William O. McKay, a car salesman and community leader, built a gleaming Ford dealership on Westlake in 1922-23
IF WE WERE to build a local pantheon to the memory of Puget Sound’s greatest pitchpersons, it certainly would include two or three car dealers, and the record-breaking Ford salesman William O. McKay would be among them.
At Seattle High, the spirited McKay might easily have become a cheerleader, except that he could play. Wee Coyle, the future University of Washington star quarterback, was a friend and teammate, and both were members of First Hill’s Terry Street Gang, an athletic but generally benign cadre of teen urban explorers. McKay became a leader in his high school’s alumni association (renamed Broadway High School in 1909) while he was a UW student. Surely William O. later sold many Fords to former classmates. By 1935, he had sold 22,000 of them.
His life with cars began in the pit beneath them. Soon, however, young McKay explained to his boss, “I’ve got my mind set on becoming the leading automobile dealer in the Northwest,” and his boss moved him up to the showroom. In the March 19, 1916, issue of The Seattle Times, there’s a picture of McKay, then manager of the local Saxon dealership, posing in a six-cylinder Saxon Touring Car.
This was short-lived. McKay soon was off to France and the First World War. He enlisted as a private and came home a captain. One World War later, when Fords were turned into bombers and tanks, by-then Major McKay was put in charge of Marine Corps recruitment for the area. The major announced his new vocation — “for the duration” — with a banquet for 100 associates and VIPs held within the splendor of his admired Ford showroom on Westlake at Roy Street.
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McKay had built his terra-cotta palace for Fords (and soon Lincolns and Mercurys) in 1922-23. Following McKay’s lead, Westlake quickly became one of Seattle’s greater auto rows. He also kept showrooms on Pike Street and on the ground floor of the Washington Athletic Club, where he was an active member. He promoted the latter as “Seattle’s first Automobile Salon.” But it was from this gleaming Ford fort on Westlake that the major strategized his many sales promotions, radio broadcasts and public services, such as acting as campaign chairman for the Seattle Community Fund and president for the Seattle Dealers Association.
The Ford dealer was an American Legion leader. His wife, Leah, was also an outgoing community leader and performer. In 1949, she had recently retired from her presidency of the Women’s University Club. When requested, she would bravely sing show tunes before the annual members-only Stunt Night.
McKay died in the Fiji Islands while on a cruise with his wife in 1956. Thirteen years earlier, Lt. Theodore McKay, their only son, was killed by a broken propeller while standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, also in the South Seas. The December 1943 memorial for Theodore Sr. followed the baptism of Theodore Jr., his three-month old son whom he had never seen.
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 7, 2016, was corrected Jan. 12, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that William O. McKay’s wife Leah was named Gloria.