Federal Way Flashback: John Bocek served as court commissioner, school board president

One of the great strengths of the Historical Society of Federal Way is its newspaper collection. The society’s archives in the basement of its Steel Lake Park Annex headquarters include a large collection of bound volumes of Federal Way newspapers dating back to the 1950s. These volumes contain enlightening information about aspects of Federal Way history, including for example, the career of John Bocek.

Bocek, a Korean War veteran, became a resident of Federal Way in 1954 and established a prominent law practice in Auburn. After the creation of the Federal Way District Court in 1963, which was presided over by Judge Robert Stead, Bocek was appointed the court’s commissioner. Bocek presided over the court in the judge’s absence.

The details of one case over which Bocek presided, are found in January 1964 article in the Federal Way/Fife News Advertiser. The case dealt with an incident the previous month, in which two King County Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to a report that physical violence, apparently among teen boys, was about to occur at the Grotto drive-in, a “favorite gathering place for certain local teenagers” at 312th Street and Pacific Highway South. After arriving at the location, the deputies arrested two teens.

One of the teens was arrested for illegal possession and consumption of alcohol while the other was charged with the same offense, in addition to that of resisting arrest and uttering obscene language while doing so. Bocek gave the young man a deferred sentence on the alcohol charge, dropping the other charges, in light of his upcoming induction into the military. The other youngster was given several fines.

According to the News Advertiser, testimony related to the obscene language uttered during the encounter was taken in written form and not spoken aloud. This was deemed necessary “because of the presence of women” in the courtroom. The News Advertiser did not elaborate but it was perhaps assumed by Bocek, that day’s court session’s presiding officer, in that pre-feminist era that women were so pure-hearted and emotionally fragile that they needed protection from exposure to vulgar speech.

Bocek’s interests were not limited to the legal profession. In the early 1970s, he served as president of the Federal Way School Board. Bocek’s tenure was unquestionably stormy. He found himself in controversy over his opposition to superintendent Murray Taylor. A raucous school board meeting in February 1972 included verbal jousting between Bocek and the many supporters of Taylor in the audience. An even bigger conflict involved Bocek and fellow school board members with Federal Way teachers. Prior to the 1970s teachers in the United States rarely engaged in conflict with school management but Federal Way teachers—as members of the Federal Way Education Association (FWEA)—were part of a new nationwide rise in militant teacher union activism. A major illustration of this new teacher attitude was on display in two school board meetings in late June and early July 1973. These meetings included displays of hostility by FWEA members towards the school board and heated verbal sparring between Bocek and FWEA president John Metcalf over Metcalf’s demands to speak.

Both meetings were adjourned prematurely because of what was claimed to be FWEA members’ disruptive behavior and degenerated into shouting matches.

A Federal Way News editorial accused FWEA members of being rude and disruptive at these meetings; it also suggested that the Bocek-led school board had brought this uproar upon itself by its “high handed” refusal to allow public input into a school levy ballot measure it was soon to present to the public.

The FWEA saw Bocek as one of the individuals blocking its efforts toward achieving not only higher teacher salaries but a greater overall voice for teachers in the operation of the school district. In the latter part of 1973, a recall election took place against three school board members and the FWEA’s activism helped ensure that Federal Way voters ousted Bocek and fellow board member John Hale from their positions.

Soon after his removal from the school board, Bocek was interviewed by Federal Way News managing editor Jim Shahan.

Bocek stated that the FWEA opposed him because he stood against what he claimed was the union’s goal of controlling the school district. In contrast, he believed that the school board should control the district. He lamented the decline in civility on the part of the FWEA toward the school board: “In prior years we never saw the extreme rudeness, the complete disregard for others’ rights. We disagreed with people without name calling and shouting.” Whereas previously Federal Way teachers believed in working cooperatively with school administrators and school boards to advance educational quality, many now also saw themselves as proud members of a militant labor union willing to aggressively fight school management in order to achieve teacher interests. A relatively conservative figure like Bocek viewed this new orientation with dismay.

Bocek’s removal did not stop the deterioration of relations between the school board and the FWEA.

The culmination of the conflict occurred during the 20-day strike by Federal Way teachers in September 1974, which featured charges by the school board that the FWEA used threats of violence to obtain a settlement of the work stoppage.

John Bocek died Sept. 17, 2014, at the age of 88. He was apparently an animal lover. His family suggested that in lieu of flowers as tribute to him, his admirers give support to the Auburn Valley Humane Society.

Chris Green is a member of the Historical Society of Federal Way.