Paul Allen, known for his generosity to social services and deep love of sports and the arts, died Monday afternoon from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and a prominent leader of both business and philanthropy in the Seattle area, stamped his mark on the city’s economy and culture as well as its skyline as he pursued a wide range of passions from science to sports.
Mr. Allen died Monday at age 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, just two weeks after announcing he had restarted treatment for the cancer that he had previously fought off in 2009. His death was announced by his multifaceted holding company, Vulcan Inc.
Mr. Allen co-founded Redmond tech giant Microsoft with childhood friend Bill Gates in 1975. After leaving the company in 1983, he turned his focus to a wide range of other business and scientific pursuits, which ranged from founding the Allen Institute for Brain Science to the real estate arm of Vulcan, which went on to build much of Amazon’s campus.
Mr. Allen was known across the Puget Sound region for his generosity to social services and deep love of sports and the arts. Among the richest people in the world, he believed not in holding on to his wealth, but in giving it away in large swaths.
Gates, in a statement Monday, said he was “heartbroken by the passing of one of my oldest and dearest friends.” Personal computing would not have existed without Mr. Allen, he said.
“But Paul wasn’t content with starting one company,” Gates said. “He channeled his intellect and compassion into a second act focused on improving people’s lives and strengthening communities in Seattle and around the world. He was fond of saying, ‘If it has the potential to do good, then we should do it.’ That’s the kind of person he was.”
Beyond technology, Mr. Allen also poured his resources into two of his passions: sports and music. He owned the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers. An accomplished rock guitarist, he established the Experience Music Project, now called MoPOP, and supported local radio station KEXP.
A billionaire worth more than $20 billion, according to Forbes, he also gave generously. He contributed more than $2 billion to philanthropies, and took the Giving Pledge – a commitment to give away the majority of his wealth – in 2010, the year it was created by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
“My brother was a remarkable individual on every level,” Mr. Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, said in a statement Monday. “While most knew Paul Allen as a technologist and philanthropist, for us he was a much loved brother and uncle, and an exceptional friend.”
From computers to sports
As a soft-spoken son of a librarian, Mr. Allen pursued his passions down paths that made him one of the richest people on earth.
Microsoft’s creation – and the region’s eventual transformation into a world center for software development – began with Mr. Allen and his pal Gates sneaking into a University of Washington building to tinker with its large mainframe computer.
Later it was Mr. Allen who brought Gates a magazine article about one of the first personal computers, excited about the opportunity for them to create software for the nascent platform. They co-founded Microsoft in 1975, launching one of the most profitable businesses ever.
But Mr. Allen’s life wasn’t all good fortune. He left Microsoft early, in 1983, after a bout of cancer. Later it emerged through an autobiography that Mr. Allen chafed at perceived slights by Gates and his new right-hand man at the company, Steve Ballmer.
A mystique grew around Mr. Allen after he left the company and became a globetrotting socialite. Mr. Allen brought his enormous yacht, the Octopus, to the Cannes film festival and hosted parties attended by movie and rock stars. For a time he dated tennis champion Monica Seles.
Most Read Local Stories
- Map: Kim Schrier won big in King County suburbs, even in Dino Rossi's neighborhood
- Bike-share company Lime launching car-rental service in Seattle
- Hate crimes skyrocket across the nation, almost double in Seattle over the past year
- State drops charges against Tacos Guaymas owner accused of tax theft
- Seattle Public Schools makes progress but doesn't meet most improvement goals in latest scorecard
Yet you could hardly call him a playboy, as he continued to live with his mother at a sprawling compound on the west shore of Mercer Island.
His investments post Microsoft were guided by his vision for a “wired world” with fast connections delivering digital entertainment and other services.
The vision was ultimately correct, but he lost billions pursuing it with huge investments in Charter Communications, a Midwestern cable TV and broadband company. After a decade of losses and restructuring attempts, Charter filed for bankruptcy in 2009 with $21.7 billion in debt.
As he lost control of his largest investment in 2009, Mr. Allen fought heart disease and had a valve replaced. That preceded his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in late 2009.
Yet Mr. Allen continued to hold an enormous fortune and to give generously to charities ranging from social-service agencies around Washington state to exotic philanthropies such as a group in California operating radio dishes to scan space for signs of alien life.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, begun in 1990 and now known as Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, was one of the main conduits for his giving. Allen, in a letter taking the Giving Pledge, described his belief that “our net worth is ultimately defined not by dollars but rather by how well we serve others.”
Later in his life, after his repeated struggles with cancer, Mr. Allen appeared to make a more concerted effort to solidify his legacy as an innovator and philanthropist. He gave millions to homeless services in the Puget Sound region. He released a memoir called “Idea Man” in 2011 and made major gifts to endow research institutes devoted to brain science and artificial intelligence.
In March 2017, Mr. Allen gave $40 million to the University of Washington’s computer science department, and in turn the university elevated the department to a school and named it after him.
At the time, Mr. Allen said that having his name on the computer-science school had a particular emotional resonance for him because of his connection to the university. Although he did not attend the UW, as a high-school student he and fellow Lakeside School student Bill Gates sneaked into the university’s computer-science rooms to learn more about how computers worked.
The director of the lab eventually booted them out, saying they were being noisy and disruptive, hogging teletype machines and swiping an acoustic coupler. Mr. Allen kept the letter, read from it during the Allen School naming ceremony, and posted it on his LinkedIn account. “A couple lines still make me laugh,” he wrote.
Reshaping Seattle’s skyline
In his later years, Mr. Allen was at the forefront of transforming Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood from a row of parking lots and strip malls into a major business district.
In the 1990s, Mr. Allen paid for 11.5 acres in the area in hopes of donating it for an urban park project called the Seattle Commons. But voters turned the idea down twice, most recently in 1996, so he spent the next decade gobbling up more land, totaling 60 acres, through Vulcan’s development arm.
Former Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said Allen, ironically, was pilloried by some in Seattle for the intense and disruptive development of South Lake Union on land the mogul wanted to see become a park.
“He had this great vision for a fabulous park,” Rasmussen recalled. “But it did require public investment and voters didn’t support it.”
With Mr. Allen holding a rare, large swath of connected land in a major city, and Amazon looking to expand in an urban environment, they teamed on a building spree in the neighborhood. Vulcan built Amazon’s initial headquarters, announced in 2007, as well as many of its subsequent buildings, in what grew to become the biggest urban corporate campus in America.
Today, Vulcan Real Estate has developed more than 10.5 million square feet – the equivalent of about 15 skyscrapers – across 46 projects, recently including housing in South Seattle and offices in Bellevue. In addition to Amazon, it’s building the Seattle offices for Google and Facebook and built the Allen Institute, all in South Lake Union.
David Postman, who worked for Mr. Allen at Vulcan between 2008 and 2012, said he could ask challenging questions in any of the fields that interested him.
“He could go from talking about who they were going to pick as quarterback to talking about brain science,” said Postman, a former Seattle Times reporter who is currently chief of staff for Gov. Jay Inslee. “And each one was with this sort of substance and passion, and they were all important to him.”
Over the years, Mr. Allen also got involved in politics, making more than $4.2 million in donations since 2010, according to state campaign-finance records. Mr. Allen was the main funder for Initiative 1401, a measure to add state criminal penalties against those selling or trading parts of certain endangered creatures, such as shark fins or elephant ivory. Voters approved it in 2015.
Mr. Allen also was a big funder of the gun-regulations initiatives that passed in 2014 and 2016, and has also been a major donor to this year’s proposed firearms-safety measure, Initiative 1639.
This year, Mr. Allen stepped into the fray at the national level, giving $100,000 to a group working to help Republicans keep their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The donation was Mr. Allen’s biggest ever to a federal political committee or candidate, though he has donated to both Democratic and Republican candidates at the federal level in prior years.
A legacy on the field
Mr. Allen began dipping his toe in the world of sports business in the late 1980s, first buying the Portland Trail Blazers, then the Seahawks, and finally took a minority stake in the Seattle Sounders in 2009.
Mr. Allen bought the Seahawks in 1997, saving them from moving to Los Angeles as planned by then-owner Ken Behring, who had purchased the team from the Nordstorm famly in 1988.
Mr. Allen was persuaded by other leaders in the community to buy the Seahawks to keep the team from leaving. He did so on one condition: that a public vote be held – which he helped finance – to approve a public-private partnership for a new football stadium.
The vote passed, Mr. Allen bought the team, and CenturyLink Field was built.
Mr. Allen was regarded as a fairly hands-off owner of the Seahawks, present for a few games a year and at celebrations for major championships, but generally handled the budget and let the coaches handle the football.
Head coach Pete Carroll tweeted on Monday afternoon that he was “deeply saddened” by Mr. Allen’s passing.
“I’ll miss him greatly,” Carroll wrote in the tweet. “His gracious leadership and tremendous inspiration will never be forgotten.”
An ambitious aerospace vision
One of Mr. Allen’s boldest initiatives grew from his boyhood enthusiasm for science fiction and space exploration. To launch rockets into space from 35,000 feet, Mr. Allen paid for a team of engineers in Mojave to design and build an enormous airplane with the longest wingspan ever seen.
The plane built by Stratolaunch hasn’t flown yet, but just last week it completed successful taxi tests in Mojave.
The venture drew comparison between Mr. Allen and eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who in 1947 flew his own giant plane, the Spruce Goose, which had the longest wingspan of any aircraft prior to Stratolaunch.
Another of Mr. Allen’s aviation passions was old warplanes. At Paine Field in Everett, he built The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum, a collection of vintage military aircraft, tanks and other military hardware from the U.S., Europe, Japan and Russia.
He also bankrolled missions to find warships sunk during WWII, including the USS Indianapolis, which his team located last summer.
Intrigued by arts and music
An avid music lover, guitar player and noted Jimi Hendrix fan, Mr. Allen was a significant supporter of the local music community.
Mr. Allen left a large thumbprint on Seattle’s overall cultural ecosystem as well.
He poured resources into dauntingly ambitious projects such as Seattle Art Fair, and smaller ones: the hip-hop arts residency with youth organization Arts Corps, 12th Avenue Arts — a multi-use theater and housing project on Capitol Hill.
“The guy obviously had big ideas,” said Jim Kelly, the recently retired longtime director of 4Culture, King County’s arts and culture agency. “Here was a guy who went to the Venice Biennale, was blown away by art shows, and thought ‘why can’t we have something like that in Seattle?’“
In the years after he left Microsoft, Mr. Allen searched for new technology ventures with the kind of world-altering impact that he and Gates had enjoyed at Microsoft.
He directed part of Vulcan to focus on nuclear fusion, a form of atomic energy that produces far less harmful radiation or waste than conventional nuclear power.
His second institute, the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence or AI2, is designed to hone in on research in artificial intelligence that could create breakthroughs in industries such as health care and education.
Mr. Allen loved life, Gates wrote on Monday.
“He deserved much more time, but his contributions to the world of technology and philanthropy will live on for generations to come,” he said. “I will miss him tremendously.”
Seattle Times staff reporters contributing to this story include Brier Dudley, Daniel Beekman, Mike Rosenberg, Michael Rietmulder, Matt Day, Ben Romano, Dominic Gates, Paul Roberts, Michelle Baruchman, David Gutman, Katherine Long, Bob Condotta, Joseph O’Sullivan and Brendan Kiley.