Remembering longtime Seattle business leader George Duff

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George Duff, who helped create the Washington State Convention Center and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s third runway and ensured the Seattle Mariners stayed in town, died at his Mercer Island home on New Year’s Day. He was 91.

Originally from Detroit, Duff was president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce from 1968 to 1995. During his tenure, Duff influenced plans that helped shape Seattle’s business environment and connections. And he continued to serve the community after his retirement through his support for nonprofits and an adviser commitment with the chamber.

Current president and CEO of the chamber, Rachel Smith, said Duff was one of the first regional leaders to expand the Seattle metro area’s connections to the rest of the country and the world. He would encourage business leaders to explore the world “to gain inspiration and foster relationships to move our region forward,” Smith said.

“George Duff was a leader who left his stamp on our region through decades of stewardship and advocacy on behalf of our community,” Smith said.

Duff was humble and focused on teamwork to get things done as well as pragmatic, focused on problem-solving despite possible disagreements, said Steven Leahy, current director of government relations at Seattle Colleges. Leahy worked with Duff at the chamber from 1979 until 1995, as well as from 2001 until 2009, when Leahy was president and CEO there and Duff served as senior adviser.

Big civic projects Duff worked on, such as the Convention Center, were “marathons, not sprints, so you’ve got to have a lot of resilience, patience, tenacity to keep working at them,” Leahy said. 

Among his high-profile projects was the Seattle Mariners. Duff was involved in the negotiations to have Redmond-based Nintendo of America buy the baseball team in 1992. The previous owner had plans to move the team to Florida. After scrutiny from Major League Baseball, which opposed to a non-U.S. or Canada group buying a U.S. team, Nintendo bought the Mariners for $125 million and sold the team for $661 million to First Avenue Entertainment in 2016.

Leahy said Duff was also a mentor to many. He would invite early-career professionals to chamber meetings and value their input when making decisions. One of Duff’s lifelong lessons to Leahy’s career was “consultative leadership,” which means a leader’s strength lies in their team, Leahy said. 

“He had a thing on his wall forever [that] I’ll never forget: You’re talking to a parade of people who are continually moving ahead, not a group that is standing in one place,” Leahy said. He added that part of Duff’s legacy to Seattle was making the city a vibrant, inclusive place.

In a 2010 op-ed published in The Seattle Times, Duff wrote about how the chamber helped pass a $131 million bond issue in 1987 that expanded and upgraded Harborview Medical Center, which is currently managed by UW Medicine.

Before moving to the Seattle area, Duff served in the Korean War from 1952 when he was drafted until 1954 when he returned. He later became the executive vice president of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. There, he led the business community’s response to the wake of the 1967 Detroit riot. The riot, led by a police raid of an unlicensed bar, was the “largest civil disturbance of 20th century America,” with 43 deaths, 1,700 fires and more than 7,000 arrests, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

A year later, Duff was recruited to the Seattle chamber.

After Duff retired from the Seattle chamber, he and his wife began a charitable Christian foundation called Joint Heirs Ministry, according to his son Bruce Duff. The foundation supported nonprofits such as The Free Wheelchair Mission, which provides wheelchairs to people in developing countries. Duff also helped nonprofits to learn about business administration, his son said.

Duff is survived by his wife Marilyn, his children Doreen Duff-Dings, Bruce Duff and Laura Jones, nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, three nieces and many extended family members.

Bruce Duff said his dad was a responsible, serious person but had a sly wit when surrounded by family and close friends. “In business, church, everyone who knew him respected him,” Bruce Duff said.

In addition to his quick comebacks, George Duff’s granddaughter Dania Duff-Dings said he was patient, generous and attentive with his family.

“My grandpa left behind a legacy — quite literally, with everything he did for Seattle — but to us grandkids he was just that: grandpa,” said 33-year-old Duff-Dings.

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