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Monument commemorates Captain Vancouver and an inspiring teacher

Generally speaking, it’s hard to find evidence of a middle school history class that was dismissed for the last time almost 32 years ago. It’s even harder to identify the lasting legacy of such a class.

But it turns out that you can find such evidence – and maybe even a legacy – if you know where to look atop Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.

Island hopping with George

On a small piece of public land with two names — Marshall Park and the Betty Bowen Viewpoint — a granite marker commemorates the arrival in 1792 of British explorer Captain George Vancouver.

Vancouver sailed into what’s now Puget Sound back in late April nearly 230 years ago, marking an important milestone in the European settlement of the Northwest Coast, and disruption of thousands of years of Native civilization.

For much of May 1792, Vancouver’s two ships, Discovery and Chatham, sailed around local waters, giving British names to geographic features that are still with us today – Puget Sound, Whidbey Island, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Hood Canal, and many others – and claiming the territory on behalf of King George.

As the 19th century dawned, Vancouver’s explorations along the Pacific Coast – though he had missed spotting the mouth of what became known as the Columbia River – likely helped pave the way for the British come to the old Oregon Country through the presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its fur export activities. But Vancouver never lived to see it; he had passed away in his native England in 1798 at age 40.

Of course, Americans came here, too, and what’s now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and part of Montana was jointly occupied by British and Americans until the Treaty of 1846 established the border on the mainland at the 49th parallel, except for Vancouver Island.

Captain Vancouver’s role in Northwest history is worth exploring in depth through the narrative he published after the voyage, and in any number of books written by later historians, including Edmond S. Meany’s 1907 highly readable classic.

Vancouver’s monument

Meanwhile, the monument to Vancouver is itself worthy of further exploration – and perhaps even commemoration, too.

It was a young teacher at McClure Middle School on Queen Anne Hill who, back in the 1980s, helped his students create the granite tribute.

The teacher’s name was Michael Kemp-Slaughter.

Michael’s brother, James Kemp-Slaughter, paid a visit to the Betty Bowen Viewpoint on the southwest corner of Queen Anne Hill on a brilliantly sunny day late last week. Joggers and dog walkers passed each other on the paths, while sightseers took pictures and neighbors soaked up the late afternoon warmth.

A fireboat cruised just offshore and ferryboats criss-crossed Elliott Bay as James took in the territorial view of Puget Sound from Alki to the Olympics, and talked about his brother Michael.

First, he read aloud the dedication on the simple, ground-level granite monument along the sidewalk on the park’s eastern edge.

“Captain George Vancouver, 1757 to 1798. Standing here on May 19, 1792 one would have seen His Britannica Majesty’s flagship Discovery anchored three miles west of Alki Point mid-channel between Bainbridge and Blake Islands off Restoration Point. Vancouver spent the Spring of 1792 charting and naming the geographical features of Puget Sound, claiming the region as New Georgia in honor of King George III.”

Michael and James Kemp-Slaughter

James and his brother Michael were very close. They were raised in a large house on Queen Anne Hill in a family of anglophiles, and they were excited to meet Queen Elizabeth when she visited Seattle in 1983.

“I think we were just raised as little hothouse Englishmen, really,” Kemp-Slaughter said, with a chuckle. “Because a lot of our relatives were English that were here, and we had an English nanny growing up, and she was as English as you could be.”

Just how English was Nelly, the Kemp-Slaughter boys’ nanny?

“We never wore jeans because she said, ‘Nelly’s boys don’t wear jeans,’” Kemp-Slaughter said, laughing.

James Kemp-Slaughter worked in antiques; his brother Michael did, too, at first. James says it was teaching that was his brother’s true calling.

“He was intelligent. Good looking. Loved to party and socialize, and really enjoyed his teaching,” James Kemp-Slaughter said. “Earlier on, he thought about some other things, and I didn’t think he would stay with it. Because I think it takes a special person. He asked me to come help one day, and that day was enough for me. So he was the right one to go into teaching.”

James Kemp-Slaughter says that the class his brother taught at McClure Middle School first published a booklet about Captain Vancouver, and then sold copies of it to raise money. Then, they collected donations from people and groups, all the while navigating the city bureaucracy.

“It was my brother’s determination to honor Captain Vancouver,” James Kemp-Slaughter said. “And as a result, he went through and got permission from the city for this to be installed.”

Commemorating Vancouver’s visit

The commemoration of Captain Vancouver all culminated on a sunny Monday in May 1986.

Michael Kemp-Slaughter and his students organized a big public event, with all kinds of VIPs in attendance, and a dramatic unveiling of a granite plaque commemorating Vancouver’s visit on the 194th anniversary.

“There were representatives from the state and from the city and different groups like the DAR and the Daughters of the British Empire, English Speaking Union, Masonic Temple,” James Kemp-Slaughter said. “And then a lot of interesting old-time Seattle people like [maritime historian and MOHAI benefactor] Mr. McCurdy and [KING Broadcasting founder] Mrs. Bullitt.”

“It was a very special day. It was very well attended. There were flags all the way around held by the students, and the [monument] was covered with a tablecloth and a wooden copy of the ship,” that the students helped remove when it came time for the unveiling, James Kemp-Slaughter said.

It was a festive way for an intense project to end.

But then, it wasn’t long after that the story took an unexpected, and unexpectedly sad, turn.

Within about a year of the dedication, Michael Kemp-Slaughter became ill. When he passed away in July 1989, he was only 35 years old.

More than three decades later, it’s difficult to track down students from Michael Kemp-Smith’s class at McClure. Even with an alphabetized list of participants from the Vancouver event program and the internet, it seems that most of the “kids” – who are now in their mid-40s – have scattered, or at least changed their last names.

However, it was possible to find David Quiring, who retired last year from Quiring Monuments. The local company, which dates to the 1940s, was founded by David’s father. The shop remains in its original location on Aurora Avenue just south of the cemetery at Evergreen-Washelli. In 1986, it was David Quiring and his company that donated the granite monument to the McClure Middle School project.

Quiring Monuments projects

Quiring says he got to know the Kemp-Slaughter family pretty well. He says he admired Michael Kemp-Slaughter for his dedication to history and how engaged his students were.

He also said that he can’t remember exactly, but it may have been Michael Kemp-Slaughter’s Vancouver project that first inspired Quiring Monuments to get even more involved with student history projects back then.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Quiring Monuments launched a program where they would donate one monument a year to similar student-led history commemoration projects around the state. Students would propose monument projects as part of the annual statewide History Day competition, Quiring says. Quiring and Michael Kemp-Smith served together on the selection committee, and learned about interesting history projects all over Washington.

Quiring says one particularly memorable project commemorated a bridge in the Tri-Cities.

“Those folks were involved, and they loved what they were doing,” Quiring said of the middle school and high school students who proposed projects. “It was an opportunity that they took advantage of, and they enjoyed it.”

Unfortunately, David Quiring says, the monument program sort of faded away after Michael Kemp-Slaughter died. Along with that, Quiring thinks a lot has changed in the last three decades, particularly in the way students seem less engaged with history than those he met years ago when the monument project was still active.

“Do we have kids that are looking at things like that today?” Quiring asked. “I think we’re missing some of that stuff. Some of this history is being thrown away, and there’s no landmarks to bring it back.”

Quiring would like to see this kind of engagement come back, and he’d like to see student groups once again proposing monuments to create and dedicate in their communities around the state.

When asked if Quiring Monuments would be willing to be involved again in a program similar to what existed nearly 30 years ago, David Quiring says that if a teacher or organization is willing to help organize an annual statewide monument competition, Quiring will be part of it.

“It’s our ballgame,” Quiring said.

It seems like the perfect way to honor and remember Michael Kemp-Slaughter . . . as well as that long-ago British explorer who inspired his finest moment as a teacher.

If you’re interested in helping revive the statewide monument program, please send an email to Feliks Banel.

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