Robert "Bob" Blethen made employees throughout the company feel they belonged. "He went out of his way to make new people feel comfortable and make sure they were part of the team," said former Times reporter Jack Broom. "It wasn’t his family’s newspaper. It was our newspaper."
Robert “Bob” Blethen, an eager listener, gifted marketer and dedicated family man who served as the gregarious soul of the family-owned Seattle Times Company for decades, died Wednesday night. He was 71.
Family and friends described Mr. Blethen as a warm, welcoming man who knew someone at every restaurant where he dined and put people at ease with cheerful kindness. He cared deeply for the Seattle area as a volunteer on numerous philanthropic boards and at The Times, where he treated colleagues with humor and grace.
“He had a way of caring about what you’re saying and listening intently and intuitively and making you feel comfortable,” said his son, Rob Blethen.
Mr. Blethen, who grew up in Bellevue at a home on Lake Washington’s Meydenbauer Bay, spent his entire life in the newspaper business after graduating from the University of Puget Sound (UPS) in 1968.
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He started as a copy aide, later working as a reporter and editor before joining the company’s marketing department. Mr. Blethen retired in 2007 as the company’s vice president of corporate marketing, and continued to serve until his death as a member of the company’s corporate board.
“He has never wavered from the mission,” said Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, his cousin. For many years, Bob was the one who represented the company to the public.
“When you practice the kind of journalism we do, it’s good for people to know there are honest human beings full of integrity behind it,” Frank Blethen said. “He always represented us so well.”
Carolyn Kelly, The Times’ former president and Chief Operating Officer, said Mr. Blethen was a “walking marketer” who took personal pride in the newspaper and always stuck up for its journalism, even when critical coverage rankled friends or business associates.
“Bob understood the importance of the stewardship, the importance of independent journalism. I know, at times, some of his closest friends were mad at him, but he always said, ‘That’s what a newspaper is; we tell the truth,’ ” Kelly said.
Although his family’s name is emblazoned on the masthead, Mr. Blethen made everyone in the company feel they belonged. He played in regular poker games with reporters and desk editors.
“To us, it didn’t feel like he was a high official of the company. It felt like he was a co-worker and a friend,” said retired Times reporter Jack Broom. “He went out of his way to make new people feel comfortable and make sure they were part of the team. It wasn’t his family’s newspaper. It was our newspaper.”
Kelly said Mr. Blethen’s “two legacies are his newspaper and his family.” He enjoyed a “rich life outside of the paper,” she said.
He met Sue Blethen, his wife, partner and confidante of nearly 50 years, in college at UPS, where they both played collegiate tennis.
“Everything they did, they did together as a team,” said Craig Hopkins, a friend of three decades. “She was so supportive of him, and he of her. Really anything they did was a reflection of them both.”
Mr. Blethen’s childhood had been “a little more unsettled,” said Sue Blethen. His parents divorced when he was young and each faced personal struggles.
“He cherished our family,” Sue Blethen said. The couple had four kids. “We were always making memories and having fun and experiencing things together as a family.”
The family bonded outdoors, skiing at Crystal Mountain, powerboating and crabbing on Puget Sound or volleying on the tennis court.
For years, “we didn’t have a TV on our boat. We played games.”
Each of his four children worked with Mr. Blethen as Seattle Times employees, too.
“We all got to work for decades with my dad,” Rob Blethen said. “I know that was really special for him. We’d be in his office and distracting him, having fun and telling stories. He’d help guide us and mentor us.”
After Rob Blethen moved with his wife, Catherine, to Maine, the couple became “homesick” for the Pacific Northwest.
“He’d call every single day to make sure I was OK,” Rob Blethen said. “He was just there. Always.”
Hopkins said Mr. Blethen enjoyed “several lifetimes’ worth of fun” and too many friends to count. “He was so good at laughing at himself,” he said.
At dinner parties, his affable personality would leave fellow diners in stitches, Kelly said.
“He had four kids. He loved them to death, but they were always doing something to drive him crazy: Crashing their cars, playing the stereo too loud and letting the dogs get out,” she said, laughing. “He’d sit back and be rolling his eyes and telling these stories: You knew it came from a place of deep, deep love.”
When he wasn’t with family or friends, Mr. Blethen spent time volunteering with numerous civic organizations and was involved in several social clubs. He was president of the University Club and Dungeness Farms; served on the boards of ArtsFund, of the Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations (PONCHO), and of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Bellevue. He was a Seattle University regent and a member of the Rainier Club, among other organizations.
More than a decade of health problems — five heart attacks and a stroke — rarely slowed his appetite for good conversation, a deep-sea fishing trip or time with family or friends.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to go down in a nursing home. I’d rather be on a steelhead river or fly fishing or boating in Canada,’ ” Sue Blethen said.
Within a week of one heart attack, he caught a trout in the Yakima River and shot par on a hole at a nearby golf course, all in the same day, Rob Blethen said.
His wife kept him alive and living, friends and family said. When he could no longer drive, she took him places.
“He always relied on her. He always admired her,” Kelly said.
Family and friends said Mr. Blethen’s death leaves them with deep grief, but also comfort that he had accomplished what he wanted in life and with enjoyment until the end.
“He died in his sleep, which is the way he wanted to go, after having enjoyed his last coffee sundae with chocolate sauce,” Sue Blethen said of his favorite dessert. “There’s something good in everything, and Bob was the best.”
Along with his wife, Mr. Blethen is survived by his brother, Will; his children, Christine Farrey and her husband, Tom; Rob Blethen and his wife, Catherine; Cal Blethen and his wife, Bridget; and David Blethen and his fiancee, Cristina Vazquez-Guizar. He had eight grandchildren: Cole, Anna, Kellen, Caroline, Charlie, Abby, Mae and Denman.
Blethen’s family will hold a celebration of life on Friday, June 22, at the Seattle Yacht Club. A time for the celebration has not been decided yet.