Why is the 'Boeing Bust' still with us?

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By Katherine Banwell

Maybe you’ve heard the line, "Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights." That well-worn phrase came from a billboard in 1971 as the Boeing Company stalled and then fell into a tailspin.

And while the "Boeing Bust" happened a long time ago, that economic slump, almost as much as the most recent one, is still a part of our collective consciousness.

Why does it still resonate all these years later?

The swinging '60s

By the late 1960s, the Puget Sound region was flying high. Boeing was the area’s primary employer. A company promotional film from 1960 shows the jet age was in full swing.

At the peak, Boeing employed more than 130,000 workers. Then everything changed. Soaring gas prices, mounting costs for the Vietnam war, and federal funding dried up for the SST, Boeing's supersonic transport plane.

"It was devastating for Seattle," said Wes Uhlman, who was mayor at the time. "We had to layoff policemen. We had to layoff firemen. We had to close several libraries."      

Bob Gerand, photo by Katherine BanwellYou have to remember, this was long before Microsoft or Amazon or any other major employers now in the region. Boeing was pretty much it.

sAs the Mayor recalls, "Seattle was basically a one industry town."

A young supervisor at Boeing when the bubble burst, Bob Gerand had to fire a lot of friends and co-workers.

"I remember bringing people into the office and I had to give engineers that had been with the company 20, 25, 30 years, a layoff notice. ... They cried. They broke down, got angry. Why me?"

A chance to reinvent

Unemployment hit 17 percent, and housing prices tanked. But the city coped. Some of the things that were put in place to help the region then are still around today, such as the food banks and pea patches.

Mayor Uhlman says people did whatever they had to to survive.

"I met a person in a taxi cab, who was driving the cab, who was a ceramics engineer."

For others who lost their jobs, the Boeing bust was a chance to follow their dreams. Gerand remembers what happened to one guy.

"He stepped into a management role in a small artsy movie theatre and did that for years and just had a ball."

Gerand himself went into real estate, buying up properties for pennies on the dollar.

The Therm-a-Rest guy

Jim Lea and the Thermarest. Photo by Katherine BanwellSome laid off engineers used their time to invent things.

If you’ve ever been camping you’ve probably slept on the idea Jim Lea, 91, came up with.

"The Therm-a-Rest air mattress is my invention," Lea says.    

That’s right, the Therm-a-Rest, that foam sleeping pad that self inflates, used by backpackers around the world.

Lea had worked as an engineer at Boeing for 30 years when he was laid off in 1971. For him it was an opportunity. He’d saved some money and, he said, "I had ideas about what I wanted to do. I wanted to manufacture something."

Lea went on to co-found Cascade Designs, the outdoor equipment company based in Seattle.

The motivation of lemons

If he could change anything from that time of economic turmoil at Boeing -- after all, he had a good job before the sudden layoff -- what would it be?

"Oh," Lea said. "I'd change a lot of things probably, but I was pretty lucky about most of the things that happened." 

Roger Sale. Photo by Katherine BanwellLea isn’t alone in feeling fortunate. Author and historian Roger Sale says the Boeing Bust was, in the long run, positive for the region.

Like, people in the region were able to make lemonade out of lemons ...

"Absolutely," he said. "I would have said you were making orangeade and grape juice. I mean the sense of possibility was quite strong.”

Maybe that downturn remains with us because we learned we could no longer depend on one company and the region had to diversify.

In fact, maybe the Boeing Bust opened the door for the high tech startups that would come later.