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Listening to His Heart: Ken Alhadeff's inward journey brings light to the darkness

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by Beth Luce

From Washington State Magazine, Summer 2004


Ken Alhadeff Ken Alhadeff: “I believe deeply in the value of every single individual . . . in the opportunity that each of us has to bring grace and dignity and warmth and wonder to life.” Photo by Laurence Chen ©2004
The Pioneer Square office from which Ken Alhadeff oversees his Seattle real estate and investment business is filled with memorabilia. A flock of wooden duck decoys amassed by his father. Autographed photographs of famous jockeys. Signatures of Thomas Jefferson and Mamie Eisenhower. A set of Seattle Slew’s horseshoes and a racing program from Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby victory. Jackie Robinson’s rookie baseball card. A plaque dedicated to Alhadeff from Operation Nightwatch, which cares for homeless men, women, and children.

Another facet of Alhadeff’s life is equally diverse and legion—the collection of philanthropic interests to which he devotes at least half of his time. Education. Street kids. The Seattle Symphony. Homeless people. Democratic politics. Hearing-impaired children. The Red Cross. The Seattle Aquarium. United Way. Civil rights. The 5th Avenue Theatre. Battered women. The American Jewish Committee. Alcohol and substance abuse programs. Alzheimer’s research. He sits on the Washington State University Board of Regents and is an enthusiastic supporter of the Future Teachers of Color scholarship program in WSU’s College of Education. The list is long, but there’s a theme to it.

“If you name the things that keep a community healthy, he’s got his finger in a bunch of those,” says Ruthann Howell, president and CEO of Family Services of King County.

Alhadeff’s honesty in talking about his life, his shortcomings, and his work is well known. At 55, he makes no secret of his own dire mistakes, from which he has developed a searing desire to do and find good in the world. He speaks constantly of “lighting the darkness” and “listening to the heart.” He’s on a personal crusade for civil justice. A talented public speaker, his rhetoric implores others to honor people of every class and circumstance, leading former Seattle mayor Norm Rice to comment that Alhadeff, who is Jewish, might have a bit of Baptist preacher in him. Influential in politics from the local level to the national, he once considered running for mayor, has been appointed by various governors to state commissions, and counts U.S. presidents among his acquaintances.

Like the things he collects, Alhadeff’s story is fascinating to look at, and he’s willing to share.

Helping others

Born into a well-to-do family that emphasized community responsibility, civil rights, and the arts, Alhadeff learned philanthropy and culture on his mother’s knee. “My mother took me to plays and rallies for civil rights. I was always exposed to the importance of helping others,” he says.

Alhadeff also grew up breathing in the romance of horse racing at Longacres, the family business. At 14, he began working at the racetrack, mucking out stalls, selling programs, and working in the publicity office.

Although a member of a loving, privileged family, Alhadeff had his share of problems, including a deflated self-image. He saw himself as a fat, unathletic, sensitive, unpopular kid who didn’t like school.

As a student at WSU in the late ’60s, he questioned authority with zeal. “I was part of a group of folks that marched down the streets of Pullman to President Terrell’s house with torches, demanding that the Black Studies Program not be eliminated. It was a war between us and those insensitive, bureaucratic regents,” he says, smiling at the irony. “Little did I know that years later, I would be one of those regents.”

After earning a general studies degree in 1970, he returned to Seattle and went to work at Longacres, eventually becoming president of the food-and-beverage arm and senior vice president of the business. His brother, Michael, operated the track.

Alhadeff married, had a son—Aaron, now 27—and threw himself into a campaign of community involvement. He was the first white president of the Central Area Boys Club, the youngest member on the Urban League Board of Directors, and a major fund-raiser for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. But in the beginning, he admits, his philanthropic motivation was vainglorious. In a 1999 interview for the television program Northwest Week, he said, “I was looking for recognition, to validate myself . . . to show my parents that I had the capability to be a player.”

Longacres, legends, and legacies

In Seattle, the Alhadeff name is perhaps best associated with Longacres, the racetrack built by his grandfather in 1933 and owned and operated by the family until 1990.

During the Depression, Longacres' surroundings were rural. But the towns of Renton and Tukwila grew up around it, making the land much more valuable than the track itself. By the late '80s, the facilities were showing their age. The concourse and barns needed "a mammoth financial investment" to bring them up to date and make them seismically safe in this earthquake-prone region. "And at the same time, the racing industry was in a very rapid and dramatic decline," Alhadeff says. So when Boeing offered to buy the land to build an office complex, the family accepted.

"Selling the racetrack was the most difficult thing I've ever been through . . . ," Alhadeff says now. "We were presented with an incredible business opportunity for our family. We took it. We knew we were ending a tradition, but ultimately our responsibility was to the financial stability of our family for generations to come."

Criticism rained down. Alhadeff says he understood why people were upset. "For many people, Longacres was a magic place. It was for me, too." Many people thought of Longacres as a public trust. "But it wasn't. It was a private entity that wasn't doing very well," he says. "It was impossible to defend ourselves, even though my heart and soul told me that 99.9 percent of people would have done the exact same thing."

To ease the consequences to the racing industry, Boeing agreed to hold off for two seasons before claiming the site and bulldozing the track. In the meantime, the Alhadeffs leased out the facilities for only $1 per year, freeing up millions of dollars to be added to prize purses to help support the industry. The family contributed hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to purses.

Several years later, the new Emerald Downs track in Auburn replaced Longacres. The Alhadeffs sponsored an annual race there-the Longacres Mile-for years. Alhadeff still owns several racehorses, and he plans to continue racing the rest of his life.
His voice takes on a reverent note when he talks about the day Seattle Slew came to Longacres in 1977, just after winning the Triple Crown and an additional race in California. "We knew we couldn't put on a race that would justify him coming, but we just wanted him to be at our racetrack. So my father devised an event called the Golden Gallup," Alhadeff remembers. Billed as a fund-raiser, the family guaranteed at least $100,000 each to WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Joe Gottstein Cancer Research Fund at the University of Washington, named after Alhadeff's grandfather, who founded Longacres.

"When that horse got out of the van in the barn area, horses started popping their heads out of their stalls. They knew they were in the presence of something special," Alhadeff says. With a 135-pound exercise rider on his back-30 pounds more than a jockey weighs-the exhausted horse was just asked for an exhibition gallop around the track.

"But when he headed for home, the crowd started cheering and yelling. Seattle Slew went into a dead run, because that Thoroughbred had so much heart and soul that he refused not to run as fast as he could," Alhadeff says. "When he came into the winner's circle for a ceremonial photograph, it was very clear that he felt as if he'd run a race."

That comment reveals much about Alhadeff and what he admires. "There's part of Ken that's larger than life, and his heart is just as big," says Mayor Rice, adding that Alhadeff supported him during rough times in his own life. "He knows about overcoming adversity. To him, struggles are as important as victories."

Asked what he has left to accomplish, Alhadeff responds that he'd like one of his horses to win the Longacres Mile, and he'd like to break 80 on the golf course. (He usually shoots in the high 90s.) He'd love to see the Cougar football team win the Rose Bowl. But mostly, he says, he'd like to feel some closure on his work for social justice. In the meantime, he continues his eclectic mission to save the world, one person at a time.

Beth Luce is a Seattle writer.

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