Seattleite Jean Godden got into politics the old-fashioned way when a school levy failed, closing her son's kindergarten class. She mobilized other parents and ended up as PTA president. But that was just the beginning. Godden has been at the center of community and civic life in Seattle for over 65 years, from her career as a newspaper columnist to her 12-year tenure on the Seattle City Council.
Journalist Joni Balter describes Jean Godden as a “Seattle treasure.” For those of us who have a spent a considerable amount of time in Seattle, we know those words to be true. As a Bainbridge Island ferry commuter for more than 30 years, I would sit with a cup of coffee in one hand and Godden’s column in the other. At the time, I worked at KING-5 TV for Evening Magazine, and Godden’s column was often fodder for stories. Besides having her finger on the pulse of the city, Godden knew everybody who was anybody.
Godden didn’t have what you’d call a typical childhood. Because her father made maps and charts for the United States government, her family never planted roots in any state. They traveled mostly throughout the South, living in tents and in boarding houses. Over the years, they lived in more than 100 towns and cities. Her parents finally bought their first home in Seattle. By then, Jean was 17 and ready to leave for college. When I asked Jean how all those moves affected her, I expected bitterness, but there was none. If anything, she said it made her more adaptable with each change of circumstance in her life; new schools, new friends, new everything. In fact, the shifting sands of her childhood, she says, prepared her for the life of a journalist. Each move, she believes, helped her acquire a crucial quality every good writer needs: “curiosity.”
Godden was a typical north Seattle mother of two boys when she was propelled into community activism. After a school levy failed — cancelling her son’s kindergarten class — Jean organized other parents to form their own cooperative kindergarten. From there, she was elected Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president, became deeply involved with the League of Women Voters, and also managed to finish her journalism degree at the University of Washington. Behind the scenes, her husband, Bob Godden, had developed multiple sclerosis. As her husband’s health declined, Jean became the sole supporter of the family. Those years fueled many of the issues Godden is passionate about, such as gender equity pay and paid parental leave for city employees.
As a columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times, Godden produced four to five columns a week — a staggering amount of work for any writer. But she did it with grace and a sense of humor. Most of her columns were light-hearted, whether she talked about hanging her Christmas tree from the ceiling to keep the cats off, or described her favorite martini. But some of the issues she wrote about infuriated readers; in particular, when she tackled capital punishment. Godden argued against the death penalty for David Rice, who murdered the Goldmark family on Christmas Eve in 1986. In the article, Godden expressed her belief that it was wrong to execute someone who was clearly mentally ill. After the article was published, Jean and her family received death threats. For Godden, it was a sobering realization of the power of the press.
Today, Jean Godden embodies the expression that age is a state of mind. At 84, she’s as vibrant as ever. In producing this IN Close profile, we didn’t just follow her around for a few days, we literally ran after her. Whether at Seattle City Hall or on city streets, people stop to talk to or embrace her. During her free time, you’ll find Jean kayaking or hiking. After 12 years on the Seattle City Council, she is starting to wind down her public life. When I asked her what was next, she alluded to possibly writing a memoir. Personally, I think it would be a darn good read.
Terry Murphy has worked at every TV station in Seattle for a wide variety of local and national shows, including: KCTS9 Connects, Evening Magazine, Dateline, Biography Channel, The Steve Harvey Show, special projects, public affairs and children’s programming. Her work has taken her everywhere from Alaska to Brazil. National and regional awards include American Women in Radio & Television, two Gabriels, PM Magazine National Honors, several regional Emmys and Academy of Religious Broadcasting awards. After almost 30 years in broadcasting, Terry still believes it’s a joy and a privilege to tell other people’s stories…especially here at KCTS9.More stories by Terry Murphy