Williams, Walter B. (1921-2006)

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 1/05/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7200

Walter B. Williams, son of W. Walter Williams (1894-1983), not only assumed leadership of Seattle's Continental Mortgage from his father, continuing to grow and strengthen the firm through the 1990s, but also inherited the elder Williams's commitment to public service. Like his father, Walter B. Williams was active in Republican politics, serving in the Washington State Legislature throughout much of the 1960s, all the while putting a great deal of energy into various other community projects. In the mid-1980s he chaired the city's Zoo Commission, which developed an aggressive revitalization plan that helped rescue Seattle's ailing Woodland Park Zoo. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Walter B. Williams First Citizen of 1997, to honor his impressive array of accomplishments in the business and service arenas.

Early Life

Walter B. Williams was born to W. Walter and Anna Williams in 1921. His father was trained as a chemical engineer, but had become a teacher before moving into banking in the early 1920s. In 1922 the elder Williams became Secretary/Treasurer of the newly formed Continental Mortgage and Loan Company, which quickly developed into one of the Seattle-area's leading mortgage banking firms.

Williams's father was elevated to President of Continental in 1927, but the appointment came as trouble lay ahead for the family. Anna Williams died unexpectedly in 1928, leaving the elder Williams to balance the care of his young son with increasing professional demands. This only worsened in 1929, when the onset of the Depression brought new challenges both to Continental and to the Williams family.

Still, Walter B. Williams grew into a sharp and intelligent young man, raised in the family's Laurelhurst home by Ethel (Tobey) Williams, whom his father married in the early 1930s. Following high school graduation, Williams followed in his father's footsteps -- in the first of many instances -- by enrolling at the University of Washington. Williams was interested in geography, but the coming of World War II interrupted his studies.

Duty Calls

Williams enlisted for service, as had his father during World War I. The Navy selected him for language training at the University of Colorado. While there studying Japanese for his eventual deployment overseas, he met Marie Wilson, who would become his wife.

Williams eventually chose a commission in the Marines, becoming a language officer for the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, and completed his duty while stationed in Guam and occupied Japan, among other places.

A Legal Matter

Following his wartime service, Walter B. Williams finished his undergraduate degree and set off for Harvard Law School, opting for law over a career in mortgage banking at Continental. Upon graduation, he returned to Seattle and joined the city's largest firm at that time, Bogle, Bogle & Gates.

Although Williams made great headway in the legal profession, he could never escape the subtle pressure from his father, who openly lobbied for him to join the Continental family. Williams thought he could appease his father by doing some of Continental's legal work, but he could not forestall the inevitable. Finally, in 1953, after the elder Williams left Continental to serve as the Undersecretary of Commerce in the Eisenhower administration, Walter B. Williams was named as a Continental Trustee.

From Continental to the Capital

Williams became more involved in Continental's affairs, but he didn't necessarily leave law behind. Even during his early days as an attorney, he spent a good deal of time in Olympia drafting bills and working with various legislative committees, often without pay. It was a prelude to his eventual move into Republican politics.

In 1960, the same year his father was rumored as a possible candidate for governor (the elder Williams had lost a Senate contest against Democrat Warren Magnuson a decade earlier), Walter B. Williams was elected to the state House, representing Seattle's 43rd District. In 1962 he jumped to the Senate, where he spent the bulk of his legislative career.

Williams entered state government at an opportune time for young Republicans. He worked side-by-side with a number of the party's progressive up-and-comers, including Dan Evans (b. 1925), Slade Gorton (b. 1928), and Joel Pritchard. Williams split time between the Continental boardroom and Olympia for much of the 1960s, and became a leader in the Forward Thrust program, which championed a number of public works and housing programs.

The Bubble Bursts

Eventually, however, business conditions in the Puget Sound area forced Walter B. Williams to give up his Senate seat. When the Boeing bust began in 1969, Continental was hit hard by the business downturn -- much of its success in the mortgage banking industry during the 1950s and 1960s had been on the heels of Boeing's success. Although Continental had diversified its projects with, among other things, large shopping mall developments such as Northgate (1950), not even Continental's foundation could withstand the mass exodus of Boeing jobs. In short order, Williams and Continental faced the most challenging business situation to hit the company since Williams's father had helped guide Continental through the Great Depression some 40 years before.

Several elements were lining up against Continental and the local economy at the time. The early 1970s saw not only the tail end of the Boeing bust, but also a country embroiled in the Watergate scandal, a military fiasco in Vietnam, and the Mideast oil embargo. Nor were things to improve soon. Stagflation during the Carter years, the "Reagan Recession" of 1982, and continued layoffs at Boeing in the early 1980s hit Continental hard.

Perseverance and Vision

Still, like his father, who had gambled on the Northgate shopping complex in the late 1940s, Walter B. Williams found himself on the cutting edge of business development during this time. In the early 1970s Continental invested in the relatively new business of mini-warehouse storage. Williams and others at Continental had faith in the concept, but it took a while for consumers to find value in the idea. At the end of the decade Continental sold its stake in eight separate units, and the proceeds provided a huge windfall for stockholders.

Walter B. Williams had become President of Continental in 1963. When his father retired as Chairman 1972, it was only natural for the younger Williams to replace him. Williams also followed in his father's footsteps when he was named President of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America in 1974, a post his father had held some 40 years before.

Moving in New Directions

As Continental moved into the 1980s under Walter B. Williams's leadership, it became increasingly clear that the company could save money by becoming its own bank. Instead of borrowing from a commercial lender, Continental could instead use funds from its own bank to provide the short-term cash needed for its various projects.

After studying the issue, Continental applied to become its own savings and loan. The timing was unfortunate in that its application coincided with the savings and loan scandals of the mid-1980s. The approval process was long and grueling (lasting some 18 months), but after regulators approved Continental in August 1986, it began opening branch offices around the state. As his father had done several times before him, Walter B. Williams was able to adapt Continental's business model to fit the changing times, allowing the company to grow and maneuver in the prevailing business climate.

Williams was busy on the business front, but he was not one to cast aside his civic duties in the process. At the same time Continental was planning its move into banking, Williams was tapped by Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to chair the Zoo Commission, charged with reviewing conditions at the Woodland Park Zoo, which for years had struggled with inadequate funding and outdated facilities.

Under Williams's leadership, the Zoo Commission eventually recommended a $40 million dollar improvement package, arguing that such funding would restore Woodland Park's prestige and provide Seattle with a valuable resource for future generations. It was a bold plan, but one that the public embraced. A successful bond measure in 1985 helped raise a good portion of this money, which helped turn Woodland Park Zoo into an world-class zoo that has won several national honors.

The Twilight of an Extraordinary Career

In 1990, Walter B. Williams became the Chairman of Continental's Board, just a year after the company was honored by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America for "exemplary service in the provision of affordable housing" (Crowley, p. 44). Although his father had passed away almost seven years before, Continental was still very much a family business. Walter's son Bruce, also a lawyer, became Continental's general counsel in the late 1980s, and daughter Kathleen eventually joined the firm, as did Williams's son-in-law Dick Swanson. Two other daughters, Marge Meyers and Judy Zimmerman, served on the Continental Board.

When in 1997 Walter B. Williams finally retired as Chairman of Continental's Board, the company was known widely not only as a leader in the mortgage and banking industries, but also as a company committed to the larger community. Due in large part to Williams's own history of community service, which had carried over to become one of Continental's corporate values, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Walter B. Williams First Citizen of the Year on May 22, 1997. It was an honor that his father had won, back in 1945.

Although the extended Williams family still led Continental, it was Walter B. Williams -- perhaps a more soft-spoken leader than his father -- who steered the company toward the challenges of the twenty-first century. Well-liked by his staff, he was more than a worthy successor to W. Walter Williams's legacy at Continental (recently renamed Home Street Bank). "He projects and lives a unique sense of integrity," remarked one former colleague. "I was thankful to have him as a boss and a mentor" (Crowley, p. 28).

Walter B. Williams died on November 8, 2006. His wife, Marie (Wilson) Williams, died in September. They were survived by their four children, Kathryn Williams, Bruce Williams, Marcia Williams, and Wendy Williams.


Walt Crowley, The Continental Family: Building Confidence and Communities Since 1921 (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, Inc., 1997); Rabbi Raphael Levine (with Anne Barlow), Rabbi Levine's Profiles in Service: Stories of People Who Help People, (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 224-225; "Banker Walter Williams Given First Citizen Award by Realtors," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 5, 1996, p. C-4; Dan Richman, "Walter B. Williams, 1921-2006: Former Legislator Driven by High Values," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 11, 2006 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/).
Note: This essay was updated on November 11, 2006, and Williams's birthdate was corrected on November 20, 2006.

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