Five Questions: Tim Griffith, SAL Board Vice-President

By Alison Stagner, Words Matter Event Coordinator

“The thing I keep circling back to over and over is why didn’t I get involved sooner?” Tim Griffith tells me on a drizzly afternoon. Tim has been on the SAL board for the past four years, and is this year’s Vice-President. Born in Olympia, raised in Auburn, and a graduate of business at the University of Washington, he’s a life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest (that is, aside from a single year in Utah which, he mysteriously assures me, “is a whole other interview”). Outside of SAL, he’s an investment advisor with Schmidt Financial Group, Inc., in Kirkland. When he isn’t helping people make financial decisions, he’s probably outside—he’s an avid hiker, cross-country skier, golfer (“believe it or not”), and a hobbyist in all things carpentry and woodworking. Prolific in the nonprofit world, his passion for helping others extends beyond the literary arts—he’s done work across diverse community organizations, such as the Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity.

Alison Stagner: How were you inspired to get involved with SAL on a deeper level?

Tim Griffith: I was a SAL ticket buyer for years, dating all the way back to the days when SAL worked with National Geographic to produce their lecture series. But like many, I didn’t realize how much depth there was to the organization—the conversations that SAL’s literature-side brings to the community are invaluable; SAL is such a critical piece of our city’s culture, therefore our Pacific Northwest culture, and therefore our country’s culture. And the more I’m exposed to WITS, the more I fall in love with it.

My direct involvement began on Valentine’s Day, four years ago. Being the romantic that I am, I convinced my wife to go to a SAL lecture by Al Gore on climate change. Waiting for the show to start, we had a conversation about how we could get more involved, and as we looked at the program, we noticed that a friend of ours was on the board. My wife said she should reach out to him and ask him about his board experience, and she actually ran into him the very next day.

At the time, I was also involved with the Special Olympics. I coached a Special Olympics softball team, which was life-changing—you meet such interesting and unique people from every facet of that spectrum of humanity. While I was really excited to get involved with SAL, I wondered if I’d find something as meaningful to me on a basic human level as coaching kids with developmental disabilities, and I’ve found that Writers in the Schools has met that need for me. WITS demonstrates how voice can function to a group of kids who may or may not be able to express that voice on their own yet; it’s really what has made my board experience complete.

AS: What is one of the most memorable moments in your board work with SAL?

TG: WITS Writers sometimes attend our board meetings and take us through an exercise they do with the kids they teach. We basically become their classroom, and that is always memorable to me.

Just a couple of months ago, WITS Writer-in-Residence Daemond Arrindell visited the board, and he opened by sharing his own piece of performance-based poetry. That was breathtaking. Then, he turned the same exercise over to us, which began: “Under my shirt is my skin / under my skin is my heart / under my heart is my—” and we had to take it from there. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be thirteen years old and do that assignment. When three board members volunteered to read their work afterwards, I realized there are truly some talented people on the board, in their passion for writing, and also in their passion for story-telling, self-expression, and life in general. Their writing brought you right into the scene, and in a short period of time, they had managed to create very real, personable characters—there was no way I was going to read what I wrote after that!

AS: Among all of the SAL events you’ve attended, which have been your favorites?

TG: Cheryl Strayed—not just because of the juggernaut that her story had become by the time she spoke in Seattle, and the amazing person that she is, but to have that be the first time in two years that a SAL event was at Benaroya Hall. Benaroya was busting at the seams, not only due to the size of the crowd, but the excitement and the energy of the people that were there. That’s when I really felt that the organization had achieved lift-off and that we were headed to the heavens once again.

As for this year—I’d have to say it was being at McCaw Hall when Ta-Nehisi Coates was in town. I still can’t talk about it without getting a little emotional. That conversation is going to be one of the most important we’ll end up confronting in our lifetimes. Between the World and Me addresses—in a very powerful way—how American society gets to identify and define winners and losers, and how that resulting discrimination carries itself forward for generations. Coates’ writing style transfers over to the way he interacts with his audience; instead of canned answers, he was engaged in conveying the effects of racism at level I’d never experienced before.

AS: What is a book you remember reading from your childhood that affected you?

There are two of them—one’s fiction and one’s nonfiction. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was the first fiction novel I owned myself and read from cover to cover. Phantom Tollbooth was the first book that gave me the belief that I could empathize with characters outside of myself, that I could just jump on their wagon and let them take me to a place I’d never been before. It was also the first novel that my eldest daughter read. She ended up getting a B.A. in literature and a graduate degree in publishing, and she says her reading and writing career can be traced back to that book.

There was also Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, the offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, written in the mid 1960s, back when Vince Lombardi was the coach and the very first Super Bowl happened. I was a huge sports nerd and semi-athlete as a kid, and it just captivated me that I could read these personal stories about the athletes I idolized and had only seen on television.

AS: What are you reading right now? What’s on your nightstand?

I’m reading Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr’s novel that came out prior to All the Light We Cannot See.

Also on my nightstand is Fire at Eden’s Gate by Brent Walth, my cousin who lives in Portland. Brent’s been a journalist for most of his career, and now he’s teaching at the University of Oregon—earlier in his life, he’d written this biography of Tom McCall, the most influential and long-time governor of Oregon who signed some of the most progressive ideas into law in the 1950s and 60s. It’s a fascinating story about the development of the entire Pacific Northwest.

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