Sheffield Phelps, a leader in arts, business

By Jonathan Martin

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sheffield Phelps picked up sailing in the last 15 years of his life, and as with most things he attempted, he did it well.

Five years ago, at the age of 80, he and his wife were competing in a race around Vancouver Island and had to round the treacherous Nawitti Bar. The bar had bedeviled him before, forcing him to turn around.

But this time, on a clear June day, Mr. Phelps raced past the trouble on the way to winning the Van Isle 360.

"He had the biggest grin on his face you've ever seen," said Marda Phelps, his wife.

Mr. Phelps, 85, died from complications of prostate cancer April 22.

He left behind a remarkable record in business and civic life, most notably as a financial pillar for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

His family tree traces to a landing in Massachusetts in 1634, and he grew up a banker's son on New York's Long Island. After graduating from Yale, he served as a Marine Corps major during World War II, flying 92 missions with reconnaissance planes and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He and his wife, Patricia, settled in Seattle, and he rose to become president of the same mortgage firm where he had started his career. It later became Seafirst Mortgage. He eventually served on the boards of 11 other banks and businesses.

He was president of the Seattle Opera board when it helped launch the Pacific Northwest Ballet. He joined the new venture as board president, and in 1977 helped recruit the company's founding artistic directors, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. The company's headquarters, the Phelps Center, bears his name.

"Without him, there would not be Pacific Northwest Ballet," Stowell said.

Mr. Phelps' financial skills helped the ballet become a national model, and he never asked for artistic sacrifices to make the books balance, Stowell said

"In another era of our country, he would be deemed a patrician of community service, of well-being and high ideals," Stowell said.

He joined so many civic ventures that he could make friends like Doug Fleming feel as if they were shirking. But Mr. Phelps also retained a humble, self-deprecating sense of humor, Fleming said.

Mr. Phelps once water-skied up to a Seafair party at a house on Lake Washington in a tuxedo and top hat. He crashed on his way in but laughed about it, Fleming said.

"Sheffield thought it was his duty to do what he could for the community," said Fleming, who knew Mr. Phelps for 50 years. "There was a noble quality to him."

Mr. Phelps retired from mortgage banking in 1971 and traveled extensively. His son, Stewart Phelps, said his father was an active fly fisherman.

Mr. Phelps' wife, Patricia, died in 1990 after the couple had been married 46 years. In 1992, he married Marda Perry Runstad and together they followed the America's Cup and other sailing races around the world.

He was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year but remained active and planned to compete in sailing races this summer. Although he was undergoing chemotherapy, his death was unexpected, Marda Phelps said.

"He was the best person I've ever met my whole life," she said.

Mr. Phelps is survived by his wife; three children, Cyndie Phelps of Tacoma, Stewart Phelps of Seattle and Nina Gorny of Tumwater; and three grandchildren. A memorial service is being arranged.