Alumni Hall of Fame inductee Sharon Carey LeeMaster (’57) leaves lasting legacy in fundraising world

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Years ago when Sharon Carey LeeMaster (B.A., 1957) was accepted to a major university with a partial scholarship, her mother half-jokingly told her, “You can’t go there; we go to the University of Washington.”

LeeMaster became the third generation of her family to attend the UW, following her parents and grandmother, who was one of the first 13 graduates from the current UW campus in 1894 and the first woman to receive a Master’s degree from the University.

After attending Forest Ridge, a private school where she took extensive English classes, LeeMaster thought taking a journalism class would provide new information and satisfy the mandatory credit. She enrolled in a course taught by then Seattle Times reporter Robert Sethrie.

“I had only been in the class for about an hour when I realized that everything in the class was going to be done on typewriters and my high school stressed penmanship, so I had never learned to type,” LeeMaster said. “I was faced with having to go back and take another English class, but instead Mr. Sethrie told me to come to his office at 4 o’clock so that I could practice.”

Three days later, she passed the typing test. LeeMaster inquired why Sethrie assisted her and he replied, “Because journalism needs informed, well-educated women and needs people from the social sphere that you come from.”

Sharon Carey graduating from the UW in 1957 with a B.A. in Communication.

Sharon Carey graduating from the UW in 1957 with a B.A. in Communication.

Working at The Daily was a required course during her junior year of college (called JJ), although most women were advised to work in the advertising and public relations program because jobs were more plentiful. LeeMaster was one of three women who decided the editorial sector was right for them, eventually becoming the first woman to serve as associate editor of the newspaper.

“I was always interested in people and the ‘why’ of everything,” she said. “It just seemed to me that the editorial route was the best way to go.”

Growing up with a mother who was a history teacher and a father who was an attorney, LeeMaster said they would have talks about why something happened and discuss the background information of events. By age nine, she began interviewing her aunt during car rides and keeping notes in a journal that she still has to this day.

“I learned about world affairs and different peoples,” she said. “My mother created in me a person who was not afraid to ask questions and my attorney dad whose family came to the Washington Territory early on also served as Honorary Consul for El Salvador.”

After graduating, LeeMaster became an intern as was the custom for The Daily editor, at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was assigned to the Women’s Department which was separate from the main editorial desk.

“The only way we knew what was happening on the ‘city side’ was that one of the staff members used to go have coffee everyday with one of the beat writers and she would tell us,” LeeMaster said.

In addition to writing up weddings and club announcements, LeeMaster created a “How They Met” column chronicling how couples met their spouses, including the president of Boeing. The Seattle P-I offered LeeMaster a position starting three months after her internship ended. To fill the time, she decided to visit relatives in Germany.

“My aunt whose life story I had chronicled over the years told me that if I visited relatives in Germany and learned German that she would pay for my trip,” LeeMaster said.

LeeMaster enrolled in a total immersion German Language, Art and Music program in Salzburg, Austria. There she met her future husband who was an American serving in the Air Force stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. She then taught in a Business language school and they courted on weekends. When he was accepted at the Freie Universitat in Berlin and with a long commute to see him, LeeMaster decided to return to Seattle and worked at the Seattle P-I for about a year. Later, she helped form the International Travel Department at Doug Fox Travel Service.

After returning from Germany, LeeMaster’s husband lived with his sister and her family who had just moved to Seattle and he enrolled at the University of Washington to complete his degree. Deciding after a year that law school wasn’t for him, he earned a degree in Political Science and then a teaching certificate in Special Education in 1961. Wanting to escape the rain, LeeMaster signed him up for an interview for a teaching job in San Diego.

“He still thinks his professor signed him up for the interview,” she said. “You have to learn that when one has been married for more than 50 years, there are little things that you do that you don’t always share at the time!”

Taking a few years off to start a family, LeeMaster catapulted into the public relations industry, quickly growing a network in San Diego. The arts were a major part of her upbringing, which would become a main component of her career as well after being offered a job with the San Diego Symphony.

“I had three young kids so I didn’t take it, but the next day in our VW van enroute to Seattle for a family reunion I casually mentioned the job offer to my husband as we neared Portland,” LeeMaster said. “He said, ‘Well you took it didn’t you?’ We stopped at a phone booth and I called and took the job.”

Her public relations and marketing work segued nicely into fundraising and development, a path she considered after asking the development officer who frequented her office looking for “who was who” how much he made.

“An innocent question of how much someone was earning changed my life forever,” LeeMaster said. “But I could have never been successful working for nonprofits if I had not had that early, solid journalism career with PR and marketing. Whenever there’s a problem, it’s because they haven’t asked the right questions, haven’t been thorough, and haven’t cemented the right relationships – all crucial components of journalism.”

LeeMaster has now worked with more than 45 organizations, including the San Diego Opera, La Jolla Music Society, Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County, and 25 others as a volunteer. She has counseled more than 100 aspiring journalists and public relations and development officers. She also served on the International Boards(s) of Association of Fundraising Professionals for 11 years.

“Fundraising is much more than just raising money,” LeeMaster said. “It’s guiding nonprofit organizations to fully serve the community and to operate like a business so that the dollars raised fund their mission. The key to success in working with charities is to become interested in everyone and everything around you – to ask questions, listen to the answers, and take notes.”

More recently, LeeMaster has been working with the San Diego Education Fund helping students from minority communities become school teachers, and with Classics 4 Kids, which provides education in the arts to inner city school children. She is currently working on a project with the San Diego History Center that will bring together 350 people whose names, history and arrival date are chronicled. And she is raising funds for ARTS-TIX, a half-price ticket booth that serves the entire San Diego community.

Although she says she doesn’t know what free time is, LeeMaster enjoys watching sports – especially when the Huskies are involved.

“When I was eight years old, my mother suggested that I start going to Husky basketball and football games with my father in her place so that she could spend more time on her extensive volunteer activities,” LeeMaster said. “That started my emotional connection with the UW.”

LeeMaster is known as Mrs. Purple around town, sporting her purple and gold to crew competitions and UW “away” football games.

“Attending the UW was an incredible experience,” she said. “You never know in life when you take a turn where it is leading, but I’ve been so fortunate to have incredible schooling at the UW, which has prepared me for life experiences.”

Her grown children realize this and have taken advantage of their every experience. Their youngest, Timothy, is a Journalist and Editor for DealReporter based in Hong Kong; daughter, Stephanie, a former paralegal is a Faith Formation administrator for the Archdiocese of Atlanta; and Chris, a former development director is now an entrepreneur. Her husband, Parley, is now retired after 32 years of working with inner city students and his wedding ring is Sharon’s grandma Helen’s 120-year-old UW graduation ring – keeping the legacy alive.

Sharon Carey LeeMaster is a 2014 inductee to the UW Communication Alumni Hall of Fame. For more information about the event, click here.