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Originally published Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 8:54 PM

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Faye Allen, mother of Microsoft co-founder, dies at 90

Faye Allen's love of books combined with the fortune amassed by her son, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, led to a $22.5 million gift to Seattle libraries. Mrs. Allen, remembered for her warmth, curiosity and thoughtfulness, died Saturday.

Seattle Times staff reporter


Talk to just about anyone who knew Faye Allen, and they'll invariably mention books. She read them feverishly; she collected them by the thousands; she talked about them with anyone who would listen; and ultimately, she helped create an everlasting gift of books for the people of Seattle.

"You wouldn't find a person more dedicated to the power of books than Faye Allen, especially children's books," said Terry Collings, former executive director of The Seattle Public Library Foundation. Mrs. Allen helped secure a $22.5 million gift to be used by the library system for years to come.

She died Saturday from complications of Alzheimer's disease, her family said. She was 90.

Her son, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, said in a statement, "She was a shining light for everyone that knew her."

Indeed, Mrs. Allen is remembered for her warmth and her curiosity, for her thoughtfulness and her lifelong attachment to friends.

Born in Carnegie, Okla., Edna Faye Gardner grew up with five siblings. She maintained a connection to her hometown throughout her life, continuing to subscribe to an Oklahoma newspaper (in addition to three others) for decades after leaving.

As a girl, she developed a love of reading. She had a knack for recalling what she'd read even decades later. But far from the stereotypical bookish sort, Mrs. Allen was outgoing by nature.

"She was just the world's mother," recalled Betty Mayfield, who was hired by Mrs. Allen to help organize her enormous book collection, and wound up working for the family for 20 years.

Mrs. Allen and her husband, Kenneth S. Allen, settled in Seattle, where she was initially a clerk in the University of Washington's main library. Kenneth Allen, a longtime associate director of the UW's library system, died in 1983.

The couple had two children, Paul and Jody Allen, who is CEO of Vulcan. Mrs. Allen raised the children while also working as a fourth-grade teacher at Ravenna School.

"It's not work," she used to say. "It's like living."

The family made close friendships with neighbors, who recall fondly the hours they spent chatting at the kitchen table over cups of tea.

Mrs. Allen would later move to a 10,000-square-foot home her son built for her on Mercer Island, but she did not forget her old friends. Madge Cotton, who lived next door to the Allens in Seattle, recalls Mrs. Allen sending over a casserole and a nice note when her husband was ill.

After Paul Allen made his fortune, his mother would join him on trips around the globe.

She would often invite old friends to join them. Cotton recalls going to the Super Bowl, while others remembered jaunts down to Portland to watch Allen's basketball team, the Trail Blazers.

Mayfield said Mrs. Allen had an unending curiosity. "She'd hear about something and say, let's dig into that and figure out what that's all about," she recalled. Then the two would set out on a research project.

Mrs. Allen amassed some 15,000 books, picking up new volumes on regular thrift-store visits. She wasn't much interested in those pristine first editions some collectors seek out. They were the sorts of books anyone might have.

"But she had a lot more of them," Mayfield laughed.

Her house was specifically built to hold all the books, complete with a massive library and several reading rooms.

But reading wasn't just a personal thing for her. She helped arrange for her son's charitable foundation to donate $22.5 million for the Seattle Public Library.

Part of the money paid for a children's reading room that is named for her, but most goes toward ongoing book purchases for the entire library system.

"That's a continuing legacy," Collings said, "not just a one-time impact."

In 2003, Mrs. Allen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, prompting her son to create the Allen Institute for Brain Science. This year, Paul Allen announced he would give $300 million to the Seattle-based institute, which provides resources for scientists who study all aspects of brain disease and brain health.

As Mrs. Allen's disease progressed, friends continued to visit.

Guela Johnson, who met Mrs. Allen when they were both library clerks at the UW, said she will never forget her old friend.

"I'm glad she and I were able to grow old together," she said. "To have that in your life, to have a friend like that, it's special."

In addition to her two children, Mrs. Allen is survived by three grandchildren.

The family said gifts in Mrs. Allen's memory can be sent to the Western and Central Washington State Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association or the Seattle Public Library Foundation, which is creating a Faye Allen Memorial Fund.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or