He was a true gentleman - unfailingly polite, always as well spoken as he was soft spoken. Possessed of a subtle sense of humor, a bit shy, but he walked with ease among the rich and famous because he commanded their respect. When he spoke it was always on point; he didn’t waste words. The intelligence and common sense he displayed spoke volumes.
Though he hailed from Olympia on the wet-side of the Cascades, he and his older brother Ward attended Washington State. Though slight of stature he was a four-sport star athlete in high school as well as student body president due primarily to his leadership skills.
He bled Cougar red the rest of his days, which came to an end in late February when he quietly passed away, no doubt glad to rejoin his beloved wife, Retha, his life-long partner in every sense of the word. Not incidentally she was a Vandal.
His name was Jay Rockey; he was 90.
When Seattle’s community and business leadership, led by United Airlines then CEO, Eddie Carlson, decided in 1960 that the city needed to jump-start itself into the 21st Century, they hit upon the idea of creating a World’s Fair. Thus, was born Seattle’s iconic Space Needle with its revolving restaurant, as well as the Monorail and other venues.
They also turned to Jay Rockey to sell the concept to the rest of the nation, to make Seattle a “must visit” and peek into the future. That Jay Rockey succeeded beyond expectations is part of his legend. Twice the folks at Life Magazine put the Fair on its cover. Jay’s skills were critical to the Fair drawing 10 million visitors ensuring success and even a profit.
The day after the fair closed Rockey opened the door of Jay Rockey Public Relations. Retha ran the backshop, the accounting and payroll and they had one employee, Mike Dederer, who early on became a full business partner.
Almost immediately Rockey had a list of clients that read like the top membership of the Seattle Chamber. Indeed, before long George Duff and the Chamber was also a client.
Rockey was sought after not just by blue chip clients but by boards and foundations. During his career he was president of the Rainier Club, vice president of the Chamber, president ot the Public Relations Society of America, on the board of the Museum of Flight, the Ryther Child Center and the Downtown Seattle Association as well as a dozen others.
If Rockey was your friend it was for life. Don Kraft ran an advertising firm and he can testify to Rockey’s loyalty as can Spokane’s Dale Stedman who became a friend at WSU.
It was my privilege to have worked for Jay from 1982 through 1984. Rockey asked me to set up a public affairs division, find a deputy and also take the lead on serving his Alyeska Pipeline Service Company client and the proposed Northern Tier Pipeline. He was pleased when I selected young Mike McGavick from Senator Slade Gorton’s campaign staff to work with me.
Rockey was one of the first to work standing up. He had a high table upon which he had his old typewriter. Sometimes he would send a typed note with instructions, other times invite one into his office, but rather than “order” one to do something he would ask or suggest as a favor to him.
If Rockey had one regret it was that no governor named him to the Washington State Board of Trustees. Rockey studiously avoided partisan politics so he never was a big contributor to campaigns. He gave generously to the WSU Foundation and supported the campus chapter of PRSA named after him. It is WSU’s loss that he never was tapped.
The last time I saw Jay we sat together in Martin Stadium and watched with pleasure a rather average Cougar football team play above its head and upset USC, 34-14. Rockey couldn’t stop smiling.
Rockey can rest in peace, secure in the knowledge he was the best at public relations that ever walked. He was also the personification of a good guy finishing first.