For 13 years as city manager, David Rowlands helped lead Tacoma to national prominence amid an “Urban Renewal” movement aimed to revitalize decaying inner-cities across America.
He also tore down dozens of buildings, saw Weyerhaeuser leave Tacoma and eventually supported a new mall that gutted the downtown retail core.
“It was a heady time for Tacoma, and Dave was right at the center of it,” said former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, a longtime friend who regarded Rowlands as a mentor.
“The federal dollars were flowing, and he could pick up the phone and immediately talk to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C. — that’s how much influence he had.”
Rowlands, a long-retired city manager who in recent years lived in a North End apartment across from his church, died of natural causes Wednesday. He was 97.
A lanky man with dark hair and a strong will, Rowlands played basketball at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, and later coached a high school team in Frenchburg, Kentucky to the state’s semifinals.
But managing a city was Rowlands dream, and he pursued it by obtaining a political science degree from the University of Chicago.
Rowlands was city manager in Eau Claire, Wisc., when Tacoma hired him as its second city manager in 1956 after a national search. It was a tumultuous time, with politics divided over a new council-manager form of government.
“The council was looking for someone to be a salesperson, not only for the form of government but for the city,” said Baarsma, who interned for Rowlands. “They wanted someone who could move the city forward, think big and create a better Tacoma.”
In 1966, Rowlands became president of the International City Managers Association while Tacoma Mayor Harold Tollefson was president of the National League of Cities.
At the time, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson promoted his “Great Society” agenda of domestic spending and renewal programs. Tacoma took a prominent role in the movement behind Rowlands and Tollefson.
Not all of Rowlands’ efforts were looked upon fondly.
“He just loved that (federal grant) money and loved tearing down things some of us wanted to save,” recalled Dawn Lucien, then-Rowlands’ next-door neighbor and a former city councilwoman who often clashed with Rowlands.
Rowlands resigned as city manager in November 1969, after a majority of opponents to his agenda won election to council, sealing his fate. His opponents would later be recalled by city voters.
Away from City Hall, Lucien said, Rowlands was a personable neighbor and loving family man. He and his late wife, Sally, raised two daughters and two sons in a North Yakima Avenue home.
“He never once brought his work or what he was going through home to us,” said his son, John Rowlands, a pulmonary critical care doctor at Tacoma General. “Home was a different place for him.”
Rowlands went on to work as city manager in Huntington Beach, Calif., and taught at California State University at Long Beach. He returned to Tacoma in retirement, enjoying his time as a voracious reader and playing bridge, despite worsening eyesight.
“Dad could barely see anything, but he could always hold those cards up,” John Rowlands said.
Rowlands is survived by his children, David, Jean, Peggy and John and their spouses, eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. A celebration of Rowlands’ life is set for 11 a.m., Tuesday, at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 901 North J Street.
Rowland’s son, David, retired as city manager in Chula Vista, California, and a grandson, David W. Rowlands, now manages the City of Clayton, Ohio. The three generations of City Manager Dave Rowlands spoke about their experiences during an international city management conference about 7 years ago, John Rowlands said.
“It was an incredibly special thing for my dad to be a part of,” John Rowlands said. ”If he had a fault, he was a very proud man. He was very proud of his career and all the accomplishments of his children.”