Forbes Bottomly, a lifelong education leader who in the 1960s helped implement school desegregation efforts in Seattle, died May 8.

He was 99 years old. The cause of death was old age, said his daughter, Kim Bottomly.

Mr. Bottomly was born in Kansas City on April 20, 1921. From his earliest years, Kim said, he was known as a warm mediator and good listener. While growing up with eight other siblings in Montana, he was often the person to alleviate conflict. An early experience teaching students with physical disabilities how to swim sparked his passion for reforming schools, said his daughter.

Those childhood skills served him well into his nearly 50-year-long professional career, which most notably centered on school desegregation and figuring out how to improve access to education. In 1972, weeks after he launched a small-scale voluntary busing program to desegregate a handful of school campuses in Seattle, opponents slashed the tires of 70 district buses in protest.

“He’s really a man who believed in education,” said Kim. “And he fought for changes that he knew would benefit all kids.” 

Mr. Bottomly was a naval officer and pilot during World War II, an experience that led to a lifelong love of sailing. He met his first wife, Helen, while he was serving, and they had two children together.


After his military stint, he started his career as a teacher on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, where Seattle’s current superintendent, Denise Juneau, grew up.

After serving as a school superintendent in Denver, Mr. Bottomly came to Seattle in 1965 to oversee Seattle Public Schools, which had 100,000 students at the time — almost double the number the district enrolls today. He served for eight years, an uncommonly long tenure for a big-city schools chief. True to his “miserly” nature, said Kim, he declined salary raises while employed by the district.

The School Board members who interviewed him for the job said Mr. Bottomly seemed quiet and unobtrusive, according to Seattle Times archives. But after engaging him on his approach to education, they knew he was the right man within an hour, Phillip B. Swain, former Seattle School Board president told the paper.

His time at the district was tumultuous, defined by the civil rights issues of the 1960s and 1970s, including gender equality, racial integration and disability rights.

His moves to desegregate schools ahead of a federal court order earned him vocal opponents. Parent activists successfully sought to delay his integration efforts in a lower court challenge, which was then overruled by the state Supreme Court a year later.

Then, in 1973, they organized an unsuccessful recall vote for School Board members over the issue. He resigned that same year, and went on to help Boston schools tackle the same issue. Despite the pushback he received here, he found working on the issue in Boston much harder, according to an Op-Ed he penned in 1975, while he was a chairman of the educational administration department at Georgia State University. A federal court judge ordered Boston to integrate.


Seattle, on the other hand, became the largest city to voluntarily desegregate its schools just a few years after he left. (Those efforts fizzled out by the 21st century.)

Following a long career spanning many cities, Mr. Bottomly settled permanently in Seattle in the mid-70s. In the early ’90s, just shy of his 70th birthday, he built his own 38-foot sailboat.

“After 40 years of dealing with people problems, it’s kind of fun working with wood,” he told The Times in 1990.

Kim said his parenting style reflected his passion for walking people through challenges. When his kids were young, Mr. Bottomly led them on weekly family hikes that ended with breakfast eaten over an open fire, “no matter how cold it was,” said Kim.

On one of these expeditions, the family crossed over a creek by gripping and scaling a long pipe that hung above the water. When it was Kim’s turn to monkey-bar the pipe, she grew tired and stopped halfway through, thinking the task was impossible. Her father showered her with encouraging words and pushed her to carry on.

She said, “Without him, I wouldn’t have made it to the other side.”

Mr. Bottomly was preceded in death by his first wife, Helen Bottomly, and his second wife, Jerri Bottomly. He is survived by his sister Elizabeth Withington, son William Bottomly, daughter, Kim Bottomly, three grandchildren, Daniel Bottomly, Hannah Janeway, Megan Janeway and three great grandchildren.