News Columns & Blogs

Red scare: In 1939, WWU president was dismissed after accusations of subversion

Washington Gov. Clarence Martin, in light suit, stands next to Charles Fisher, president of Western Washington College of Education, with some college graduates in front of Old Main. In 1938, Martin persuaded the college's trustees to dismiss Fisher.
Washington Gov. Clarence Martin, in light suit, stands next to Charles Fisher, president of Western Washington College of Education, with some college graduates in front of Old Main. In 1938, Martin persuaded the college's trustees to dismiss Fisher. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Seventy-five years ago this month, Charles Fisher served his last days as president of Washington State Normal School, in Bellingham.

He wasn't ready to retire and he didn't agree to quit, but that didn't matter. The trustees had already agreed with Washington's governor that it was time for Fisher to go.

The decision - just a few years after the same trustees cleared Fisher of accusations that his administration was un-American - prompted a nationwide debate about academic freedom.

The 1930s were tense years, with the country firmly in the grip of the Great Depression. Politics were contentious, with newspapers often the unchallenged media voice in a community.

In Bellingham, Frank Sefrit, general manager of The Bellingham Herald, led a community group's fight against Fisher. In essence, they accused him of running an unpatriotic school by, in part, welcoming campus speakers who were subversives, atheists and pacifists.

The group had a host of homegrown gripes about Fisher, too. So much so that the trustees, in their 1935 report pooh-poohing the allegations, said they found the Bellingham community "torn by animosity, personal grudges and grievances, and political enmities too numerous to mention."


Fisher became Western's president in 1923, moving from a job as head of a small college in Pennsylvania. Western was small too, with about 1,300 students and only two major buildings, Old Main and Edens Hall.

Despite the depressed economy, Western managed to erect a library and a physical education building during Fisher's tenure, and he kept the support of most faculty even though their salaries were slashed and some were let go.

The dismissal of a teacher in 1934 led to one of the early public disputes between Fisher and Sefrit. The editor asked Fisher to have the teacher re-instated, but the trustees let the decision stand.

In 1935, Sefrit and several other local people formed a group, the Committee on Normal Protest, and sent the trustees 10 accusations against Fisher. Other members of the group included a former American Legion officer, a Presbyterian minister, and the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, an active group that hosted the state KKK convention in Bellingham six years earlier.

At a closed-door meeting with the trustees on May 22, 1935, Sefrit raised several other complaints after Fisher. For example, he blasted Fisher's connections to Columbia University in New York, which the editor called the "Reddist" school in the country. And Sefrit brought in as a witness a woman unhappy with the way her property, which had rental rooms for female students, was cleared to make way for campus expansion.

Toward the end of the meeting, Sefrit said he knew of local goings-on that, if revealed, would result in "two or three murders in this town within a week." He said one of the mysterious matters involved a campus teacher.

After the trustees dismissed the complaints, the dispute moved up to Gov. Clarence Martin.

The trustees knew the governor could fire them without cause. Fisher said that's why they ultimately took his job away.

At a meeting in September 1938, the three trustees met with Martin and agreed Fisher would be gone by the end of the 1938-39 school year.

Sefrit denied that he lobbied the governor to oust Fisher, but it's clear his opinion of the president hadn't softened. In a July 1939 letter, Sefrit called Fisher a "mental and moral degenerate"


Embittered by his dismissal, Fisher became a teacher in New York and then a dean in South Dakota. He returned to Washington in 1944 for a wartime job in state government.

A few years later, he became education director, and then president, of the Washington Pension Union, a group that lobbied for social welfare, old-age pensions and unemployment compensation. Those are mainstream ideas now, but back then the federal government accused the union of being a communist organization.

In 1950, Fisher ran for Congress as a Democrat. His anti-war platform called for a national old-age pension, the repeal of anti-labor laws, and full liberties for "the Negro people."

His opponent in the primary, Everett incumbent Henry Jackson, took nearly 52 percent of the vote. Fisher got 6 percent.

Fisher died in a Des Moines retirement home in 1964 at the age of 84.

During his last months at Western, Fisher said the trustees never detailed the reasons for his dismissal. He also said the governor would only tell him that 15 years as president was enough, and that with local opponents, it was time to go.

Western's next president was William Haggard. He served for 20 years.

Related stories from Bellingham Herald