John Hathaway: A Tacoma gadfly’s voice goes silent

For many years, one particular table inside the dimly lit lounge at the Hob Nob restaurant near Wright Park was almost always claimed by one couple. The pair would drop in to have a drink, eat dinner, or chat with a friendly bartender.

“This was our table,” said Carolyn Perry, a 68-year-old University Place resident whose companion and significant other for nearly five years, John Hathaway, passed away last week at the age of 69.

Hathaway was a political cartoonist and the publisher of The New Takhoman, a Web site that skewered Tacoma City Hall, the Tacoma Police Department, and other local elected officials. Tacoma residents may recall Hathaway as many things—curmudgeon, crank, gadfly, and muckraker. In person, Hathaway (a former fashion reporter) was a shadowy figure who covered his head with a stylish fedora, draped his lean figure in a vintage suit, kept his thin mustache neatly trimmed, and spoke in a scratchy rasp that was a reminder of how much he enjoyed unfiltered cigarettes and a good glass of scotch. It was a persona he supported and promoted, referring to his online alter ego as “Paul Malone” and often cheekily signing off on his latest, scandalous post.

In 1995, Hathaway began to publish The New Takhoman (first in print, then on the Internet). His biggest break as an online publisher came in the spring of 2003, when an anonymous tipster sent Hathaway a cache of legal documents and divorce papers that included domestic violence allegations made by Crystal Judson against her husband, David Brame, who was Tacoma’s police chief at the time. Hathaway—who was working as a bartender at a local bowling alley at the time—reported on the information. Several days later, Brame murdered his wife and committed suicide in a parking lot in Gig Harbor.

Suddenly, Hathaway and The New Takhoman were in the media spotlight. A national radio personality described Hathaway as the Matt Drudge of Pierce County. He was featured on an episode of the CBS television program 48 Hours. He was a major subject in the true-crime book Tacoma Confidential, which was written by a CBS News producer named Paul LaRosa and published in 2006.

“Although the city’s newspapers far outmanned Hathaway in personnel and had regular reporters on court and police beats, not a single mainstream reporter beat this over-the-hill onetime fashion reporter to the biggest story to hit Tacoma in decades,” wrote LaRosa.

He added: “Like a lot of gadflies, John Hathaway rubs people the wrong way. While he has his supporters, there’s a general sense of ‘who hired this guy anyway?’ whenever his name comes up. That, and a lot of eye-rolling.”

A profile published in The News Tribune in 2003 introduced Hathaway to average Tacoma residents and laid out his backstory.

Hathaway was born on Aug. 15, 1945, in Tacoma. He was the youngest of two sons born to Jack and Jean Hathaway. When he was six weeks old, his family home was destroyed in a fire that also killed the family dog, according to the The News Tribune article. The family moved to South Tacoma and Hathaway attended Lincoln High School, wrote for the school’s newspaper, and graduated in 1963. When Hathaway was 18 years old, he was driving in Tacoma when he struck and killed a five-year-old girl who ran out in front of his car, according to The News Tribune article. Hathaway earned a Business degree at Olympic Junior College in Bremerton, and later moved to Seattle to work at a pipe-fitting company. In 1984, he quit that job and opened the J. Paul Shirt clothing store in downtown Seattle. A few years later, the business failed and Hathaway eventually returned to Tacoma—broke and living with his mother. Five years later, The New Takhoman was born and the rest was history.

Two days after Hathaway passed away, I contacted Perry by telephone to learn more about the circumstances of his death, which was confirmed by Mountain View Funeral Home in Lakewood. Perry told me Hathaway died due to complications of severe emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver. He was rushed by ambulance to St. Joseph Medical Center during the early-morning hours of Weds., June 3. He died a little after 3 p.m. that afternoon.

One week later, Perry and I met for an interview at the Hob Nob. She was able to fill in some blanks in Hathaway’s life—he was married four times and was the estranged father of two children; serious health issues facing two of his former wives sank Hathaway into a deep depression; although the booze and cigarettes did him in, Perry claimed Hathaway had given up alcohol toward the end of his life.

What about the fedoras and the vintage suits?

“This was something that went way back from when he was in high school and started getting into fashion, started wearing shirts and ties to school,” she told me. “There was just something that somehow or another he got into that. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—that was his time, that was what he liked, that was his persona, that was his dress, that’s where all of that came from. I’ve got a closet full of suits, all of them from the 1940s. At one time, he had over 100 fedoras. He had since given some of them away.”

Perry also mentioned Hathaway occasionally spoke with Crystal Judson’s family in the years following the tragedy.

“I was sorry to hear that he passed,” Lane Judson, Crystal Judson’s father, told me during a telephone interview this week. “He would call me over the years. Not often. But he would call. I don’t know how you would explain it, but it seemed like he had a way to bring things out in the public. It seems like he always got word of something first. I guess he had a lot of contacts. He would call and ask me if I knew anything about some things he was working on. Some I did, and some I did not. I tried to answer what I could for John. We had a fairly good relationship.” Judson, who lives in Gig Harbor with his family and is a leading advocate against domestic violence, told me he hadn’t spoken to Hathaway in about seven months and had wondered about his health. “We don’t get to Tacoma too often, and I don’t think John ever got to Gig Harbor as often as he liked.”

To be sure, Hathaway had many enemies in local government. He filed complaints and at least one lawsuit against the City of Tacoma. His online cartoons could be so mean that at times you would be tempted to wipe your computer’s history if you read them at work. I’m sure many people are grateful they never did anything scandalous enough to warrant a mention in The New Takhoman. But there was also a small, grassroots group of local outsiders and artists who admired him.

“I think it’s still sinking in,” said Tacoma political cartoonist R. R. Anderson this week. “It’s still hard to imagine a Tacoma without John Hathaway.”

Anderson said he liked Hathaway and got to know him well over the years. He owns one of Hathaway’s many fedoras, and Hathaway wrote the introduction to Anderson’s anthology of political cartoons. “I saw in him what I wanted—a group of people kind of glomming on to his little publication. When I started out, I just didn’t have an audience. I looked at what he had going and said, ‘Man, I wish I had that.’ I still have a ways to go, I think.”

Anderson, who co-owns Tinkertopia in downtown Tacoma, said Hathaway occasionally stopped by the store with Perry. He last saw Hathaway about three or four months ago. “He was not looking good at all,” he recalled. “He was walking around with a walker. His legs were swollen. He just looked like he had one foot in the grave, and another foot on a banana peel.” He also noticed Hathaway posted stories less frequently to The New Takhoman and social media sites.

“He’s one of those guys that you don’t want to hang around all the time, but you are glad that they are out there keeping an eye on things,” said Anderson. “He was like the WikiLeaks of Tacoma.

“I’m going to try to keep him alive in my cartoons,” added Anderson. “I’ll have the ghost of John Hathaway appear in my comics.”

During my conversation with Perry at the Hob Nob, I mentioned that Hathaway was known as a prankster. When news started to surface online that he died, some people thought it might be another Hathaway ruse.

“I’m pretty sure that there might be some people out there who do think that he might still be alive,” she said. “I wish he were. I know for a fact that he isn’t. I sat there for an hour and a half and watched him take his last breaths. It wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.