Katharine “Kay” Bullitt, civic activist and a fixture in Seattle’s philanthropy scene throughout the 20th century, died Sunday (Aug. 22).
She was 96 years old.
Bullitt, born Katharine Muller in Boston on Feb. 22, 1925, was an advocate for a dizzying array of causes spanning education, racial justice, international relations, politics, historic-landmark preservation and the arts — a legacy of the family she married into.
Her ex-husband, Charles Stimson Bullitt, who died in 2009, was heir to a family fortune made from timber, real estate and broadcasting. They were married for 24 years. He was an attorney, philanthropist and Democratic Party activist who opposed the Vietnam War. His mother, Dorothy, was an early television pioneer who established King Broadcasting Company and the Bullitt Foundation.
Bullitt left Massachusetts for Seattle in 1953 after teaching elementary school for five years, according a profile by the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.
She is known for having a hand in many chapters of Seattle’s history — she helped found Bumbershoot — but locally, she is perhaps remembered the most as an early proponent of desegregating schools, even during tense times. While at Radcliffe College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she worked with Black children at a community center. That lit the spark for her activism, according to the UW profile.
“Teachers do not expect enough of black children,” she told The Seattle Times in 1968.
In the 1960s, she became a champion of one of the earliest efforts to desegregate Seattle Public Schools, an initiative in which students would voluntarily transfer between Lowell and Madrona elementary schools, the profile said. She also organized a citizens group that helped recruit parents to opt their kids into the district’s integration program, as she had with her own.
“I’ve never met a person who was so committed to education in the community,” said former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice in an interview Tuesday. During his tenure as mayor in the 1990s, Rice said, Bullitt’s advocacy for quality education programs helped influence the city’s education levy, which helps fund enrichment programs at Seattle Public Schools.
“Her influence was far reaching and deep,” said Rice.
Beyond education causes, Bullitt traveled the world on peace missions, worked for restoration of the city’s Pioneer Square neighborhood and helped found a savings-and-loan bank for women. She received a number of honors for her work, including the United Nations Human Rights Award and a Jefferson Award for Public Service.
“She forgave easily. Her empathy was boundless,” reads an obituary written by her loved ones.
Her home and estate of 66 years was a hub for civic organizing and leisure time. She ran a racially integrated camp for kids in her backyard for a number of years. For nearly five decades, she threw picnic parties every Wednesday in July for her family and friends, which sometimes could draw hundreds of people.
“When you bring people together around a purpose, good things happen,” she reportedly said, according to her obituary.
In 2005, she told a Times reporter that she wanted the estate converted into a city park “when I die.” It will be, the obituary said.
She is survived by her children, Margaret and Dorothy Bullitt, and stepchildren Ashley Bullitt, Fred Nemo and Jill Bullitt. A son, Benjamin Bullitt, preceded her in death.