Phelps, Donald (1929-2003)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 11/01/1998
  • Essay 392

Donald Phelps, educator, singer, and TV commentator, was the grandson of John T. Gayton (1866-1954), one of Seattle’s black pioneers. He rose through the ranks, starting as an elementary school teacher in Bellevue, to become Chancellor of Seattle Community College District.

Donald Phelps was born on July 22, 1929, in Seattle. He began his teaching career in 1960, as a teacher of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students at Robinswood Elementary School in Bellevue. He taught all subjects and introduced special programs in music. In 1963, he was appointed principal of Robinswood and became the first black principal in Bellevue. Here he established one of the first continuous growth schools in the district. These schools provided a curriculum in which students moved ahead at their own individual rates.

Educator and Commentator

From 1967 to 1969, he served as principal of Bellevue Junior High School and instituted the first flexible class scheduling and the first computer assignments. He was the first black secondary school principal in the state.

From 1968 to 1972, he served as a news commentator on KOMO TV and Radio. In addition to his work as a full-time educator, he composed and presented commentary about world, national, and local events each evening over the Seattle ABC affiliate. His nearly 700 commentaries are in the archives at the University of Washington and are available to students.

From 1976 to 1988, he continued to rise through the hierarchy of education, becoming Interim Superintendent of Lake Washington School District 414 in 1976, president of Seattle Central Community College in 1980, and chancellor of Seattle Community College District in 1984.


Donald Phelps studied for three years at the Cornish School to develop his naturally rich voice. He sang at his Lincoln High School performances and in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church choir. Professionally he sang solos with the Seattle Philharmonic and Choral Society and with the Music Under the Stars summer program of the Seattle Park Department.

In fact, he paid for much of his later education by singing solos at weddings in many Seattle churches and at funerals at Bonney Watson Funeral Home. On the occasions of the visits of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson to Seattle, Donald Phelps was called upon to sing the national anthem at certain venues.

He received his bachelors and masters degrees in education from Seattle University and his doctorate in education from the University of Washington. He has also done postgraduate work at Harvard University. He has served as consultant and speaker to many organizations across the country, has numerous professional affiliations, and has had many honors bestowed upon him.

Donald Phelps left Seattle in 1988, to become chancellor of Los Angeles Community College District, the nation’s largest community college system. In 1994, he was appointed W. K. Kellogg Regents Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Donald Phelps died in Austin, Texas, after a brief illness, on July 5, 2003.


Donald G. Phelps Vita; Telephone Interview with Donald G. Phelps by Mary Henry, 1998; UW Libraries, Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives, University of Washington, Seattle; "Donald Phelps, Bellevue's First Black Principal, Dies at 73," The Seattle Times, July 8, 2003 (
Note: John T. Gayton's birthdate of 1866, reported in some sources as 1868, is derived from a Yazoo County, Mississippi, census record dated July 2, 1870, at which time John Gayton was reported as four years old. This feature was corrected on February 3, 2003 and updated on July 7, 2003.

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