After federal prosecutor Thomas C. Wales was killed in 2001, his family set up a foundation to honor his ideals and work. After changes in the family, his daughter Amy and the foundation’s board decided to shut it down and donate to the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project.
His daughter called him “Pops.” He was smart and passionate and raised her and her brother to be the same. To think of others. To seek justice and beauty, to bathe themselves in words and to live with compassion.
It’s possible, though, that those qualities may have cost Thomas C. Wales his life.
The federal prosecutor and president of Washington CeaseFire, a prominent gun-control advocacy group, was shot to death on the night of Oct. 11, 2001, while he worked on his computer in the basement of his Queen Anne home. He was 49.
Seventeen years later, the case remains unsolved. In February, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came to Seattle to reiterate the Department of Justice’s commitment to the case, and announce that an award for information leading to an arrest and conviction is now $1.5 million, boosted by a $525,000 donation from the National Association of Former United States Attorneys.
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Not long after, Wales’ daughter Amy has with her family decided to shut down the Thomas C. Wales Foundation set up after his death to honor his ideals and work.
It’s a difficult thing for Wales to let go of something that helped keep her father alive. And yet, this makes sense.
“I have some low moments,” she said the other day. “And those help us recognize that we’re all human. If we’re lucky, we recognize joy and love, but also loss. And it’s how we navigate it.”
The foundation was primarily managed by Wales’ brother, Rick. Amy Wales was involved for a while but dropped off when she started a family five years ago.
Then last year, Rick Wales died of blood cancer, and the board had to make some decisions about what to do with the foundation, and the $60,000 in its coffers.
They chose to shut down the foundation’s three facets: a fellowship program that partnered young people with foundation-board members; a symposium series that also matched a dozen young people with like-minded organizations; and the annual Thomas C. Wales Award for Passionate Citizenship, which honored people like University of Washington professor Roy Prosterman and Kikora Dorsey of Casey Family Programs.
A scholarship at Harvard University — Wales’ alma mater — established by Wales’ family and longtime friend Bill Harwood, will continue. The annual scholarship is awarded to an undergraduate student from the Pacific Northwest who has “demonstrated a willingness to work for their vision of social justice and for an engaged, inclusive society.”
The board met with Fidelma McGinn at The Seattle Foundation to discuss where the remaining money should go.
“We wanted to do right by the people who donated, and to be helpful to a local organization that reflects the ethos and drive of my dad,” Wales said. “Thread the needle in a way that will honor my father, but also Rick, who has given so much to the foundation.”
For two hours, they discussed Thomas Wales’ life experiences, values and personality traits. (“Off and on, I’ve been doing that my entire existence, since he was killed.”)
They chose the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, which helps young people who are in jail, on the streets or having difficult lives to express themselves — and heal — through poetry and other forms of creative expression.
“The focus of Pongo is encouraging people to lift up their own voices,” Amy Wales said. “What they’re feeling and where their hearts are. It values kids who are otherwise not seen as valuable. Their voice, their experience, their creative struggle. And it helps them value themselves.”
Richard Gold, who founded the Pongo nonprofit 22 years ago, knew of Thomas Wales through his friend, Paula Boggs, who considered Wales a mentor.
When he learned that Pongo was to receive the Wales Foundation money, “The power and gratitude I felt was deep,” Gold said.
“He was someone with a lot of courage, someone with a lot of persistence, someone who cared about the people around them and helped them to grow,” Gold said of Wales. “And to the extent that I can meet that model, I would certainly love to.”
The money will help fund a social worker focused on Pongo’s local work, Gold said, freeing him to train more teachers in the Pongo methodology nationally.
“This is a great opportunity to do more good,” Gold said. “Nothing would make me happier than to continue (Wales’) legacy.”
The choice makes perfect sense to Amy Wales, who is concerned about the mark that incarceration makes on young people. She spoke of a podcast called “Caught,” which estimated that on any given night, 53,000 young people in America are locked up — more than 60 percent of them African American or Latino.
The Pongo Teen Writing Project offers a different path, she said.
“We deeply appreciate Pongo’s model of creative expression, especially when navigating hard times,” she said.
Wales and her brother, Thomas, continue to do that, she said. (“He is my rock, and I am his. We hold each other up.”)
For while her life is full with a happy marriage, 4-year-old twins, a close family and meaningful work, she has struggled mightily with the loss of her father and the intensity of the continuing investigation.
That, and the missing. Wales wishes her father were there for her kids. To read to them, take them on adventures and put them to sleep.
”We’re doing really great,” Wales said of parenthood. “It’s been cathartic. It helps me understand the challenges of my parents, my own imperfections and how we are constantly becoming.
“But it’s been really hard, and … can I swear? God damn, I miss my dad. It’s palpable. And I know he would be the best grandfather and whatever they did, he would be so involved.
“But we’re doing OK, because the community has supported us,” she continued, “When you go through the dark, you have a better understanding and appreciation for the light.”