The remarkable, formidable Lois Spellman

The remarkable, formidable Lois Spellman

Former Washington State First Lady Lois Spellman died Thursday, January 25th, just days after the passing of her husband, former Washington State Governor John D. Spellman. Lois Elizabeth Murphy was born in 1927 in Havre, Montana. She and her husband prayed the Rosary together every night before bed for all 63 years of their marriage. They have six children and six grandchildren.

Legacy Washington Chief Historian and Spellman biographer John Hughes remembers Lois in his book about the former governor:

In Spanish class at Seattle College, John sat next to Lois Murphy, who was as attractive as she was brainy. Her raven-black hair complemented her Irish complexion. She was the school’s only female labor-relations major. Her father, one of Patton’s top officers during the war, was a railroad official. He had moved the family from Montana to Seattle a few years earlier so Lois and her two brothers—one became a renowned oncologist who received the Papal Medal for service to humanity—could receive a strong education. Lois remembers the first time she saw John Spellman. He was coming down a staircase. Their eyes met. Another co-ed saw the look on her face and declared, “That’s the man you’re going to marry.” Lois laughed. “I felt, Well he’s good looking. He certainly looks like he’s in command of himself— very self-confident, good posture. When I transferred to Roosevelt High School from Havre High in Montana I had the same impression of [future governor] Dan Evans. There was a similarity there. You sensed their self awareness and confidence in themselves.”

Lois Spellman
Photo courtesy Washington State Archives.

For John, it was also like at first sight. Though she was a Democrat and a huge Harry Truman fan, he quickly concluded she was very smart—a good debater, too. They were both dating other people, so it took a while for their relationship to blossom. “We ended up having these long discussions about life and what was going on in the world,” Lois recalls. “I’m a now person. I love reading newspapers.” As a reporter for the college newspaper, the Spectator, she was assigned to interview Senator Magnuson, whom she knew to be a longtime Spellman family friend. As the interview was winding down, “I gave him my pitch: ‘By the way, senator, I’m really looking for a job in labor relations to represent women.’ And he looked at me intently and said, ‘You sure have good looking legs.’ Decades later, just before Maggie died, John and I were at a reception at the Washington Athletic Club. Maggie was in a wheelchair. He looks me up and says, ‘You still have great legs.’”

During the summer of 1952 John worked the graveyard shift in the metal-fabricating shop at the Boeing Company, which was developing a revolutionary swept-wing commercial jetliner that would become the 707. In his spare time he saw a lot of his Seattle U classmate, Lois Murphy, who was working at Peoples Bank in downtown Seattle. No one in Seattle, union or business, was willing to hire a woman for a job in labor relations. John and Lois talked politics a lot. She defended the Democrats. He liked Ike.

Spellman wedding photo
1954 wedding photo of John and Lois Spellman. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives.

Lois Elizabeth Murphy and John Dennis Spellman were married on February 20, 1954, at Assumption Catholic Church in Seattle. The bride was radiant in Chantilly Lace over taffeta, the groom dark-haired, handsome and boutonnièred. Lois became his most trusted political adviser.

Lois’ eyes sparkle when she talks about her husband. From the Courthouse to the Governor’s Mansion, John’s friends, agency heads and staff came to regard her as an astute observer and tough cookie. “She is very good at reading people,” says Steve Excell, a longtime Spellman friend and former chief of staff. “She could spot trouble. John was always inclined to give every dog a second chance to bite. It’s the Jesuit in him. Lois was more wary. She has always been his biggest fan, sometimes protective but knowing deep down that that’s not really realistic. They’re both resilient people. He values her advice. It’s a love story.”

The First Lady was also candid and accessible—but protective, too. Her family came first. During the 1976 campaign she told a friend that if John won “I’m not really convinced yet I’m going to go down there [to Olympia]. I’m a mom. I’ve got a bigger job, and I don’t know that I would like that at all.” The kids were now four years older and that made things easier, though she still worried that her life in Olympia “would be like moving into the Smithsonian and living over the store and trying to adhere to all the rules of the mansion ladies. I’m not one to take orders very gently.”

Spellman family
The Spellman Family in Olympia. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives.

Once in Olympia, Lois Spellman’s view of her paramount duty hadn’t changed: She was the mom and wife. The kids had their chores, but she did the shopping and cooking, packed school lunches, prodded teens to clean their rooms, fed the pets and worried about her spouse’s stress. When everyone was out the door in the morning or doing their homework after dinner, she was a hostess-ambassador in a house that wasn’t just a home. Daughters Katherine (“Kat”) and Teresa remember arriving home from school to find Mom fogging up the windows in the Mansion ballroom with aerobics classes for legislative wives. Lois saw early on that the mansion needed more help—a chef for the luncheons and banquets in addition to the people who vacuumed the rugs and polished the floors in the public rooms. Her college major was labor relations. She insisted that the Legislature make the mansion workers regular state employees with health-care and pension benefits.

John and Lois Spellman
John and Lois Spellman. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives.

Three months after they’d settled in and grown accustomed to having strangers wandering around the house squinting at the silver and chandeliers, Lois was summoned to the Governor’s Office. “I was told that the Mansion Foundation had filed a formal complaint because I was introducing Northwest art into the mansion.” Kenneth Callahan and Jacob Lawrence, whom the Spellmans revered, were artists of international renown. However, some of the people who guarded the mansion’s aura—volunteers all and well intended—felt modernist works were out of place. The Rembrandt Peale school of portraiture and classic landscapes of snow-capped peaks were what “fit.” Nonsense, the First Lady said. The Governor’s Mansion wasn’t Monticello or Mount Vernon. She and John loved all sorts of art. A print of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More, “The Man for All Seasons,” hangs above their fireplace mantel in Seattle. “I told them classic art was fine, but it wasn’t true to the architecture and style of the mansion.” She met with John’s legal counsel, Marilyn Showalter, and Keith Angier, the director of General Administration. “This went back and forth,” Lois remembered. “It was pretty bad. But I won. Finally it was determined that I could hang Northwest art in the galleries and in the family rooms.”

The Spellmans hosted a reception for Lawrence, an African-American whose narrative paintings of the black experience were being hailed for their brilliance. Soon there were more such soirees, featuring Callahan, Fay Jones, Elton Bennett and other Northwest artists.

The First Lady also spotlighted programs she had championed when John was King County executive, food banks in particular. There had been thousands of hungry people in King County during the Boeing Bust. This new recession, the worst since the 1930s, was being felt everywhere around the state. She lobbied the U.S. secretary of Agriculture for surplus commodities and worked with the Restaurant Association to collect leftovers to distribute to food banks. The Help the Hungry program she inspired mobilized volunteers statewide.

Excerpts from “Politics Never Broke His Heart,” a biography of John Spellman by John C. Hughes.


One thought on “The remarkable, formidable Lois Spellman

  1. Wow! What a pioneer for women and workers Lois Spellman was! And a great mom and wife on top if that. No wonder her kids turned out so well.

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