Born: Sunday, December 23rd, 1894
Died: Tuesday, July 8th, 1980
Birthplace: Lincoln, Kansas
Education: University of Washington (1917)
University of Washington School of Law, LL.B. (1919)
Career: Prosecuting Attorney (1922-1926)
State Director, Works Progress Administration (1936-1940)
Commissioner, State Department of Public Service (1940-1942; 1956-1957)
State Liquor Control Board (1957-1967)
Served: Thursday, November 7th, 1946 to Wednesday, September 10th, 1947
Political Party: Democrat
Appointing Governor: Wallgren (Democrat)
Donald G. Abel was born late in 1894 in Lincoln, a small central Kansas town. At age sixteen his family moved to Hoquiam, Washington, where his father–who later served fourteen years as Grays Harbor County Superior Court judge–opened a law office. Don graduated from Hoquiam High School in 1913 and enrolled at the University of Washington. His popularity among students was evident when his classmates elected him class president. He also lettered in varsity football in 1916 and 1917. During World War I he served with the Ninety-first Infantry Division, being cited for bravery in the Battle of Argonne Forest and promoted to the rank of captain. At the end of the war Abel returned to the University of Washington School of Law and graduated with an LL.B. in 1919. After admittance to the bar the same year he opened a law office in Chehalis.
In 1922 voters elected him prosecuting attorney of Lewis County and he served two terms, until 1926. His activities in Democratic party affairs increased. In 1932 he ran for the Democratic nomination to Congress in Washington’s Third District, losing by more than 2,000 votes in the primary. The future judge served as special assistant attorney general attached to the 1935 legislature, where he helped draft legislation. In 1936 Abel became director of the Works Progress Administration for Washington state, a position he held until 1940. His appointment was based largely on patronage, but upon assuming his WPA responsibilities Abel announced that:
The administrative employees of the W.P.A. will not take part in factional party politics. There will be no exceptions to this rule. Naturally, I expect the men and women of the staff to attend political meetings the same as they would attend church or go to the theatre. However, they will not belong to any political club which has for its object the advancement of the candidacy of any person seeking office during the coming primary campaign.
This statement was representative of Abel’s public career. Although highly partisan, when appointed to an administrative position, he set partisanship aside.
Governor Clarence Martin appointed him commissioner of the state public service department immediately upon his resignation from the WPA. He had been anxious to give up his federal job and had considered returning to partisan politics either as a candidate for the U. S. Senate or governor. He became one of several candidates considered for appointment to the U. S. Senate when Louis B. Schwellenbach resigned to accept a federal judgeship.
After two years as head of the department of public service, Abel resigned to oppose Judge John Robinson for the state supreme court. Robinson handily won the September primary by nearly 34,000 votes. After his defeat, Abel returned to private practice in Chehalis.
In November 1946, when Walter Beals accepted temporary assignment as judge at the Nuremberg Trials, Governor Mon Wallgren appointed Abel to the temporary supreme court vacancy. In less than a year, Abel developed a reputation as a liberal-activist.
Upon leaving the state’s high bench in 1947, Abel returned to Chehalis to private practice. His partisan activities still remained important to him. In 1952, party members elected him chairman of the state Democratic central committee, where he remained until 1955. The following year he served as state chairman for the gubernatorial campaign of Albert Rosellini, who rewarded his efforts by appointing him temporary chairman of the public service commission, a position he had held seventeen years earlier. In July 1957, Abel resigned from the commission to accept appointment as chairman of the state liquor control board which supervised the state monopoly of liquor sales and enforcement. Abel did not ask for the job, as the following newspaper account makes clear:
Finding the proper man for the chairmanship turned out to be one of Rosellini’s toughest problems. He finally located him right in his own Cabinet in Don G. Abel… This required a selling job. Abel didn’t want the Liquor Control chairmanship, and probably isn’t anxious even now to step into the position which required a keen ability to mix a measure of politics with the obligation to direct and maintain the liquor monopoly on a stable, profit-making basis where it will continue to inspire public confidence.
Abel began immediately to change board personnel, hiring new assistants and inspectors. In 1958, Rosellini reappointed him to a full nine-year board term.
Judge Abel maintained an effective and scandal-free board, although he frequently came under fire from the legislature and, later, from the governor, for his strict enforcement and close supervision. Some called him the “Czar” of the state monopoly, but church representatives, temperance groups, and alcohol rehabilitation agencies much admired him. His view of enforcement contained a moralistic if not religious element. By 1963 he had fallen out with his former benefactor, and the governor replaced him as chairman. However, he remained as one of the three commissioners until he retired in 1967.
Judge Abel married Marian Ross of Chehalis. They had three children, Donald, Jr., Margaret, and Janice. The son became a member of the Washington bar and was also prominent in state politics. Judge Abel actively participated in the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, serving twice as state commander of both organizations. He was president of the Chehalis Chamber of Commerce and an active Mason, Elk, and Eagle. He was several years a trustee of the Chehalis Presbyterian Church. His hobby was flower gardening. In 1980, Judge Abel died at the age of eighty-five.
See Seattle Times, 27 May 1936, 23 Je. 1957, and 25 Mar. 1977; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 95, 2d (1981), pp. xxxvi-xlii; and Charles Sheldon, A Century of Judging: A Political History of the Washington Supreme Court (1988), p. 102.
The preceding biography is from Charles Sheldon's The Washington High Bench: A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991, © 1992 by the Board of Regents of Washington State University. Reprinted here with permission and licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License by The Temple of Justice Project.