John McKenzie Clise, playful former Port Townsend mayor, longtime proprietor of Aldrich’s store, husband of Pam McCollum Clise, died May 27 at age 91.
An imposing guy – he stood “five foot eighteen inches,” as he put it, and wore a size 15 shoe – John played a dynamic role in tipping first Seattle’s and then Port Townsend’s public cultures toward the arts with playfulness and integrity.
He was born in 1932 into a family of pioneering Seattle financiers. A notable and gilded family history didn’t interest John in the least. He jumped at the chance to attend high school at The Thacher School, a prep school in Ojai, Calif. He enjoyed success there as a scholar, horseman and athlete.
“Those four years were critical,” John recently recalled. “Thacher gave me the tools to break away from my family and it gave me a series of successes of being somebody who potentially had some value.”
After studying at Yale and Washington State universities, he joined the U.S. Army Security Agency, which was focused on cryptography and military intelligence. He was posted to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to learn Mandarin Chinese and there married Suzy Gleason. They had four children and later divorced.
He was sent to Taiwan (Formosa) to interpret conversations of military pilots’ from the People's Republic of China. After the military, he graduated from Stanford University.
Back in Seattle he ran and lost, on the Republican ticket, for a seat on city council. Slowly, he began questioning the conservative political values he’d inherited. He served in numerous public roles, including on the boards of Project Hope, the Seattle Opera Company and the short-lived Western Opera.
He was, by his account, a moderately successful Seattle businessman when he joined his friend Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck and others in an uphill campaign that succeeded, in 1971, in saving the city’s historic Public Market from commercial development.
John became the Pike Place Market’s first manager and then its executive director. He defined and future-proofed a vibrant city landmark and a community of small farmers, artisans and vendors. He married again, to Michelle Dirksen.
In the early 1980s, now single again, his children grown and the Public Market project launched, John wanted something completely new. In 1983 he decided to move to Port Townsend. But how to make a living? Poking around Uptown, he found Aldrich’s store, in business since 1895, still in the hands of the third generation of the Aldrich family.
John bought the store and reopened it as a grocery specializing in gourmet foods and wine.
Aldrich’s prospered, becoming the anchor of a blooming Uptown and a beloved fixture in Port Townsend. John brought his signature, slightly wacky, decidedly creative and fiscally sound approach to the business.
In 1986, he met Pam McCollum, “the love of my life.” Three years later they married, spending their honeymoon scavenging the West for eccentric antiques to complement Aldrich’s decor.
Pam and John, partners in business and in life for 34 years, ran the store together. They sold the business in 1996 and the building in 2002. In 2003 Aldrich’s historic wooden building burned to the ground.
John left his mark on Port Townsend. He was elected to city council and later ran for mayor, then an elected position, and served from 1992 through 1995.
He and businessman Brent Shirley, then mayor of Port Townsend, began the Port Townsend Main Street Program. John was a president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and served on the boards of the Economic Development Council of Jefferson County, Centrum, Skookum Corporation and Jefferson Land Trust. He was a longtime member of Port Townsend noon Rotary and was a volunteer mediator for the Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center and a volunteer business consultant with the Senior Corps of Retired Executives.
His favorite role, after politics perhaps, was as an impresario of fun. The most satisfying work of his life, he said, was becoming a joyful, tolerant individual who embraced others, loved the arts and incited creative mischief; someone who decided for himself what mattered and what constituted satisfaction and success.
He discovered acting late and took to it enthusiastically, being cast in small films, commercials, MTV videos and roles in Key City Public Theater productions. He became a presence on KPTZ, chatting with on-air personalities and reading the town calendar aloud for listeners.
John and Pam belonged to Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and were essential in the creation of Quimper Village, a 55-plus co-housing community. They moved there in 2017 and their cottage was John’s final home.
John was lucky enough to have five great children: Rick Clise, Holly (Clise) White, Arden Clise, Patrick Clise and stepson, Heron Prior. There are seven beloved grandchildren and a next generation coming up behind.
There will be no memorial. Like Tom Sawyer, John wanted to attend his own funeral and so, upon his 90th birthday he rented The Rose Theater to share his favorite film, "King of Hearts," with friends and family, fulfilling that wish.
If you’d like to hear John talk about his life, tune into this KPTZ recording of Maryanne McNellis’ 2022 interview with him.