The 1968 Issue: Two events on one day led Munro to a career in politics, where he fought for the rights of the disabled.
THE SUMMER OF LOVE’S soundtrack by The Doors and Sgt. Pepper was still wafting around VW vans. The first issue of Rolling Stone magazine was about to hit the streets. And baby boomers were weighing the dare posed by Jimi Hendrix’s debut album: “Are you experienced?” It was September 1967.
But instead of following psychedelic guru Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” 24-year old Ralph Munro was writing letters from his Seattle apartment. He had a new “special friend,” Terry Sullivan, a 7-year old who lived at the Fircrest School in Shoreline.
“I work with him, buy him clothes, teach him as much as possible and try to provide some of the extras that institutionalized children don’t receive,” Munro said in a letter seeking donations for an upcoming Christmas party for people with disabilities or, as they were then called, “the handicapped.”
Munro remains best-known for his five terms as Washington’s secretary of state. Not so many realize he was also a pioneering figure in the state’s disability rights movement. Through two bits of serendipity on one 1968 day, Munro would come to work for Gov. Dan Evans. And he would use every opportunity after that to get Terry in front of the governor, so he’d have a poignant reminder of the plight of thousands of children in the state.
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“Ralph was the one who taught me how to care,” Evans said when Munro retired after 20 years as secretary of state.
Munro, now 75, sidesteps the praise. “He cared before me. But it was interesting that Terry became a change agent in many ways.”
People with developmental disabilities were still shunned by society in the 1960s and stuck in state institutions. But progress came as advocates, including Munro, positioned themselves under the umbrella of the civil-rights movement. Munro had a hand in the state’s revolutionary “Education for All” law, which gave all children a right to public schooling. He got Evans to spend part of a day in a wheelchair in a crusade for the state’s first accessibility requirements. He helped expand state law to protect those with “sensory, mental and physical” disabilities from discrimination. He led a campaign that steered $25 million to building group homes and job-training facilities. As the state’s top elections official, he even published the first Braille voters’ pamphlet in the state.
“He saw this as a civil-rights issue, not as poor people who needed pity. He saw them as people whose rights were being abridged,” says Norm Davis, former Fircrest superintendent.
MUNRO’S CONCERN for disabled children was kindled a few days before Christmas 1966. He got a frantic call from his landlord, who helped organize the annual Holiday Cruises for the Handicapped on Puget Sound aboard the steamboat Virginia V. The guy scheduled to cook hot dogs on that night’s cruise didn’t show. Munro’s landlord asked whether he could help. “Sure,” Munro said. Aboard the historic steamer, food was served, carols sung and pictures snapped with Santa. Munro spotted Terry sitting alone in a corner of the boisterous party. Abandoned by his mother, the developmentally disabled boy didn’t talk. Afraid of men, he was very hesitant when Munro approached him.
After that night, Munro, who had a degree in education from Western Washington State College, felt a bit discouraged. “I was ashamed of myself for not knowing more about retardation and individual problems the mentally retarded face,” he said in a 1971 interview with public television.
On Christmas morning, Munro decided to bring Terry a few presents and scope out Fircrest. Munro was chagrined he wasn’t serving his country like his buddies in Vietnam. Eager to enlist, he had gone to the Army induction center in Seattle one morning. But he was rejected because of a heart murmur and a sunken chest. “I felt terrible about it,” Munro says. “I was working at Boeing during the day and thought, ‘Yeah; I’ll start going out and working with these kids.’ And I really liked it.”
Munro rarely went a few days without visiting Terry. He had coaxed a few words from him and was helping him learn more.
Then a bolt of fortune — really, two bolts on the same day — put Munro on a path to bigger things. It started on the afternoon of March 21, 1968. Evans went out to Fircrest, in Shoreline, to dedicate a new building at the institution. Munro walked over to Evans after the ceremony; explained that he was a volunteer; and introduced Terry, whose vocabulary had grown to more than 50 words. As interested as Evans seemed, Munro thought, “We’ll never see him again.”
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A few hours later, Munro was working a catering job at Seattle Center. He didn’t even know Evans was speaking at that night’s banquet. Munro was scraping food off dishes when the lead waitress came back, grabbed him and said, “I think the governor is talking about you.”
What? Munro stuck his head into the Rainier Room. Evans was winding up his talk about volunteerism and his visit to Fircrest, where he had met a young boy who had learned how to talk. Munro later followed the governor out to his car, still wearing his slop-covered apron, to thank him. “You call my office,” the governor said. “I want to talk to you.”
Munro scheduled an appointment in Olympia. Evans asked him to write a report on how to boost volunteerism. The next month, Evans told reporters he wanted to encourage an army of citizen volunteers, especially in endeavors requiring compassion and understanding.
Munro became a recurring figure in commencement speeches Evans gave in the following months at Saint Martin’s College, Eastern Washington State College and the University of Washington. “Show me the critics, the protesters, the youth who believe there is no hope to be found and no service to render. … I will show them one single individual man who devotes every spare hour from his job and his family in helping mentally retarded children to find and grasp the joys of life.”
In June, Evans appointed Munro, not yet 25, to lead a committee studying volunteerism. Munro produced a brochure that Evans liked to tout. Over pictures of campus demonstrations, its front cover said only, “Where the Hell Were You Last Spring?” Inside, it said, “Well, Here Is Where You Should Have Been.” It listed various community needs, such as student tutoring. “It was somewhat controversial,” Munro says, “but Dan personally OK’d it.”
Young Munro began to grasp his privileged position. “I realized that what I told the governor better be important. It better be the real stuff.”
PARENTS OF CHILDREN with intellectual or developmental disabilities had only two options in the 1960s unless they were quite affluent. They could keep a child at home and spend their days trying to help that child, who was often unwelcome at churches, restaurants, even family gatherings. Or, they could confine their children to a state institution, often far from home, where poor conditions and abuse were not uncommon.
A group of Seattle moms helped build an alternative school system in the late 1960s, first run out of church basements, then the nonprofit, Northwest Center, dedicated to educating kids rejected by schools. They were a new breed of activist. They didn’t want to make changes in their kids, but in the system itself.
So where to start?
Four of the Northwest Center founders — Katie Dolan, Janet Taggart, Evelyn Chapman and Cecile Lindquist — were chatting in 1969 with Munro. He suggested something as bold as the women: “Why don’t you write a mandatory law that children with disabilities will be served by public schools?”
The ignorance reflected in state law was shocking, according to Susan Schwartzenberg’s 2005 book, “Becoming Citizens.” Some policies had been influenced by the Eugenics movement in the 1920s and had never been updated. State education code said that children who were afflicted with “loathsome and contagious diseases” including epilepsy and cerebral palsy were not allowed to be served by public schools. Some 33,000 children with disabilities in Washington were not enrolled in schools, a state study found.
Soon, University of Washington Law School students George Breck and Bill Dussault were on board and researching. Dussault focused on the idea that education and civil rights were entwined, by Washington’s state constitution, by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and by court rulings in cases such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The team drafted 29 versions of the “Education for All” law before it had House Bill 90.
They didn’t have professional lobbyists, but they kept a constant presence at the Capitol. They created files on every lawmaker, according to Schwartzenberg. They knew who had a child or relative with a disability, whose wife was a social worker or teacher, who kept a Bible on his desk.
They also had an ally in Lindquist’s cousin, Gov. Evans.
The citizen activists were told it would take several years and cost at least $50,000 to get such a law passed. It took them one year and less than $500. Washington’s law became a model for the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed in 1975.
“It was a group of four middle-aged women and one young attorney, along with Ralph, who created a huge, huge change in the way children and others with disabilities were served,” says Sue Elliott, executive director of The Arc of Washington State, a group that advocates for people with disabilities.
MUNRO’S NEXT PROPOSITION: What if the governor spent a day in a wheelchair to demonstrate the architectural barriers faced by people with physical disabilities?
On the morning of Oct. 4, 1972, Evans edged his wheelchair out of the governor’s mansion. He skinned his knuckles colliding “occasionally with walls and other objects,” David Ammons of The Associated Press wrote. Evans called the six hours he spent in the chair “a sobering … experience,” noting that a 6-inch curb “looked about as impossible as a 6-foot wall.”
Munro lobbied for a bill requiring new public curbs to have at least two ramps, or cuts, per block to accommodate wheelchairs. It passed in 1973.
Jim Dolliver, the Evans aide who would become chief justice of the state Supreme Court, later said, “The fact that in this community we have cuts in the sidewalk at the corners so a wheelchair can get up and down from the street is nothing more than the extended shadow of Ralph Munro.”
Munro was then on to House Bill 445, which aimed to amend the state’s anti-discrimination law so that people couldn’t be denied jobs because of “sensory, mental and physical” handicaps.
It ran into opposition from the powerful Association of Washington Business, which claimed the bill would require employers to hire the handicapped. “NO WAY,” Munro wrote in a memo seeking help from lawmakers. “No business would have to hire anyone who isn’t equally capable.” Still, in the spring it was stuck in the Senate Rules Committee, where many bills went to quietly die without the witnesses of a floor vote.
Munro took the unprecedented step of bringing a handful of people in wheelchairs into the Rules room to lend some leverage. “No one was quite sure what to do. They didn’t want to throw us out and didn’t know what to say,” Munro recalls.
John Cherberg, the Democratic lieutenant governor, lobbied to get the bill through the Rules Committee, Munro says. Evans signed it into law in 1973.
Along the way, Munro’s influence helped Terry become one of the first children in the state to move from an institution to a foster home. One night, after Munro had brought Terry to the governor’s Christmas party, he returned home to find his phone ringing at 9 p.m. He picked it up. “The governor saw some kid you brought in the mansion,” Munro recalls Wally Miller, the budget director, fuming. “And now he wants $15 million for handicapped education; and I don’t have the money; and you sonuvabitch, you screwed up the whole budget!”
IN 1979, MUNRO proposed a $25 million bond issue for facilities around the state, such as group homes, to serve people with disabilities. In leading the campaign for Referendum 37, he visited newspaper editors from Seattle to Spokane, often working in tandem with a disabled person or a representative from an advocacy group. The measure passed with 67 percent of the vote.
Munro had made more friends across Washington. He began campaigning for secretary of state. In a close race against Clark County auditor Ron Dotzauer, a Democrat, Munro won with 51.3 percent of the vote.
As the state’s top elections official, Munro ushered in a number of changes to make voter registration easier and encourage turnout. But he didn’t stop caring about people with disabilities. He remained Terry’s legal guardian until several years ago. He continued to be part of a relatively small group of people that shaped the focus and direction of the disability rights movement in Washington.
And Munro, who started as a volunteer, remained one in retirement: ringing a bell for the Salvation Army before Christmas, helping at his neighborhood elementary school, going to East Africa to help eradicate polio by dispensing vaccine drops to children. He urges others to try volunteering instead of looking for fulfillment “in the spa at Palm Springs.”
Terry now lives in a nice house on a cul-de-sac in Marysville, with two other men with disabilities and a 24-hour caretaker. He has his own bedroom, adorned with framed photos of him and Munro. He has worked for more than 30 years sorting recyclables and polishing machine parts. Terry looks young for 59, at a trim 135 pounds, with a neat goatee.
Community-living options for people with disabilities are so much better than they were in 1968, Munro says.
“Much better, Ralph,” Terry says.