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The high school kid who designed Washington’s iconic license plate

It was a history-making time 35 years ago this month, when state officials unveiled the enduring design of an all-new license plate in advance of the Washington State centennial celebration. But what became of the high school senior whose design – featuring a blue silhouette of Mount Rainier and the state’s name in a custom font – beat out nearly 1,400 hundred other artists?

Back in May 1986, Eric Booth was a student at Ferndale High School in Whatcom County. One afternoon, the phone rang. His mom hollered for him, and Eric came and took the cordless handset from her and placed it to his ear.

The caller was Theresa Aragon, head of the Washington State Department of Licensing, the agency responsible for decades for license plates in the Evergreen State.

“She’s like, ‘Hi Eric, do you remember entering this contest?’ So I’m kind of like, ‘yeah,’” the now 53-year-old Booth told KIRO Radio. “And she said, ‘You won,’ and I immediately was just like flying around the house. She was talking to me, asking me questions, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

As the conversation continued, Eric Booth had a hard time paying attention and taking it all in.

“My face went kind of pins and needles, the adrenaline was pumping, and all I remember from that conversation was something like, ‘You won. We want to bring you down to Olympia, blah, blah, blah, State Patrol car will come and get you, where is your family?’” Booth described.

The centennial celebration took place throughout 1989 to mark, of course, 100 years since Washington became a state. But the contest to design the license plate was held a few years before that. And the origins of the contest – and the idea of making a special license plate – trace back a bit before that to former Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

Five-term Secretary of State Munro was co-chair of the centennial, and sometime prior to 1986 he made a visit to his elderly father George Munro on Bainbridge Island.

“He went out in the garage and he pulled out a 1939 license plate from the State of Washington and he said, ‘You should have a license plate [for the 1989 centennial],'” Munro told KIRO Radio. “He said that this was the 1939 license plate for the Golden Jubilee,” which was the state’s 50th anniversary.

“We thought this is a great idea, let’s have a license plate” for the centennial, which Munro, as Secretary of State and centennial co-chair, was in a unique position to help make happen. In 1986, Washington’s plate, in basic white with green letters and numbers, hadn’t changed since 1963.

Meanwhile, up in Ferndale, Eric Booth had always drawn cars and band logos. He was in the early stages of choosing a career in graphic design when his art teacher encouraged him to enter the contest — which Booth did on the last possible day, rushing to the post office to make sure the envelope was postmarked in time to beat the deadline.

After that phone call from Theresa Aragon, it all happened pretty fast. As it turned out, those nearly 1,400 entries had been winnowed down to 12 finalists by a panel, with the winner chosen personally by Aragon and by late former Governor Booth Gardner.

The official unveiling was held in late May outdoors at the state capitol in Olympia. Governor Booth Gardner and Theresa Aragon were there, and so was Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

“I love the Mount Rainier plate,” Ralph Munro told KIRO Radio. “It was ingenious and people loved it.”

Munro still has his personalized version on the wall of his garage – it reads “RALPH,” naturally.

Booth was at the unveiling along with his mom and dad – they had, in fact, been driven from Ferndale to Olympia by Washington State Patrol – while one of his older brothers had been driven by the State Patrol from Portland to Olympia. Governor Gardner presented Booth with a plaque featuring a copy of the plate – numbered “000 ABC” – which Booth was excited to see was a copy of the same plate that would be attached to the governor’s mobile command center van.

The media coverage of the unveiling was intense – which meant that young Eric Booth soon learned that his design was not exactly universally admired.

“I can remember the headline was ‘New license plate you love or you hate,’” Booth said, recalling an edition of the Seattle Times. “And of course, the people who loved it were the housewives and the people with blue or red minivans who thought, you know, ‘I love it. It’s going to match my car.’”

Decades later, the positive reception is still fresh in Booth’s mind. And so is the criticism.

“We had people who were professional graphic designers who were kind of like, they hated it,” Booth said, pointing out that one of the naysayers quoted was Seattle mega-designer Tim Girvin. “They thought it was amateurish, it look contrived. Of course, I remember all this now like it was yesterday. It’s just kind of stuck with me my entire career.”

And, despite the critics, winning the contest did influence Eric Booth’s career – he’s now a principal interaction designer with Pitney Bowes in Connecticut – and the centennial plate was ultimately far more popular with the public, never mind what a handful of critics might have said.

The centennial design – with “Washington” in Eric’s font along the top edge, and the words “Centennial Celebration” along the bottom edge – was available from Jan. 1, 1987, to sometime in late 1989.

What Booth says made his winning design stand out is that it’s very colorful – it’s not a shade of green that might have been expected for a Washington plate, it’s red and blue. And, of course, it also has that crowd-pleasing Mount Rainier silhouette.

What might be unusual compared with centennial or other commemorative plates in other states is that silhouette and the bright colors were kept after the centennial celebration was over – though “Centennial Celebration” was replaced with “Evergreen State” in a simpler font, and “Washington” was also rendered in the simple font, and moved to the left margin rather than centered. According to the Washington State Department of Licensing, Booth’s post-centennial design and color scheme is currently visible on 7,520,037 active Washington license plates.

What specifically inspired Eric Booth to go with a Mount Rainier design is not something he can recall – he had weighed a number of alternate designs with suns and trees and things – but he does remember how he drew the iconic peak so accurately.

“My dad was working in Tacoma at the time and I literally was looking out the window and just kind of traced it,” Booth said. “So on a couple of my original designs, I was doing the shading and doing all that stuff, and [I realized] nobody’s going to be able to see the shading, they’re not going to be able to print the shading. So I just kind of came up with a thing where I could block it out” and make the design simpler.

“I was literally visiting him at his office down there, and so if you’re thinking about it, it’s the Tacoma view of the mountain [on the plate],” Booth said.

Though it’s been 35 years, Booth says his family and friends still remember his role in designing the plate, and the subject comes up in those “something you don’t know about me” icebreaker games. He said he even sees the plate occasionally near where he lives now in Connecticut, but it was hearing about one particular location that made a big impression.

“I had a friend who was visiting the Smithsonian,” Booth said. “This one kind of blew me away,  … they’ve got the Preamble [to the Constitution] – ‘We the People’ – done in kind of customized license plates, and my license plate design is there.”

“Of all of the places where people said ‘Hey Eric, I saw your plate,’ that was the one that kind of threw me back the most,” Booth said. “I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool.’”

It seems the panel, Theresa Aragon, and Governor Gardner picked not only the right design for the plate, but also the right person, too. Eric Booth is humble, but it’s clear he’s still really jazzed by the honor of having his design selected.

“Probably every time I look at a license plate, I’m probably thinking about it in the back of my head,” Booth said. And while he might not dwell on it, “every time I do think about it, though, I think about how lucky I am.”

Booth says it’s the duration of the design’s use that has probably made the biggest impact.

“If it had just come and gone in a few years, then people would be like, ‘You know what, no big deal,’” Booth said. “To me, I think the thing that stands out the most is really just the length of time.”

The state wasn’t able to tabulate for KIRO Radio just how many of Eric’s plates in total have been made over the past 34 years. Taking a wild guess, it’s probably safe to estimate that it’s 20 million or more that have been manufactured by Department of Corrections’ inmates at Walla Walla.

Did Eric Booth ever get to visit the production facility where his design was stamped out onto all those millions of metal rectangles?

“No, I didn’t get to see it,” Booth said. “But you know, my dad being the dad he is, I inherited his dad jokes. He’s always said, ‘My son designed the plate. He’s not making them.’”

Eric’s parents, Roger and Connie Booth, are retired now and living in California. They’re just as proud of their son as you’d expect. And Roger is still quick with a dad joke.

Did their son’s achievement as the Evergreen State’s teenaged license plate designer change their lives?

“From that day on, we’ve been known as Eric Booth’s parents,” Roger Booth joked.

The fact that more than 7.5 million plates are currently active in Washington is “mind blowing” says Eric Booth, who also says winning the contest truly did influence his future.

“I was headed down this direction, but this cemented the deal for me,” Booth said. “I’m going to be a designer, period.”

After graduating from Ferndale High that same eventful spring of 1986, Eric Booth headed later that year for art school in Phoenix, behind the wheel of his 1968 VW Squareback, a blue and red centennial celebration plate bolted to each bumper.

The plate number? Personalized, of course – “MYDSIGN.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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