the remainder of his military service. Instead, he received new orders, to go to Vietnam. Bob believes it was payback for filing the lawsuit against the army. He tried, with help from Dan Evans's office, to get reassigned to the National Guard, but to no avail. He shipped out for Vietnam in October 1969.
Once he got to Vietnam he was promoted to captain and assigned to a unit that was "about as far north as you could get, close to the DMZ" (Demilitarized Zone); it was also a unit "where two white officers had been killed by their men, because of racial issues." Again, as he had when he felt thwarted as a basketball player, he made the most of the situation. "I was given an assignment, and it worked out," he said, adding that overall "it was a good experience."
He was discharged in October 1970 and joined Micki and their young son in Los Angeles (the two had stayed there with Micki's family while Bob was in Vietnam). Driving up the coast from Los Angeles, he interviewed with several companies in the private sector before accepting a job with Washington Mutual in Seattle, starting out as a loan representative and soon being promoted to senior vice president and manager of commercial real estate. Over the course of a 34-year career with WaMu, he held a variety of executive positions, retiring in January 2005 as senior vice president of community lending and investment.
On Air at KIRO
Micki Flowers had suspended her studies at the UW while Bob was in the military, a hiatus that was extended by the birth of their second son, Ross (named after his maternal grandmother) in 1971, but she subsequently returned to school there. She switched her major from Spanish to journalism after taking a journalism class, as an elective, from Fendall Yerxa (1913-2014), a revered professor who "lit the spark" and helped her "find my passion." She won an internship at The Seattle Times during her senior year, in 1973, and had a summer job lined up there after she graduated. She was headed toward a career in print journalism.
She ended up in broadcast journalism instead, at the urging of Sandy Hill (b. 1947), the first female broadcaster at KIRO (and later a host of "Good Morning America" and other national news shows). When Micki was in her last quarter at the UW, Hill -- a friend from her first stint at the UW -- persuaded her to audition for a job at KIRO. Dozens of other women also auditioned. Looking back, Micki thought she had an advantage because her fifth grade teacher had drilled geography into her: "I had to do a weather forecast, and I knew my states."
She graduated from the UW with a bachelor's degree in communications and an academic ranking that put her on the Dean's List. She began her television career days later, on May 29, 1973, as a "weather presenter" on the daily 9 a.m. newscast at KIRO. Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer Melanie McFarland described that initial broadcast this way, in a 2004 retrospective about Micki's career:
"With that first report, Flowers made history, becoming the first African American woman in front of the camera at KIRO, a pioneer for all journalists of color who would follow in her footsteps in this market. That probably wasn't foremost on her mind. That day, nobody even told her that the red light on top of the camera meant that she was on the air. Worse, she recalls signing off KIRO's newscast with, 'Thank you for watching KING TV.'"
In a 2015 interview with HistoryLink, Micki said this about her first staff meeting at KIRO:
"I looked around the room and someone said to me does it feel odd to you that you're the only one -- meaning the only African American -- here? And I said it will only feel odd if I'm the only one not heard."
Less than a year after joining the station, she was anchoring and reporting for KIRO's noon news show. By 1976, she was also co-hosting KIRO's 10 a.m. newscast. Seattle Times TV editor John Voorhees praised her work, writing that she and co-host Solon Gray were "a better news team than any combination on the station's highly promoted evening Eyewitness News."
In 1977, Micki took a leave of absence to spend more time with her sons, who were then in elementary school. Christopher, the eldest, graduated from Lakeside, went on to Stanford University for both undergraduate and medical school, and became an oncologist. Ross graduated from Garfield, where he was student-body president and a standout on the track team. He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of California at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Missouri, and went to work as a sports psychologist.
Micki was back on air at KIRO in 1982 as a noon weathercaster. In 1987 she became the station's fulltime health reporter, a position she held until her retirement in 2004. She won a number of awards for her work over the years, including the Camio Award for her reporting on mental illness in 1990, the Delta Society Media Award in 1992, and four Sigma Delta Chi awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a popular personality, and much in demand as a representative of the station at various civic events. Her sister Vicki joined her on one such occasion -- a hospital fundraiser sponsored by the City of Hope cancer research center -- prompting a number of second glances from people who didn't know she had a twin.
When she retired, in June 2004, Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) proclaimed June 25 as Micki Flowers Day, describing her as "the epitome of someone who is good, someone who cares, someone you are proud to know" ("2005 Silver Circle Inductee ..."). The next year she was inducted into the "Silver Circle" of the Northwest Chapter, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, honoring her nearly 30-year career in local television. The University of Washington's Department of Communication named her a Distinguished Alumna in 2007.
Despite busy professional and personal lives, Bob and Micki Flowers made time through the years to volunteer for a formidable number of nonprofit organizations. When their children were young, they focused on the PTA and youth sports. Bob coached soccer for a few years and then, for more than a decade, track and field. The two spent many summer vacations chaperoning inner city athletes on trips to regional and national track meets. "For both of us it was very rewarding," said Bob. "It was an opportunity to work with youth and provide some direction -- some of the home lives of those kids were not supportive. It was a way of giving back."
As of 2015 Micki Flowers was involved with the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation, which funds fellowships in the fields of science, engineering, and medical research; the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic Advisory Council; and the Seattle Art Museum Education and Community Engagement Committee. She had been a founding member of the board of AIDS Housing of Washington (later called Building Changes), which built the Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle's Madison Valley in the 1980s, the nation's first skilled nursing facility designed to meet the needs of people with AIDS. She was the first African American member of the Junior League of Seattle and in 2015 was a Sustainer Member of that organization. She previously served as a trustee of Scripps College in Claremont, California.
In 2015 Bob Flowers was chair of the board of Seattle Children's Hospital. He had previously chaired the boards of KCTS Television, the Seattle Sports Commission, and the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). He had been a member of the boards of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the Museum Development Authority for the Seattle Art Museum, and the Washington State Convention Center, among others, and had served as a trustee of The Evergreen State College.
They both served on the board of the UW Foundation. Together they established the Micki E. and Robert J. C. Flowers Endowed Graduate Student Award in Public Affairs at the UW, to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have access to education in public administration and public policy; and an ARCS Foundation Endowed Fellowship, to support diversity among graduate students conducting research in science and engineering.
Bob's most challenging venture into public service began in 1993, when then-Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) recruited him to head a committee to move the idea of a black-heritage museum from dream to reality. The idea had been floating around for more than a decade. It began to gain traction in 1985 when a small group of activists occupied the abandoned Colman School in the Rainier Valley, demanding that it be used to house the museum. They were still there eight years later. With the building deteriorating and its owner, the Seattle School District, increasingly impatient with the occupiers, Rice convened a special committee to consider the future of the project. It included both activists and "suits" -- well-connected business leaders with financial acumen. "Predictably, the two groups often conflicted with each other over matters of substance and style," wrote Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large, in something of an understatement ("An Exhibit of Rancor ...").
The same skills that served Bob well in the corporate world -- a calm demeanor, a willingness to listen to all points of view, flexibility -- helped him mediate between the rival factions for six contentious years. He resigned as chair of the board of the nascent museum in 1999, when WaMu transferred him to Los Angeles. By that time he had negotiated an agreement with the school district that allowed backers of the museum to buy Colman at an affordable price. It still took almost 10 more years and the intervention of the Seattle Urban League, but the Northwest African American Museum finally opened in the former school in 2008.
The couple's dedication to civic service has earned them many accolades over the years, including the Citizen of the Year Award from the Municipal League of King County in 1997. Micki Flowers received the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Community Service Award from the Junior League in 2009 and was named an "ARCS Light" for her service to the Seattle chapter of the ARCS Foundation in 2013. Bob Flowers received the Martin Luther King Inspirational Award from Garfield High School and the Seattle Central Community College President's Award, among others. The Washington chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals recognized both of them as "Outstanding Philanthropists" in 2012. They received the Gates Volunteer Service Award from the UW Alumni Association in 2014. And in 2015, the Northwest African American Museum honored them for their 30-plus years of community service, civic leadership, and advocacy for higher education.