Former Washington Governor John D. Spellman has died. He was 91.

Spellman was elected King County’s first executive in 1969 and is Washington state’s most recent Republican governor.

"He was a true statesman; he was a visionary leader," said Steve Excell, who served as Governor Spellman's chief of staff.

Excell, currently the State Archivist, says Spellman helped modernize government and break down barriers both at the county level and then in Olympia.

"He was an amazing civil rights advocate, an environmentalist, back in those days environmentalism and ecology were new words," said Excell.

Excell said, as governor, Spellman vetoed major projects that he believed would have endangered Puget Sound, including the Northern Tier oil pipeline, planned for under Puget Sound.

Spellman's biographer John Hughes writes the decision "was a profile in courage in the face of a full court press by the Reagan administration."

"He laid the groundwork for our ongoing effort to protect Puget Sound from oil spills and preserve the natural beauty of the state," wrote Governor Inslee in a statement. Inslee also called Spellman "a great example of an office holder unafraid to do the right thing, leaving a legacy of bipartisanship and civility in politics."

Steve Excell said he welcomed working across both sides of the aisle and also made a special effort to promote racial and gender equality.

Spellman lost his bid for a second term to Democrat Booth Gardner in November 1984. In an interview with the state Legacy Project at the Secretary of State's office, he is quoted as saying he had "no regrets."

He served during challenging times. The worst economic downturn since the great depression hit at the start of his term; budget challenges required difficult decisions including cuts and a tax increase.

Longtime former Secretary of State Ralph Munro said Spellman was governor during difficult economic times but, "he put the state back on good financial footing."

"He was a happy go lucky Irishman who loved to have fun," said Munro. "He was a tremendous guy to work with."

Spellman was a Navy veteran and also served on the King County Commission before becoming executive.

As King County executive, Spellman helped secure the construction of the Kingdome, paving the way for the Seahawks and the Mariners.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said Spellman ushered the county into the modern era and ordered flags be lowered to half-staff to honor him.

"Gov. Spellman was an amiable, humble man who always had wise words for me, and great faith in King County’s people and future," Constantine said in a statement. "He will be missed."

Condolences from area leaders poured out for Spellman's family after his death was made public.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman released a statement Tuesday that she is “saddened” to hear of Spellman’s death.

“John was a true statesman and a deeply spiritual man who promoted racial equality and environmentalism, and persevered at every turn to build the Kingdome,” Wyman said.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson said in a statement Spellman "cared deeply for our state."

"He led our state during a difficult financial time in the early 1980s and left his mark by working to strengthen local governments," Nelson said. "He also recognized early on that the state had an important role to play in protecting the environment and the open spaces in our unique corner of the world."

Former Governor Christine Gregoire said Spellman served as a mentor to her, especially when she was leading Washington state through a recession in 2008.

"I asked John for his insights and he generously offered them," Gregoire said in a statement. "We may have been from different parties, but we shared a common love for the great state of Washington, its environment and its people."

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Spellman's death marks the end of an era.

"John was a public servant who loved our community," Durkan said in a statement. "He could disagree with folks, but brought civility to our politics, and valued and embraced bipartisanship – something all too rare today."

The Spellman Family released the following statement:

Today we bid a sad goodbye to our dear father John Spellman. The community he so loved is a better place from his efforts and sacrifices. His quick wit, an occasional smoke ring from his pipe and humming a few bars will be among lasting images of our dad.

With a reel and rod in hand, the waters of the Northwest brought him great joy. Protecting the beauty of our area made him stand against a proposed oil pipeline through the waters he loved and to protect King County’s open space and farmlands.

Our mother Lois was his true partner. With her Labor Relations focus from Seattle University, she was quick lend to her opinions. She was the catalyst. The day before he died, our parents were reunited for one last prayer.

From his days at Seattle Prep and Seattle University and Georgetown Law School, the Jesuits style of discernment played an essential role in John’s life. He was always able to pause and look at the other side of an issue. He was able to weigh the options. He was fair and just. He was able to work towards common goals and to humbly change his mind.

Our dad was ever present in our family. Even with meetings and travel he found time to be very present in the lives of his six children and grandchildren. Gathering around the table for Sunday dinners was a time to talk and celebrate our family while energizing for the coming week.

Music was a big part of his life. Jazz rolled through our house. Until the end, he was quick to hum a song or find a lyric that was appropriate to the moment. A hobby of his was to make mix tapes based around a specific session musician. It was this same type of attention to the details that he brought to his public service.

His accomplishments include:

- Promoting open housing and affirmative action.

- Diversifying the judicial system.

- Shoring up the social safety net during hard economic times.

- Protecting farmlands and Puget Sound.

- Teaming to build the Kingdome and bring professional sports to Seattle.

- Reforming local government.

- Ensuring state funding of K-12 education.

John is survived by his wife of 63 years, Lois Spellman; by his six children, Margo Spellman (and her husband Bryan Tagas) (Santa Fe), Bart Spellman (Seattle), David Spellman (Seattle), Jeffrey Spellman (and his wife Lisa) (Burbank), Teresa Spellman Gamble (and her husband Tim) (Seattle), and Kat Spellman-Miner (and her husband Stuart Miner) (Seattle); and by six grandchildren.

The John and Lois Spellman support The Care of Elder Jesuits (Senior Fund) Jesuits West, a non-profit organization located at P.O. Box 68, Los Gatos, CA 95031-0068, Federal Tax ID #94-1156486 and Seattle University (where the Spellmans met in Spanish class).

The Spellman family will shortly provide details about memorial services in the future.

In the meantime … Hoist a Guinness for strength. Aspire to Be a Contemplative in Action. Hum a few bars of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling …

There's a tear in your eye

And I'm wondering why

For it never should be there at all

With such pow'r in your smile

Sure a stone you'd beguile

So there's never a teardrop should fall

Chauncey Olcott and George Graff, Jr., When Irish Eyes Are Smiling Lyrics.

The Associated Press contributed.