Anybody who swims, paddles or water-skis in Lake Washington this summer might spare a thought for Charles V. “Tom” Gibbs, the King County Metro engineer whose projects in the 1960s ended the constant flow of raw sewage into the lake and Puget Sound.
He later led the startup of Metro Transit, helped write the federal Clean Water Act and served on boards including the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and the public-facilities district that oversees the Mariners’ baseball stadium. Mr. Gibbs died last month of cancer at age 87, and on Saturday a celebration of life was held in Seattle.
Mr. Gibbs was born near Portland and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at the University of Washington. In 1957, he joined the new Metro agency, rising to executive director by 1966. He promised: “Greater Seattle soon will have the most modern and comprehensive sewage-disposal system of any metropolitan area in the United States.”
One of his marquee projects, a 2-mile wastewater tunnel, was dug as deep as 160 feet below Second Avenue, to capture “the 20 million gallons of raw sewage now being discharged daily in the area of the commercial docks,” so they would flow to the new West Point treatment plant, a 1967 Seattle Times story said.
Mr. Gibbs was legendary for his shyness, so his boss sent him to make speeches. His introversion, along with Bible studies he took with his wife, Jean, are credited with helping him grow into a beloved administrator. “He criticizes no one publicly, he turns employee error into an opportunity for improvement, he swallows anger when a project or assignment is botched,” said a Seattle Times profile titled “Metro’s Mr. Clean.”
The pressures of 70-hour work weeks caused him frequent headaches. “Our family typically didn’t have dinner at the normal time,” recalls his son, Todd Gibbs. “We’d probably wait around and have dinner at 9 o’clock at night, when he would come home from work.”
Metro Transit formed Jan. 1, 1973, from a merger of city bus agencies. Mr. Gibbs arrived at work at 4 a.m. that day to shake hands with bus drivers, who joked that he must have been at quite an all-night party to be there at that time of morning, his son said.
Mr. Gibbs retired from Metro the next year, having no taste for what appeared to be a more politicized future for King County. He then worked two decades as a vice president for water projects at the engineering firm CH2M Hill.
“His whole thing was, people just need to work together, it didn’t matter about party lines and all that,” his son said.
He joined the greenway board in the early 1990s, taking special interest in a project to recycle biosolids by spreading them across the forest floor, for recycling and to stimulate growth in young trees. Tom and Jean Gibbs started a scholarship at the University of Washington for students seeking to work on water-cleanup projects.
“When he would approach every conversation, he would look at you and talk to everyone, regardless of their station in life. He would include everybody in the conversation, so that everyone would feel listened to,” said Amy Brockhaus, deputy director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.
Mr. Gibbs volunteered in a group preserving Seattle’s vintage streetcars, which traveled the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar line from 1982 until 2005. Three of the five railcars were sold to St. Louis in 2016. Gibbs hoped some could be reused on Seattle’s proposed First Avenue line.
Mr. Gibbs is survived by Jean, his wife of 65 years, his sister Janet Adams, his son Todd and wife Karen, and his daughter Claudia Post. He was preceded in death by his parents, Laurel C. and Margaret R. Gibbs, and brother Robert Gibbs.
About 200 neighbors and friends gathered Saturday, in the Skyline retirement home on First Hill, where young trees were distributed from the greenway nursery in his honor. His family suggests memorial donations be made to the greenway trust.