Smith, Palmer "Snuffy" (1922-2004)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 5/17/2004
  • Essay 5700

Palmer Smith, a Seattle lawyer for more than 40 years, was a passionate advocate for the rule of law, social justice, civil rights, and education. He saw government as the path to these goals. He and his wife Dottie came to Seattle in the post-World War II wave, attracted by its progressive potential. He championed fair housing, programs for ghetto dropouts, school desegregation, and abortion rights. He was a skilled carpenter and outdoorsman, a devoted family man, with eloquence and a sense of humor. Palmer Smith died on February 11, 2004, of prostate cancer.

Family Influences

Palmer “Snuffy” Smith Jr. was born in The Palisades area of New Jersey on September 3, 1922, to Palmer Smith Sr. and Martha Bayne Smith. Palmer Senior’s family traced its American roots back to the Revolutionary War and Martha came from a family deep in Ireland’s horse culture.

The “Snuffy” nickname was their son's own idea, from the “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” comic strip. "Snuffy" had a younger brother, Frank, born in 1928, who died in February 2003.

Palmer Smith Sr. was a journalist, on the editorial board of The (New York) World, the flagship paper of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), until 1926, when he became deaf. The family moved to Bethesda, Md., and Palmer Senior worked in the Department of Agriculture press section. Palmer Junior inherited from Palmer Senior his own eloquence as well as his altruism and sense of social justice. “He [Palmer Senior] was one of the most articulate men you could imagine” (Dottie Smith).

Palmer Junior was bright and graduated from high school early, at age 16, in 1939. He worked two years as a carpenter’s apprentice, then attended Georgetown and Harvard universities before joining the Navy. He was commissioned a lieutenant j.g. (junior grade) in 1944, after attending Notre Dame University under a Navy program, and studied Japanese and Malay at the U.S. Navy School of Oriental Languages in Boulder, Colorado.

Family Man

While at Boulder, he met and married Dorothy “Dottie” Boetter, a University of Colorado graduate, a history instructor and a Chicago-area native whose father was one of the founding members of the Chicago Board of Trade. Three children were born to Dottie and Palmer: Jennifer, Jared, and Melissa. Before he died, Palmer told a friend that the marriage to Dottie “was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Melissa Smith said. They honeymooned in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, area, which then was ranch country with unpaved roads, and bought 40 inexpensive acres. The family would design and build two log cabins on the property in Wilson, at the base of the Teton mountain range.

Smith never got to use his Japanese or Malay, but was assigned to the Pacific Area Joint Intelligence Center in Washington, D.C. He was discharged in 1946, returned to Harvard and earned his B.A. degree in government in 1947. But he loved the law, always wanted to be a lawyer, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1950. To help pay the bills, Palmer worked in Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Dottie worked as a researcher for Harvard political scientist Carl J. Friedrich, an authority on constitutional government and a key player in creating West Germany’s postwar constitution.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Smith won a plum assignment in the Bureau of the Budget as an efficiency analyst, beginning a life-long commitment to public service. It was part of the effort to streamline the government under President Harry Truman (1884-1972). Smith specialized in natural resources. He also was assigned briefly to work with Adm. Chester Nimitz (1885-1966), whom Truman had appointed chairman of the Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights in 1951. But the commission’s mandate ended after Congress declined to fund the project.

Dottie continued to work as well. During their first posting in Washington, D.C., she wrote for a science news service and worked on an international conference for the Council of Learned Societies. On their second stint, she was on the staff of California Representative John F. Shelley (1905-1974).

After a couple of years, however, the Smiths became wary of the corrupting influence of power in the nation’s capital and decided to seek a healthier environment. They explored 20 potential sites and in 1953 decided on Seattle. It was more egalitarian, less stratified than the East Coast, and “there was a sense of opportunity. People could make a difference,” Melissa said.

Priorities Pro Bono

From 1953 to 1955, Smith was one of two staff members on the Washington State Committee on State Government Organization, or “Little Hoover Commission.” In 1955 he served as Northwest representative for a study of federal loyalty-security programs conducted by the Fund for the Republic, a Ford Foundation agency. The position was the first in a long list of pro bono publico (free; for the public good) efforts that would occupy much of his life. “My impression was that most of his work was pro bono,” Jennifer Smith said. Material success was not a priority and their home was a hodge podge of second-hand and homemade furniture. Melissa remembered “holey sweaters and duct-taped shoes.”

He was admitted to the Washington State Bar in 1955 and set up a storefront practice in Seattle’s Broadway district. He would later associate with lawyers in other firms, but remained a sole practitioner for 40 years with a wide, varied clientele.

During the 1955 legislative session, he was an analyst for the Washington Association of County Commissioners and drafted bills. During the 1961 legislative session, he was a counsel for the state Senate Democratic Caucus, again analyzing bills and drafting proposed legislation. He was one of the founders of Seattle’s Metropolitan Democratic Club and its first manager.

But it was the civil rights battle consuming Seattle and the nation that also began to consume Smith. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ facilities has no place.” Congress then passed a civil rights bill in 1957 guaranteeing voting rights for blacks and other minorities, including Alaska Natives. Race riots devastated the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1965 and parts of Newark and Detroit in 1967, and they came to Seattle, though with relatively less violence. In 1962, only 4.8 percent of Seattle’s 557,000 residents were black, but between 1950 and 1960, Seattle’s white population had grown only 3 percent while the black and other minority populations had jumped 71 percent. Most members of the minority population were victims of de facto segregation in the Central Area.

Community Affairs

In 1957, Smith was primary lobbyist for the state Committee for Civil Rights Laws, which helped eliminate discrimination in publicly assisted housing, and he was active in the effort to pass a fair housing ordinance in Seattle. In 1962-1963, he helped draft a report, “Community in Chaos,” a study on urban problems in Seattle and other metropolitan areas in the state.

Smith had become active in state affairs at a time of unusual collegiality between Democrats and liberal Republicans who ran the state. A 1959 note from then-state Representative Joel Pritchard (R-Seattle) (1925-1997) said: “Dear Snuffy: Displeased with some of our champions of civil rights in Olympia who are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Unable so far to get our bills out of the rules committee.”

Integration and education were more than theories to Palmer Smith. He was passionate about the rule of law. “He wanted the rule of law and believed the best way to reach that was an educated population who understood it” (Melissa Smith). In 1968, he became a board member of the Child Welfare League of America, based in New York City, and chaired a United Good Neighbors committee to study construction of an institution for delinquent and disturbed children at Echo Glen.

In 1967 and 1968, he taught an experimental class at Garfield High School, attempting to stem the disturbing dropout rate at the predominantly black school. And if Smith walked the walk, the Smith children did too, attending mostly black Meany Junior High and Garfield High during the worst of the 1960s troubles. They were harassed, shaken down, kicked, driven to tears, and survived many episodes of intimidation.

A Real Education

Despite racial harassment by some students, they each found deep friendships, were active in extracurricular activities and, in fact, thrived. Jennifer, the oldest, was a Pupette, part of the Garfield Bulldogs halftime show, but quit because the other girls spent too much time quibbling over the routines. She went on to a doctorate and a 20-year career in clinical psychology, specializing in underserved and cross-cultural populations.

Attending Meany and Garfield “probably was the most important social experience I’ve ever had,” Jennifer recalled. “It was very dynamic, something that was extremely rich. I learned an immense amount.”

Jared became one of the founding group of students who started Nova, the first alternative school in Seattle, and then helped start Summit, Nova’s successor, both of which have survived. He earned a degree in civil engineering, worked with the administrations of Mayors Norm Rice and Paul Schell in transportation/community development, and is a vice president and area manager for the global construction firm, Parsons Brinkerhoff, Inc. He was also a founder of the Central Area Development Corporation. He, his wife, Karen, and children live in the Central Area, where Jared remains active in community affairs. Karen, also a community activist, was appointed to the Seattle Parks Commission, and is currently executive director of Seattle Parks Foundation.

Melissa was involved in student government and was one of the first white cheerleaders at Garfield in the 1970s. She earned an M.D. and has ministered to the underserved and migrant communities in California, Central America, and in Austin, TX, where she manages three clinics for the working poor and undocumented migrants.

Powerful Lessons

“The years at Meany and Garfield were the most important, transformative years of my life, for myself and the family,” Melissa said. “It was about making the world a better place.”

With a beaming mother’s justifiable pride, Dottie Smith calls her children “my Wunderkind.”

Smith’s pace accelerated in 1968. He joined two black City of Seattle employees, John C. Little and Charles P. Huey, who were attempting to form an innovative alternative school for alienated black youth in the smoldering Central District. Their Seattle Urban Academy would be community controlled and involved, with services and curricula responsive to the needs and interests of students and parents. Smith became a part-time Fellow at the Battelle Seattle Research Center to further develop their plan and sold Battelle on investing $500,000 in the project.

But their plan met resistance from the Seattle School Board, Seattle Teachers Association, and civil rights groups that were pressing for more integration, not less. Battelle withdrew its funding in 1971 and the idea finally was shelved. “Dad’s relationship with [Little and Huey] also was transformative,” Jennifer recalled. “Charles was the closest friend of his."

Abortion Rights Campaign

Along with the civil rights and antiwar upheavals, the women’s rights movement also was gaining energy in the late 1960s. Smith joined a citizens’ study group in 1968 that became the Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform. He drafted a bill for the 1969 state Legislature that would decriminalize abortion, but it was another year before the measure was approved and offered to the voters as Referendum 20. It passed in the November 1970 general election, predating by two years the United States Supreme Court’s historic Rowe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Smith became involved in school desegregation efforts and was a leader of the 1972-1973 effort against recall of four Seattle School Board members who wanted to voluntarily desegregate Seattle schools. They won. He also served as counsel to the national and Seattle League of Women Voters in 1980-1981, arguing for desegregation in a suit that reached the United States Supreme Court. Again, they won.

Between causes and pro bono projects, Smith’s concern for the law led him to serve regularly on Seattle-King County Bar Association committees -- Probate, Family Law, Criminal Justice. He also chaired the Special Law Enforcement Committee during the unrest triggered by the Vietnam War, mediated with police, and tried to ensure that arrested demonstrators had proper counsel. In 1972-1973, he chaired the first State Human Rights Commission hearing in which the commission had charged a school district (Granger, in Eastern Washington) with discriminating against Chicano and Native American students. The Granger School District settled.

In 1976-1977, he worked with Kay Bullitt and others on the Coalition for Quality Integrated Education to assist the Seattle School District in the Central District. From 1981 to 1985, he was a board member of the Seattle Child Guidance Center.

Activism a Family Affair

Meanwhile, Dottie Smith was in the public-service trenches herself, as well as raising the children and reining Palmer, who had a tendency to forgive “whole bills because the client had 10 children,” she recalled.

She spent 26 years herself as a community activist in family services, on the board of United Way and as a lobbyist for abortion reform and other issues. “Marilyn Ward [a liberal Republican activist and advocate for abortion reform] and I were the veterans down there at the Legislature. We worked together forever,” Dottie Smith recalled.

Jennifer said, “I remember at the dinner table, as a kid, listening to my parents draft abortion-rights legislation.”

The Smith family life was rich and full in other ways as well. Smith loved carpentry and had a passion for the outdoors. In addition to the Wyoming cabin experiences, the family weekended at the seashore, in the mountains or San Juans, often with other families. Jared Smith recalled, “If it was a nice starry night, he would make sure we laid out under the stars and he would describe all of the constellations.”

He had "omnivorous" curiosity, an “excellent sense of humor, was a great story teller,” and had “tremendous humanity,” his children recalled.

"He took a great interest in public affairs," said former Washington State Court of Appeals Judge Robert Winsor. "He epitomized the lawyer who felt that holding a good hard line on the truth was the only way to go" (Ellison).


Palmer Smith Papers, Special Collections, University Archives, Manuscripts, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Archives of The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Jake Ellison, "Palmer Smith 1922-2004: An Unyielding Advocate for Civil Rights," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 16, 2004 ( 160783_smithobit16.html?searchpagefrom=1&searchdiff=13); Cassandra Tate, "Abortion Reform in Washington State," HistoryLink Cyberpedia Library (www.; Frank Chesley interview with Dottie Smith, Jennifer Smith, and Melissa Smith, May 10, 2004; Frank Chesley interview with Jared Smith, May 15, 2004.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You