Rochester, Alfred Ruffner (1895-1989)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 4/01/2000
  • Essay 2253

Al Rochester, a lifelong Seattle resident, was active in the Democratic Party, served on the Seattle City Council (1944-1956), and published The Seattlite. Rochester was the original advocate and founder of Century 21, known as The Seattle World’s Fair of 1962.

Born in Seattle, Washington, on March 28, 1895, Rochester was one of four children from a pioneer Seattle family. He was educated in Seattle public schools, served in World War I (1917-1919), married Marguerite Reynolds (1900-1997), and had two children, Junius and Mary Ellen. He died in Seattle, age 93, on February 4, 1989.

Alfred R. Rochester’s parents, Judge G.A.C. (George Alfred Caldwell) Rochester (1855-1929) and Julia Gwynn Smith Rochester (1860-1931), came to Seattle from Kansas City in the late 1880s. G.A.C. followed his brothers, Junius and Percy, to what was considered the bountiful Pacific Northwest. Despite the fact that the three brothers found themselves caught in the 1893 depression, they prospered in business (Percy) and the Law (Junius and G.A.C.). G.A.C. and Julia had four children -- Junius, Mary Louise, Alfred, and Julia Lee.

Al Rochester’s mother, Julia, was a musician of note, representing the state of Washington in the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, winning third prize for singing. She was also active in founding the Ladies Musical Club and in supporting the Seattle Symphony and Cornish School. Her daughter Mary Louise was also one of Seattle’s notable singers and pianists. Therefore, among Rochester’s early memories was the sound of music in his house virtually every day.

A Seattle Boyhood

Called “Attie Boy” by his family (later, “Gaga” by his grandchildren), Al Rochester followed the fashion of the day by wearing long, auburn locks and dress-like smocks until he rebelled at age 6 or 7.

In 1901, 6-year-old Alfred led the family cow from his first home on Rochester Avenue, now 28th Avenue north of Yesler Way. His father followed behind urging both the lumbering animal and young Alfred along paths that have since been named Martin Luther King Jr. S and 19th Avenue. They pulled and led the poor bovine to a new home on Capitol Hill, across 15th Avenue from Volunteer Park.

Alfred played games with his pals in Volunteer Park and among the gravestone of Lake View cemetery. At age 12 or 13 he delivered the Argus and the Saturday Evening Post to residents of the Tenderloin, also known as Skid Road. He would meet his father in Pioneer Square where the elder Rochester practiced law until moving “uptown” to the Central Building on 3rd Avenue.

The AYP Experience

The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a grand affair. Rochester never forgot the details of that show, which took place on the University of Washington campus. At age 14, Rochester operated a bread-slicing machine at a restaurant in the “Pay Streak” carnival section of the exposition. He also worked as a shill -- standing in front of sideshows pretending to be impressed by the touts, then eagerly walking up to the ticket booth. Others would follow the young fellow, money in hand.

A strong Southern Baptist influence permeated the Rochester household. Dinner was preceded by the Judge’s simple grace. Attendance at the 15th Avenue Tabernacle Baptist Church was mandatory. Alfred hand-pumped the church organ bellows while his mother or sister played the keyboard. He also remembered enduring front row taunts from his pals as he surfaced from total immersion during his baptism ceremony.

Before graduating from Broadway High School, Rochester worked as a surveyor in Montana for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. He also worked one summer in Alaska salmon canneries. Upon returning from the Alaska adventure, he learned that America was going to war. His surveying experience helped him get into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he applied at the recruitment office in the Pioneer Building at James and Occidental streets.

The Great War

After seeing action in the second battle of the Marne and at Meuse Argonne, 23-year-old Sergeant Rochester of Company E, 25th U.S. Army engineers, returned to Camp Lewis -- now Fort Lewis, south of Tacoma -- and received an honorable discharge on June 18, 1919. His elder brother, Junius, and sister, Mary Louise, also served overseas. Junius was an officer in the fledgling Army Air Force; Mary Louise sang and played the piano for troops throughout the battle zones. The Rochester family boasted a “three-star” pennant in the front window of their Capitol Hill home.

Following a brief period as a Wall Street bond salesman, Rochester returned to Seattle at the height of the Jazz Age. Prohibition, “Doc” Hamilton’s Seattle speakeasies, and the Butler Hotel orchestras were in full swing. Rochester’s grace on the dance floor and sense of fun were perfect matches for the 1920s.

Rochester, believed to be a confirmed bachelor at age 36, married Marguerite Reynolds and moved into the Lowell Apartments on Seattle’s First Hill. When their first child, Junius, was born, they moved a block north to the Exeter Hotel. To support his new family, including daughter Mary Ellen, Rochester ran The Seattlite magazine, a Pacific Northwest version of The New Yorker.

A New Deal Democrat

During World War II, and after settling his family in the hillside Denny-Blaine neighborhood overlooking Lake Washington, Rochester served as state director of the Office of War Information. In the late 1940s, having been bitten by government service and by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, he ran for elective office -- the Seattle City Council. To his surprise, he was a winner.

Rochester's City Council years, 1944-1956, represented a crucial period in Seattle’s history. Seattle’s municipal government had a strong council-weak mayor system. For example, significant long-range decisions were often made simply by the council’s majority vote. And sometimes the council president acted on his own. Rochester’s proudest contributions during that time were his chairmanship of the Parks and Streets and Sewers committees. On occasion he served as acting mayor. Three city council decisions he led or introduced were considered innovative: 1) daylight-saving  time; 2) one-way streets; 3) street parking for the physically handicapped.

During his city council days, Al Rochester served as Official Greeter to more than one-half million U.S. military personnel returning from the Korean War. To express appreciation for those countless dawn gatherings on the usually cold Seattle waterfront, the U.S. Navy sent Rochester on a 60-day tour of Japan, Korea, and the Seventh Fleet during the hostilities.

The World's Fair

At a small, informal Washington Athletic Club luncheon during the early 1950s, Rochester proposed a Seattle “world’s fair” to commemorate the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition he remembered so well. His luncheon mates seconded the idea and Rochester returned to his city council offices to draft a memorial to the state legislature suggesting such an event. The eventual result was the birth of Century 21, the 1962 “Seattle World’s Fair.” Rochester served as executive director of the Washington State World’s Fair Commission.

Civic endeavors weave through Al Rochester’s career. He was an officer of the Pioneer Association of Washington State, chairman of the King County U.S.O., and chairman of the Easter Seal campaign for crippled children. He also served as organizer and chairman of the local Infantile Paralysis Foundation chapter, was director of Red Cross and Heart Association campaigns, and was twice president of the Young Men’s Democratic Club of Seattle and King County. In late years he worked part time on the Seattle staff of his friend U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989).

Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) declared September 24, 1984 as Al Rochester Day. The mayor’s proclamation read in part: “to honor this dapper and charming man who has played such an important role in the history of our city.”

Al Rochester died on February 4, 1989, in Seattle, the city of his birth. He is buried next to his parents, sister, brother, and other family members in historic Lake View Cemetery -- across the street from his childhood home on Capitol Hill.

On April 14, 2001, a memorial speaker's podium was dedicated to Al Rochester on a city triangle at 3rd Avenue and Denny Way, in Seattle. About 70 people attended the event, which was organized by Rochester's family. Among those who spoke, besides family members and friends, were U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, Seattle City Council members Richard Conlin and Jan Drago, and Brewster Denny, descendant of the Seattle pioneer Denny family.


Junius Rochester, Personal Files, Seattle. Also see: Nard Jones, Seattle, (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1972); Ralph Bushnell Potts, Seattle, (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1955); Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, (Chicago-Seattle: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Cornelius H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, 1852-1924, (Chicago-Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Edward E. Carlson, Recollections of a Lucky Fellow, (Seattle: Privately Published, 1989); Murray Morgan, Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World’s Fair, 1962, (Seattle: UW Press, 1963); Don Duncan, Meet Me At The Center: The Story of Seattle Center, (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 1992); Mary Louise Rochester Roderick, A Nightingale in the Trenches, (New York: Vantage Press, 1966).
Note: This essay was revised on May 17, 2001.

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