Rick Steves' first priority is his travel business — he travels four months out of the year filming his PBS travel shows and updating guidebooks. But his philanthropy and community and political activism have become increasingly visible over the years.

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Rick Steves’ first priority is his travel business — he travels four months out of the year filming his PBS travel shows and updating guidebooks.

But his philanthropy and community and political activism have become increasingly visible over the years. Steves has stated his views on war, homophobia, affordable housing, the decriminalization of marijuana and America’s need to engage in the world in a more constructive way.

What’s next?

He’s going to attempt to film a travel show in Iran.

“We really think [you need] to humanize a country before you bomb it,” said Steves, with some irony. “Through our TV travel series, we hope to do that.”

The travel business

It’s his wide-ranging travel business that allows Steves to advocate for other things.

Gary Durr of Edmonds recently sat in an easy chair at Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door travel center in Edmonds reading a guide to Germany. With plans for a hiking trip in the Austrian alps and the Dolomites in northern Italy, Durr knew he could turn to Steves’ travel library, look at videos and pore over maps for free.

“My wife and I do our own thing; we like to travel independently,” Durr said.

Believed to be the highest-profile guidebook writer of his generation, with 30 best-selling guidebooks, Steves said that unlike Fielding, Fodor or Frommer, there’s personality in his books.

“People who travel with my books know me; they’re my extended family. That makes my work a lot more fun,” he said.

It’s also good business.

Information is what sells products, and “That’s kind of the way this company is going,” said Steves’ longtime colleague Gene Openshaw, an author and guide. He calls Steves “the hardest-working man in the tour business.”

The social activism

Steves also is one of the most generous — and outspoken.

He and wife Anne founded Trinity Place, a 25-unit transitional housing complex in Lynnwood for homeless mothers and their children, and he has raised millions for public television, considering himself a “soldier for public broadcasting.”

“I enjoy commercial media, but I understand the value of noncommercial media, especially when we’re trying to grapple with serious challenges that face our nation,” Steves said.

During the Reagan era, he put out a liberal newsletter called “The Future in Our Hands.”

“It dealt with how we take care of our environment … with trying to break down the barriers between the United States and the Soviet Union,” said Openshaw.

“It’s kind of been what Europe Through the Back Door is about,” Openshaw added. “It’s travel as political activism and travel as a life-changing event that can also help to change society.”

Born in 1955, the son of a piano technician and a homemaker, Steves said his values were shaped by a number of influences: his dad’s entrepreneurial passion, for one.

“He used to have a piano store, and I saw the fun and the reality of the hard work of having your own business,” said Steves. “My Christian faith and my upbringing has contributed, and my travel experience, and, of course, the good fortune to have had inspirational teachers along the way.”

The advocacy

Steves likes lending to the visibility of advocacy groups that lobby on important issues often overlooked in government, specifically hunger and homelessness.

He supports Bread for the World, a Christian citizen’s movement.

“They’ve been my No. 1 service,” Steves said. “They tell our legislators what I think is important. Our nation can legislate with the needs of homeless and hungry people in mind.”

Steves has given Bread for the World free underwriting on his TV show, and this year has begun a new initiative. Because his company sells so many Eurail Passes, it receives some bonus passes each year, which it then will give away to people who donate to Bread for the World. The company expects to raise $40,000 this year.

For Steves, rather than write a check for $40,000, it makes more sense to have people write a $500 check, experience the rewards of giving, as well as traveling, and leverage the impact for people in desperate straits.

Steves has always been socially conscious, “very much willing to risk the wrath of people who might not want to agree with his social ideas,” said longtime travel-center guide and associate Pat O’Connor. Appearing in a lively concert series with the Seattle Men’s Chorus recently, at which he donated and autographed 500 books for the chorus, Steves talked about everything from homophobia to the expenses and consequences of the war in Iraq.

He’s also an outspoken opponent of putting marijuana users in prisons. “This is, in a sense money out of his pocket to take company time to contact our congressmen,” said O’Connor. “He’s not telling us what stance to take, but that this is an important issue.”

A year ago, Steves spent $80,000 to plant trees to offset the carbon footprint created by the 13,000 travelers on his tours flying to Europe every year.

The philanthropist

Steves may not have the dollars of a Paul Allen or Bill Gates, but he and his wife have been making a difference in the lives of the homeless since the 1980s.

The Trinity Place project began with their purchase of a duplex near their church, Trinity Lutheran Church, which they offered to the YWCA Pathways for Women program in the 1980s.

Over time, they bought more duplexes, and eventually bought a 25-unit apartment. In October of 2005, after a major renovation, the first family moved into Trinity Place.

During their time at Trinity Place, moms and children get counseling, case management and support from community partners. such as the noontime Rotary Club of Edmonds.

Close to bus lines and with a central playground, families stay for a year and move out with vouchers from the Snohomish County Housing Authority to move into a Section 8 unit anywhere in the community.

Mary Anne Dillon, regional director of the Snohomish County YWCA, said the project has become a model for other organizations around the country.

“Rick and Anne are really committed to their community and to supporting folks who might not have the resources and the ability initially to become self-sufficient,” she said.

Back to Europe

As Steves heads out this month for Europe, he’s gearing up for the endless note-taking and filming that will result in updated guidebooks and PBS shows. On his itinerary: Paris, London, Edinburgh, Lisbon, York, Bath, Munich, Amsterdam, Brussels and Bruges.

Said Steves: “I’m old-fashioned in wanting to have every place in every book visited in person every year.”

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com