Paulsen's Promise

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Note: The following story originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Terrain, the University of Washington Tacoma's alumni and community magazine. Arthur Paulsen died in 2010 at the age of 94.

Arthur Paulsen in 1939In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, a Southeast Tacoma farm boy wrote in his high school yearbook, “Arthur is going to college.” It seemed like a crazy idea to his parents since their son had a rare shot at a union-wage job. Besides, they’d never known anyone who’d been to college. But the young man wanted more, and he knew he’d have to work hard to make it happen. So, after graduating from Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, he piled lumber for 10 hours a day in a local sawmill. With the $250 he saved while working for a year, he entered the University of Washington, where he paid $40 tuition per quarter and lived in student co-op housing for $70 per quarter.

Meet Arthur Paulsen — son of an immigrant longshoreman — who went on to become a noted trial lawyer, superior court judge, Washington State legislator and chair of the Washington State House Committee on Judiciary.

At age 90, he shows no signs of slowing down. A wiry figure standing 6-feet tall, Paulsen still fits into the suit he wore on his wedding day in 1944. After reading two morning papers and scanning CNN headlines—alone since his wife of 56 years, Anna Mae, passed away in 2000 — he buttons up his suit, grabs his briefcase and drives from his 10th-floor condo at 4th and D streets to the downtown Tacoma law office that he shares with another lawyer. Sometimes he stops to check the rose garden he planted near his office door or to orient his granddaughter, Susan, who assists with a special project, before he gets on with business. He hasn’t wavered from his weekday routine for the past six decades. On weekends he heads to the beach, where he tends the Fox Island home he built with his own hands. 

Thursday night dances at the Elks Club keep him on his toes too. “The women outnumber the men two-to-one,” he says, with a gleam in his eye, adding, “When I was young, the girls at the Grange taught me how to dance, and when I traveled through Europe in the ’50s, I discovered that dance is the universal language.”

A self-described political animal, he’s active on the local scene and frequently contributes to the campaigns of officials whose ideas he supports. Paulsen’s belief that an informed citizenry is essential to the functioning of a democratic society led him to think about what he could do to improve civic engagement in his own community. He has never forgotten that a lecture changed the course of his life — more on that later — and last summer he decided to create an endowed lecture series that will debut at the University of Washington Tacoma in 2008.

What’s an idea worth?

A lot, according to Arthur R. Paulsen, [whose endowment has] established the Arthur R. and Anna Mae Paulsen Endowed Visiting Chair in Public Affairs at the University of Washington Tacoma. The annual holder of the Paulsen chair — a prominent public figure — will spend [time] at UW Tacoma, deliver a major public address, and will likely give a classroom lecture and meet with students. The idea for the series was planted when Paulsen was a UW student in the late ’30s and his life was changed by a speaker he heard in the Walker-Ames Lecture Series, which has brought eminent scholars to the Seattle campus since 1936. Now, he hopes the lecture series he has endowed will spark public discourse and create future generations of informed citizens. The first public lecture will be delivered in 2008 in UW Tacoma’s new 500-seat assembly hall.

Tacoma boy

“I wanted to give back to Tacoma and to the UW, which have given me a good, full, active life,” he says. “This is my hometown. 

“I like to have conversations with people who know the issues. When people have a common basis of understanding, there is more participation in finding solutions to some of the serious problems,” says Paulsen.

Born of Scandinavian immigrants — his father from Denmark and mother from Norway — Paulsen grew up on a farm. His parents bought five acres and a couple of dairy cows in Tacoma’s Midland/Larchmont area just after the stock market crash. Paulsen and his three siblings put in long hours on the farm cutting and stacking hay and getting strong. 

“Dad taught me to love hard work and gave me full independence,” he recalls.

Arthur goes to college

In the first of many stands Paulsen would take throughout his life, the UW junior went straight to the president after he learned the university banned student clubs from meeting on campus. The ban took place after student leaders had invited a communist to give a noon lecture on The Commons. 

“I made an appointment to see President Lee P. Sieg,” says Paulsen, then president of the Young Democratic Club. Sieg listened and eventually saw Paulsen’s point.

Not long afterward, Paulsen’s life changed when he heard British socialist Harold Laski speak at the UW. “We were still in the Depression and he offered a new outlook,” Paulsen says. Laski encouraged Paulsen to attend law school, promising him a top legal job within the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a precursor to the AFL-CIO. Though the job never materialized, Laski served as “a beacon of light,” for Paulsen, leading him toward a career in law and a lifelong involvement in public affairs.

“I always felt that I was fighting an uphill battle because I was from the wrong side of the tracks, but hearing Laski woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t an outlaw, and that my ideas were quite acceptable. I just needed that validation,” Paulsen says.

From law school to the South Pacific

Paulsen enjoyed debating late into the night with college roommates after the war had broken out in Europe. A student of economics and political science, he remembers thinking that “when Hitler walked into France it looked like a lost cause” for democracy.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, he left law school and signed up for military service, making it clear that he didn’t want a desk job. He wanted to fight.

“We were at war. I was going. I was healthy and single. There was no question. We were fighting for democracy and we had fire in our bellies,” Paulsen recalls, lighting up as if his decision to go happened just yesterday. 

Now, sitting in his office conference room, he leaps up and points at a large, framed picture of the USS South Dakota, cannons firing. “I was in charge of deck operations on that ship. I stood elbow to elbow with Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the Western Pacific Taskforces.

“I had the inside scoop on where the ship was going, which was top secret. It was good duty. We were fighting for a cause,” says Paulsen, who witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri.

After four years of active duty, he returned to law school, often hitch-hiking Highway 99 from South Tacoma to Seattle. Paulsen earned his law degree and passed the Washington State Bar examination in 1946, a time when people could barely afford car insurance, much less legal services, he recalls.

Legislator at 29

Successfully campaigning for congressional and gubernatorial candidates, Paulsen decided to take a shot at public office. Just months before graduating, at age 29, he got elected to the state legislature, representing the 28th district. (Election primaries were held in April, allowing absentee ballots from overseas servicemen to be counted, he explains.) Serving on the House Committee on Colleges and Universities, he helped to secure funding to build the UW School of Medicine in 1947 and opened doors in Olympia for UW representatives. Later, he served as a delegate to two national Democratic conventions, both in Chicago.

While in the legislature, Paulsen served with Albert Rosellini, who later became governor and appointed Paulsen a superior court judge. He served on the bench from 1961 to 67 and was reelected twice without opposition. But being a judge was not the highlight of his career, he says.

“I couldn’t have a political viewpoint, and I was isolated from the public. I had to stay long enough to prove myself. But I wasn’t happy,” says Paulsen, who has enjoyed the independence of being a sole practitioner in a general law practice.

A good life 

He says luck led him to make some good real estate investments in the 1960s, and now he is able to give this lasting gift to his community. 

While things weren’t always so rosy, Paulsen has remained an optimist. “During the Depression a lot of people didn’t think we would ever get out of it. There was total despair. But things worked out for America. I feel that we’re in a depressed political state now. Yet, I think people generally want the good life for everybody.” 

If a lecture can change a life, maybe Paulsen’s speaker series can lift up a whole community. A little fire in the belly doesn’t hurt, either.

— Sandra Sarr

Photo: A young Paulsen in his room at UW Seattle, 1939. Photograph courtesy of Arthur Paulsen.