Historic regional treasure Paul Dorpat celebrates 85 years
Nov 1, 2023, 2:21 PM | Updated: 5:30 pm
(Photo courtesy of Clay Eals)
Paul Dorpat celebrated his 85th birthday over the weekend with a procession of visitors. On Halloween, KIRO Newsradio caught up with him for a look back at his career as the photographer and writer behind the popular “Now and Then” newspaper column and several regional history books.
Along the way, Dorpat was coaxed into throwing in some life lessons, too.
Paul Dorpat is a treasure. People love The Seattle Times’ “Now and Then” column in the Sunday magazine that he began 40 years ago – and it’s been online for years, too, of course. He authored something like 1,800 columns before he handed it off to two successors, Clay Eals and Jean Sherrard.
We’ll get to the particulars of Paul’s 85th birthday in a moment, but first, a little history and context.
If you don’t know what “Now and Then” is, a typical column shows an old photo of some familiar or unfamiliar spot, usually drawn from a museum or library or other archive and pairs it with a recent photo taken in a way to match the original photograph as closely as possible – including the angle, the spot it was taken from, and the time of day it was snapped.
The technical term is “repeat photography.” In an interview with Paul Dorpat at MOHAI back in 2011, he theorized about why this kind of photo history is so popular with a broad range of audiences.
History gives you “depth to the present”
“I think the study of history gives you a kind of depth to the present, it gives you a feeling of a foundation for the present if you do understand the history of the place you’re standing and living,” Dorpat said. “And the photographs just help with that, (they) enrich your place in the present.”
“It may also alienate you from the present if you prefer the past to the present,” Dorpat added. “Which I often do.”
And the past that Dorpat often prefers includes years spent on the frontlines of what can now only be called “analog history journalism.”
For example, while digital copies of vintage photos fly back and forth 24/7 on social media here in the 2020s, Dorpat should get a lot of credit for working for years in that analog age. Dorpat was bringing vintage photos to the masses before scanning of images was commonplace, and when there was no such thing as online databases of old photos and no easy way to sift through history other than putting in the time to go somewhere in person and dig through the archives.
When Paul talks about those earlier years, he does so with a terrific orator’s voice equally suited to speaking or singing. And when he does speak, it’s clear he is an intelligent and articulate guy, but that he also has a silly side, too.
The underwater hoax
As many might remember, Paul got tangled up – and was a bit of a co-conspirator – in a brilliantly deceptive promotion for Ivar’s fish and chip restaurants back in 2009. The campaign was about the discovery of underwater billboards in Puget Sound allegedly placed there by Ivar Haglund back in the 1950s. Alas, the whole thing was a clever fake and borderline hoax.
In the wake of the tepid “scandal” that followed, Seattle Times’ management temporarily suspended freelancer Dorpat and the Now & Then column. Fans called for forgiveness, Dorpat apologized and the hubbub eventually subsided and all returned to normal, and Dorpat was reinstated.
KIRO Newsradio interviewed Paul about the controversy in 2015, to gain some insight and perspective, given that a number of years had passed.
The highlight was a little song Paul made up, perhaps on the spot, effectively recanting his apology and backing up his claim that the billboards actually weren’t fakes, and that underwater advertising made sense because of submarine traffic in the 1950s down there among the “Whispering Clams” (which was the putative title for the song).
Thus, preparing a radio story about Paul Dorpat turning 85 perhaps presented some unique challenges along with unique potential rewards.
Dorpat lives in a care facility now and is in pretty good health, though is not as mobile as he once was. He’s got a terrific group of friends who visit frequently and who provide other support, including Clay Eals and Jean Sherrard, the two men who took over the “Now and Then” column at the end of 2019. They were Paul’s hand-picked successors, and they’re both talented journalists and historians he’s known for decades.
And it was Clay and Jean who helped arrange a visit with Paul on Halloween. There were lots of laughs, but some serious questions were attempted, too. Such as:
Feliks Banel: “Is there wisdom that comes with being 85?”
Paul Dorpat: “Uh … don’t answer certain questions.”
Feliks Banel: “I see what you did there.”
Dorpat did speak to the inherent joy in the work of local history. He’s not an academic, but has said for many years that he considers himself a “public historian,” or a “historian without portfolio.” In certain circles, his many fans regard him as something of a rock star.
Informal polling reveals that Paul has inspired countless number of people to dig further into local history, whether as a hobby or a profession, and many were inspired by first reading his columns and meeting him in person. He’s warm and charismatic and knows instinctively how to connect with an audience – which is perhaps something he learned growing up in Spokane from his preacher father.
Dorpat likes ‘all history’
One of Dorpat’s great strengths is that he is a generalist, and is curious about all aspects of regional history – especially when it can be illuminated with “Now and Then” photography.
Pair this mastery of images with the literary quality of his writing, and a typical Dorpat piece transcends that “THIS DAY IN HISTORY” over-simplification which often wears thin in other history media. Anyone doing this kind of work in this region stands on Dorpat’s shoulders, and, as was theorized when he donated his archives to Seattle Public Library a few years ago, no other region in the country has anything close to a “Dorpat” of its own.
Talking about the work and what it means – and the magnetic pull history journalism has for some – brought out the more serious, or at least the more philosophical, side of Paul Dorpat.
“Having all those opportunities to learn more about the community you live in, that’s quite nice,” Dorpat said. “But really, you’re not going to be able to avoid it, you’re going to love it. And you’re going to stick with it. And it’s always going to be the fascination of following down some screwy path and finding more information, and writing about or sharing it or throwing it in the basket or something.”
“It’s great fun,” Dorpat said.
Dorpat has been friends with “Now and Then” successors Clay Eals and Jean Sherrard for decades, and both Clay and Jean clearly have deep respect for Paul and feel blessed to now carry the mantle of “Now and Then” – and also pretty tickled to get to hang out with someone they clearly just plain adore.
“It’s an honor, it is a responsibility,” Clay Eals said. “But for me, it comes down to being a joy to do this, and both of us had been friends of Paul for three-plus decades.”
“Jean and I are truly equal partners in this, and so I’m just as happy being able to carry on Paul’s tradition as I am to have a partner to do it,” Eals continued. “We collaborate on story ideas, we vent to each other, we strategize about what we’re going to do in there.”
Eals said he and Sherrard have kept up the feel and spirit of Dorpat’s decades doing the column, but also are working to make it their own, too.
“There definitely are ways in which we try to enhance the column from what it was when Paul was doing it by himself,” Eals explained. “We try to bring more people into [the ‘Now’ photographs], we certainly bring more photographs to the table, and the Times has responded wonderfully well. Most of the time, the column now takes two full pages in the magazine” where it had sometimes been a single page in the not-so-distant past.
“We were just fortunate to become the ‘heirs apparent,'” Eals added.
As the Halloween gathering was nearing its end, Jean Sherrard explained the Dorpat secret sauce – especially compared with other historians or writers who tackled local history well into old age, such as Ezra Meeker or C.T. Conover or even the great Murray Morgan (of “Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle” book fame).
Dorpat ‘actually tells the story’
“One of the things that separates Paul from virtually all the other historians that came before, and most of us today, is that he began to focus on actually telling the story and how it relates to whatever we call modern day,” Sherrard said. “Paul traveled that path and told us, and created those links between now and then.”
“There’s another side of Paul, though, that I think makes him unique,” Sherrard continued. “And that is he became a Seattle character in his own right. You’d never encounter Paul anywhere in the city and not know that it was Paul.”
Now addressing Dorpat directly, Sherrard continued.
“You wore a particular set of clothing,” Sherrard said and never put on a suit and tie. “You were, in the classic parlance, you were an eccentric. You were one of the ‘Seattle characters’ all by yourself.”
Dorpat shrugged and looked a little puzzled, but he seemed genuinely touched by Sherrard’s assessment, and by the kind things Clay Eals (and, full disclosure, this fanboy reporter) had said about him.
“Well, you guys, thank you,” Dorpat said. “You guys have been so kind to me in describing me in such bewilderingly phony ways that I can’t help but think, ‘Boy, these guys are sweethearts to create this fiction called “me” — ‘Paul the Fiction.'”
“You did it very well, and I appreciate it,” Dorpat said.
Sherrard added that it was always Paul’s generosity to people and groups that set him apart.
When Clay Eals agreed, it was just the cue that Paul Dorpat needed to run with it and run away with it.
“You say ‘yes’ more than you’ve ever said ‘no,'” Sherrard said. “You embrace [opportunities], you walk through those doors.”
“I think that’s a life lesson,” Clay Eals added, at which point, Paul broke out in yet another improvised song.
“It’s a life les-son! It’s a li-ife les-son!” Dorpat sang, his distinctive baritone cracking into a near-falsetto and turning what had been a memorable occasion into yet another indelible visit with Seattle’s all-time favorite historian.
New “Now and Then” columns by Eals and Sherrard are published every week. The image-rich stories are posted online on Thursdays, and then appear in print in the Sunday Times’ “Pacific Magazine.”
There are always lots of extras – more photos, longer essays, and videos, too – at pauldorpat.com.
Happy 85th Birthday, Paul, and thanks for the “Life Lessons” from the “Whispering Clams” and other devoted Dorpat fans over and under the sea everywhere!
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.