Dorothy Priscilla “Patsy” Bullitt Collins, a member of one of Seattle’s oldest and wealthiest families, devoted much of her life to working for the public good, donating first her time and energy and then -- after receiving a multi-million-dollar inheritance -- giving away a great deal of her money. “I don’t give back; I give forward,” she once said, explaining her attitude toward philanthropy. She embraced the idea of stewardship, supporting projects that touched the future in some way, whether by nurturing a love of reading in children, preserving the legacies of the past, or setting aside open spaces for generations to come. Self-deprecating and unpretentious to her core, she shunned the spotlight but left an indelible imprint on the cultural life of her hometown by the time of her death in June 2003.
A Privileged Childhood
Dorothy Priscilla Collins was born in Seattle on September 24, 1920, the second of three children of A. Scott Bullitt (1887-1932) and Dorothy Stimson (1892-1989). Her parents called her "Peach" but she was "Patsy" to almost everyone else. Her father was a Kentucky-born lawyer with a passion for politics. Her mother was the daughter of timber baron Charles D. Stimson (1857-1928), who made a fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s and then made even more money by investing in downtown Seattle real estate.
She grew up in a 23-room mansion in The Highlands, a gated community for Seattle’s elite founded by her grandfather and designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm. Hers was a sheltered and privileged childhood but also a lonely one. As was common among wealthy families at the time, Patsy and her older brother, Stimson (1919-2009), and younger sister, Harriet (1924-2022) had little direct contact with their parents, living largely in a world inhabited by nurses, governesses, chauffeurs, and other servants. Frail and sickly as a child, she was often kept out of school because of poor health. She amused herself with imaginary friends and voracious reading.
As a mother, Dorothy Bullitt was reserved and undemonstrative. Scott Bullitt was more openly affectionate, but he traveled a great deal. Still, from her mother Patsy inherited a love of classical music; from her father, the values of a liberal Democrat; and from both, a lifetime commitment to community service.
The family’s life took an abrupt turn in 1932, when Scott Bullitt died of liver cancer. Cancer was a dreaded, literally unmentionable disease in those days. In obituaries, it was coded as "a lingering illness." The children were never told that their father had cancer or that he was going to die. "Father came home from the hospital ‘to get well,’ and people came to visit him," Patsy recalled. "That’s all we knew. We never caught on" (The Seattle Times, 1990).
Dorothy Bullitt became an even more remote figure to her children after her husband’s death. She took over the family’s various real estate and other enterprises, hiding her grief by burying herself in work. She breakfasted in her room, spent long hours at the office, and returned to her room for dinner, while the children ate in the kitchen with the cook. "She had nothing to comfort her but going to the office," Patsy said. "We were no comfort, and she didn’t relate much to us during those times -- we were kind of on our own" (Haley, 154).
Although emotionally distant, Dorothy Bullitt remained a powerful influence in the lives of all her children. At her behest, Patsy dutifully went off to boarding school in Connecticut at age 16, and later entered Vassar College, where she majored in Italian. While home for the summer at the end of her junior year, in 1941, she got a job working in a downtown bank. There she met her first love, a man she would never forget: Larry Norman.
War and Remembrance
Larry Norman was the son of Charles G. and Ruth Norman, respectively director and staff nurse at the YMCA’s Camp Orkila on Orcas Island. Dorothy Bullitt did not approve of him. He had graduated from the University of Washington, not an Ivy League college; and he was only a bank teller, not the scion of a wealthy family. Nonetheless, the two young people fell in love and eventually became engaged. Patsy sent the news to her mother in a telegram: “Not subject to your approval Larry and I are announcing our engagement” (Haley, 188).
When the United States entered World War II, Larry volunteered for the Army Air Forces (precursor to the Air Force). He was trained as a navigator and assigned to the 92nd Bomb Group, one of the earliest units to be deployed to Europe. He had a few days leave in Seattle before being sent overseas in April 1943. It would be the last time that Patsy would see him. His B-24 Liberator was shot down while on a mission over Germany on December 22, 1943. His body was never recovered.
Ironically, the mission was supposed to have been his last. Bomber crews at that time were assigned to fly only 25 missions; then they could be sent home. Larry was on his 25th mission when he was shot down. In another sad twist, he was flying as a bombardier. His usual position, as navigator, had been taken over by a senior officer. The official report on the mission, not declassified until decades after the end of the war, noted that the only one of the 10 crewmembers to survive was the officer who was sitting in the seat that would have normally been occupied by Larry Norman.
Officially, he was classified only as “missing in action.” For months, Patsy hoped that the plane had managed to land, or that the crew had bailed out and been rescued by members of the Resistance. “No one knew what had happened to him after he was reported missing,” she said. “Was he a prisoner? Was he somewhere in the Dutch underground? Even today, nobody knows. There were 78,000 Americans who just disappeared in World War II, and the government never did anything to find them, because it was taken up with the next war, the cold war and Korea” (Collins interview).
Hoping to learn if Larry was being held in a prisoner-of-war camp, Patsy went to work for the YMCA Prisoner of War Department in New York. By the time the war ended, it was clear that he was not coming back. She joined the Red Cross and was sent to first to the Philippines and then to Japan. She traveled through Hiroshima four months after it was leveled by the atomic bomb, an experience that shaped her anti-war leanings. “Five-year-old street urchins learned very quickly the way to survive was to sell their burns, because they were so terrible the soldiers couldn’t bear it and would give them food and candy,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of thing war does to people.’ It started coming home to me that war doesn’t stop when it’s over” (The Seattle Times, 1990).
In the 1990s, Patsy paid for the design and installation of the Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall, her tribute not only to Larry Norman but to all the other young Washingtonians who have lost their lives in war. The garden “is not a political statement,” she once wrote. “It is not a memorial to war. If anything, it is a reminder of war’s high cost and terrible pain” (The Seattle Times, June 26, 2003).
Wife and Mother
In 1946, after a year in Japan, Patsy returned to Seattle. Emotionally exhausted, she found comfort in Josiah “Joe” Collins VI, a member of a prominent Seattle family and a childhood friend. Joe Collins -- then a partner in a small advertising agency -- was safe, likeable, and socially acceptable. “Everyone approved of him,” Patsy remembered, “but it was no burning love affair” (Haley, 198). They were married on February 23, 1947.
The wedding triggered another series of mother-daughter power struggles. Patsy wanted a small, quiet ceremony with no photographs in the paper afterwards; Dorothy Bullitt sent out 700 wedding announcements and secretly arranged for two pages of photographs in the society pages. There was conflict over where the newlyweds would live: Patsy and Joe wanted to live in a houseboat on Lake Union; Dorothy (who had moved from The Highlands to a house on 10th Avenue) bought the house next door to hers and gave it to them. She then set about redecorating the house. Finally, fed up, the couple moved, first to Bellevue and then to San Diego, where they raised three sons: Jacques Collins, now of Bainbridge Island; Charles Collins, Sedona, Arizona, and William Collins, Woodway, Washington.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Bullitt was busy laying the foundations for what would become the family’s most lucrative investment. In 1946, she bought a small radio station in Seattle, intending to broadcast classical music. She acquired the call letters KING and paid Walt Disney $75 to design a logo. From these beginnings she built a broadcasting empire that eventually included six TV stations, six radio stations, 13 cable systems, and the nation’s largest mobile production company.
Bullitt relinquished some control over King Broadcasting in 1961, when she appointed her son, Stimson, as president. However, she grew increasingly unhappy with his management. She pressured her daughters to become more involved with the company, although both were busy with their own lives -- Patsy with her young children and civic involvements in San Diego; Harriet with a publishing career and a new marriage in Seattle. “Well, this is your problem, dear,” she would say in frequent telephone calls. “It’s your money and you need to watch how it is managed. It’s your income and it’s your outcome” (Haley, 282).
In 1971, the sisters forced the issue with their brother, asking him to step aside as president. The conflict led to a division of the family’s vast holdings. Stimson Bullitt gave up his interests in the broadcasting company and took control of most of the family real estate, including a large stretch of property along 1st Avenue he would develop as the Harbor Steps many years later. King Broadcasting went to Dorothy Bullitt and her daughters. Harriet became chair of the executive committee, with Dorothy and Patsy as members. Ancil Payne (1921-2004), previously the general manager, was named chief executive officer.
Patsy remained in San Diego during much of this time, but in 1974 -- her children grown and her marriage over -- she moved back to Seattle. Her mother retired as chairman of the board of King Broadcasting (although she continued to maintain an office and make her presence felt at the company’s headquarters throughout the rest of her life). Patsy replaced her as chairman. Although both she and Harriet were involved with key decisions about hiring and acquisitions, they had little to do with day-to-day management of the company. “We were interested,” Patsy said later. “It made good money, but we didn’t turn our lives over to it. It’s not like we grew up with King Broadcasting” (The Seattle Times,1990).
Patsy became increasingly involved with various good works in the last two decades of her life, both as an individual and through the Bullitt Foundation, the family’s primary philanthropic arm. When she heard in 1986 that the Stimson-Green Mansion on First Hill -- her mother’s childhood home -- was going to be converted to law offices, she bought it. The imposing, brick-and-stucco, 10,000-square-foot house was not merely part of her mother’s past but part of the city’s architectural heritage. But her largesse was not boundless: she established a catering business to make the mansion self-supporting.
It was often said of her that she liked “leveraging” her money. When she learned that developers were interested in building on what was then a parking lot near the mansion, she bought the land. Then she sold it (at what she called “a lovely loss”) to the Seattle Housing Resources Group, which built low-income housing on the site. “Elderly people have to be able to live close to medical centers, on bus lines, near parks and they have to be able to walk to the Bon Marche," she said. "And younger low-income people have to be able to live near where they work, not out in Burien. Wealthy people can choose where they live but the elderly and poor don’t have that option” (P-I, 2003).
She herself chose to live not in the penthouse or mansion she could have afforded but in a small condominium on First Hill. Her personal tastes were simple. It was said that she was the kind of person who “didn’t look like money.” She was one of the largest donors to the Seattle Opera, but when she attended the performances, she was more likely to wear a raincoat than furs.
Philanthropy Writ Large
Dorothy Bullitt’s death in June 1989 left her daughters as the majority owners of King Broadcasting. Neither one of them had much passion for the business. Patsy was battling lung cancer. She underwent surgery and recovered her health, but the brush with mortality made her reassess the direction of her life.
She became increasingly impatient with the broadcasting business. By all accounts, her frustration reached a peak in February 1990, when the cast and crew from a KING-TV programming division flew to Rio de Janeiro for what was essentially a week-long segment on beachware, at a cost of about $100,000. Patsy was disgusted that the team had not ventured anywhere near the rain forest, which she considered the greatest environmental disaster on the planet. She told Harriet that she thought they could do more good in the world by selling the company, using the money to support the causes they chose, and letting someone else decide whether it was a good idea to send a TV crew to the beach for a week.
The sale of the TV and cable divisions of King Broadcasting to the Providence Journal Company netted an estimated $350 million in 1992. The sisters quickly donated $100 million to the Bullitt Foundation, an endowment that made the foundation “far and away the largest funder of environmental causes in the Pacific Northwest” (Chasan, 228). The company’s remaining properties were sold separately. The sisters themselves bought KING-FM -- the nation’s top-rated classical music radio station -- and then donated it to the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and the Corporate Council for the Arts (now called ArtsFund). The station’s annual profits, ranging from $500,000 to $750,000 a year, are divided among those groups.
Patsy Collins devoted the last years of her life to dispersing the fortune she had inherited. She gave $3 million to the Seattle Public Library Foundation, $1 million to the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center on Bainbridge Island (now known as IslandWood), $800,000 to the Cascades Conservation Partnership to preserve a four-mile stretch of shoreline along the Yakima River, $240,000 to help build schools in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and this is only a partial list. HistoryLink (this website) was among her many beneficiaries; she was one of the founding sponsors, providing $20,000 in seed money to launch the site in 1998.
She gave away her money quietly, avoiding fanfare and refusing most requests to turn her philanthropy into a “naming opportunity.” She made few exceptions. Her nickname adorns the Peach Preserve on Guemes Island, and she allowed the Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Seattle to use her as a namesake and role model for a leadership program for middle school girls at Camp Orkila, recognizing her many contributions to the YMCA. The Patsy Collins Adventure in Leadership for Girls of Promise came to be one of her favorite projects. She was at the camp in 1996 when the first busload of girls arrived. She remembered that "they all looked so sad and abandoned" when they got off the bus, "but within 24 hours they had bonded with each other" (Collins interview).
Patsy Collins began planning her funeral long before she died at age 82 on June 25, 2003, of lung cancer. She said she didn’t want any eulogies, but they poured in anyway. "We have lost someone awfully precious," said longtime Seattle civic leader Jim Ellis. "Patsy lived an exemplary life. She believed that we are not born for ourselves alone, and she lived that philosophy" (The Seattle Times, June 26, 2003). Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera, gave her this tribute: "She did more good in her life to more people than anyone I have ever known" (The Seattle Times, June 27, 2003). To her brother, Stimson, speaking at her memorial service, she was "one tough cookie, and she was a kind and loving sister" (The Seattle Times, July 9, 2003).