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Bob McDonald (right) stands in front of the billboard that thought up with Jim Youngren to comment on the economic downturn Seattle was experiencing in the early 70s. Photo courtesy of Bob McDonald.

Bob McDonald (right) stands in front of the billboard that thought up with Jim Youngren to comment on the economic downturn Seattle was experiencing in the early 70s. Photo courtesy of Bob McDonald.


Lights Out

Bryan Buckalew

On March 24, 1971, the Boeing Corporation laid off 7,000 employees, marking the nadir in a string of cutbacks that became known as the "Boeing Bust." A few weeks after the March layoffs, a pair of real estate agents captured Seattle's pessimistic attitude in a single, now iconic, phrase: "Will the last person in Seattle — turn out the lights." Pasted on a billboard. On the way to the airport. Reaction to the sign was immediate. The pressure of layoffs at Boeing, however, had been building for some time.


Jones: "Well first, more than the moment I got laid off, the moment I learned I was going to be laid off when they announced over the PA system right after the first of the holidays that there was going to be a 25 percent, across–the–board reduction ... I'm Dave Jones. I worked at Boeing from 1965 until I was laid off in 1970 ... I think in some ways you weren't sure if it was better to be there on the inside or outside, trying to get on to the next part of your life."

Milns: "My name is Peter Milns and I survived the Boeing programs of right about 1970. People were being laid off at a fantastic rate. I mean, Boeing cut down from over 100,000 down to about 38,000 people."

Jones: "The impact of these cuts, 100,000 to 38,000, in the economy that we had there would be equivalent to losing two thirds of Boeing and a third of Microsoft almost."

McDonald: "Will the last person in Seattle turn out the lights ... My name is Bob McDonald and I'm the guy that did half the sign. The guy that did the other half of the sign is Jim Youngren. Jim and I were chatting one day and said, You know, we ought to put some sign up out by the airport, because we had these gold diggers, we'd call them, that would fly in from other parts of the country expecting to buy or almost steal real estate in Seattle. So we put the sign up at 160th right on Highway 99, and they'd always say, Is it that bad?"

Milns: "Oh yes, I remember seeing it. It was a big billboard. It had a certain amount of truth in it. There were offices with just one or two people left in them with rows and rows and rows of empty desks."

McDonald: "We went to a startup called Pacific Communications. They found the billboard site. We paid for one month; it was a $160. And we thought, Why don't we get some of the guys in the office to pay for that, and then they can say they're part of the sign. So we thought we'd go to 16 guys, $10 each. The first person we went to was the president of Henry Broderick, his name was Bob Banks, because we thought we needed his endorsement. Whenever you would walk into his office, he had a swivel chair and he would turn around and face the window. He never looked you in eye. So we walked in and he turned around and said, What do you guys want? So we told him. And he's puffing on a cigar, and he turned around and picked up the phone and he said, George — that was our accountant — George, I want you to write out a check to Youngren and McDonald for $160. Under the condition that we never divulge who paid for it."

Latter: "We saw that, and you know, you kind of looked at it and said, Well, God, if people are getting laid off, thank God somebody's still got a sense of humor, you know? ... My name is Barry Latter. I came here to Boeing in January of 1966 and I worked at the Boeing company uninterrupted, as it turned out, right through until I retired in the summer of 1999."

McDonald: "We weren't sure how it was going to be received. Some people thought it was hilarious and some people thought it was horrible. KOMO started a negative discussion about the sign and said they were going to continue to ask that the sign be taken down until the sign was taken down. And so we obliged, so it was only up for 14 days. And we did get $80 back from Pacific Communications."

Jones: "When you look at the bigger picture of Boeing, the alternative of the layoffs probably was bankruptcy. Boeing lived through it. The area lived through it. It probably took 10 years to really grind it out. Life went on."

Latter: "You always had in the back of your mind, Hey, if I've got a job tomorrow morning, I'm just damn lucky. And I think it gave a lot spirit to some guys that said, No, we're not going to turn the lights out. We're gonna keep the damn things on."

Despite the short life of Youngren and McDonald's sign, their catchphrase lived on, becoming something of a pre–Internet meme. "Seattle" has been replaced with "Vietnam," "E. Germany," "Detroit," even "planet Earth." Boeing recovered slowly. By 1974, Boeing's workforce had reached just 54,000, and Seattle struggled for much of the decade. Today Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, and employs over 160,000 workers. This story was produced by KUOW's Bryan Buckalew.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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