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Munro: Olympia’s African American Trailblazers

Ralph Munro, Secretary of State   1980-2001 resident of Olympia since 1966

Secretary Munro offered following remarks at a First United Methodist Church in Olympia on January 29, 2012 in recognition of their life’s work to further civil rights in Thurston County.

Olympia was a different place in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.  Much smaller: state government only had a couple thousand employees. The Legislature came to town for 60 days every second year. There was no freeway. There were no pizza parlors. Many things were different.

Old Highway 99, the Pacific Coast Highway, came down the 4th Avenue hill.  When you reached Capitol Way, you turned left if you were headed for Portland and kept going straight if you wanted to go to Aberdeen or the ocean beaches.

Hundreds of families would travel down from Seattle and  Tacoma on the weekends to eat oysters at Ode Huston’s restaurant on Mud Bay or the Oyster House, downtown on the tide flats.

Tumwater held the biggest business in south Sound—the Olympia Brewing Company, owned by the Schmidt family. “It’s the Water’

And little Lacey was known for its racetrack, golf course and St Martins college.

The entire area was ‘off limits’ to Negro soldiers or airmen from McChord Air Base or Fort Lewis.

There were four African Americans in town……one fellow who worked at the brewery, one as a mechanic downtown, one as a window washer for businesses on main street and one domestic.

No one thought or talked about racism because there was hardly anyone to be racist towards.

Representative Charlie Stokes, a Republican from Seattle, was the only Negro in the Legislature and he had no staff..

When Democrat Sam Smith replaced Charlie, he convinced the Caucus to hire two black students to work in the bill room during the legislative sessions……………Mel Dodd and Duane Browning.  Mel and I lived together, off and on, for several years.

The only other Negro in the Legislative building was the shoe shine man on the third floor.

That was when I discovered how racist Olympia could be: Phone calls in the night: ’are you the guy who lives with the n—- ’………….’he’s the first n—- to live in this neighborhood’… click

One night when we were having dinner in Ben Moore’s café, a fellow at an adjoining table challenged us. ’would you and those two n—-s like to fight your way out of here tonight’.

That was the Olympia that John Grace arrived to.

John was born in Perry, Georgia in 1931. Before he arrived here, he had already graduated from the Georgia Academy for the Blind, and the School for Piano Technology in Vancouver, Washington. He arrived in South Sound on the bus on October 15, 1962 and found a room at the old Governor Hotel[.]

John opened his piano shop at 215 Capitol Way, as time went by and soon his reputation flourished as people recognized that he was the best in town, when it came to pianos.

John was the same then as he is now.  A friendly, outgoing fellow, who walked all over town and made friends on every corner. Although totally blind, he seldom used his cane, and he met many folks who just stopped to help him across the street. His music made him an ambassador for friendship and he was the first Negro to cross the threshold of many Caucasian owned homes.

John would take the bus to Portland on Sunday mornings to go to church.  He was not welcome in Olympia churches even though they always called on him to tune their pianos.  As time went by, he and some others decided it was time for ‘their’ church in Olympia and on the first Sunday in June, 1975, New Life Baptist Church was born at the YWCA.  John was the one who gave the church its name.

So today we honor John Grace, Olympia’s first black business owner in our times and a true ambassador of friendship for our community.

Virgil Clarkson was born in Houston, Texas. Although not part of the ‘deep south’ Texas was fully segregated. He graduated from Texas Southern University, a black institution of higher learning, in 1953 with a degree in Math and Physics.   He was inducted into the Army  and sent to Europe to serve his country. It was there that he accidentally met Dr. Martin Luther King one evening, when he had traveled across the Atlantic to receive his Nobel Prize.

Virgil mustered out of the Army in 1965 at Fort Lawton in Seattle, and saw a job opening with the State Department of Natural Resources in Olympia. His friends urged him not to apply.  They knew the Olympia was a racist town.

Virgil applied and was accepted. He was hired by Gene Little, a member of the First United Methodist church.

On his second day here, he went looking for other Negroes in the community,  and discovered that there weren’t any. He checked the train station, the bus station, the downtown area, none that he could find.  He realized then that he was the first, or one of the first

When a better job opened up at the State Department of Highways, he applied.  Virgil soon realized that the Highway Department had 6000 employees and only six of them were African American.  One was Jim Wilson, who became a lifetime friend.

Things were not always pleasant.  One morning he opened his desk drawer and found a carefully tied and prepared noose laying on top of his paperwork.  Around the same time, Jim Wilson opened a drawer in his desk and found human feces inside.  The threats were subtle but direct.

Virgil found that he was not welcome in any of the local Baptist churches and because of friends who welcomed him, became a member of the First United Methodist Church, where he remains an active member today.

His accomplishments are many.  Founder of ‘open housing ordinances’ for Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, and Thurston County.  Active member of Kiwanis, leader of the Elks clubs, active in the opera society, five times on the Lacey Council, three times as Mayor, 20 years as member and chair of the Selective Service Board, on the Fair Board. The list goes on and on.

Virgil, the First United Methodist church is proud to have you as a member.

When Lynden Johnson began his first elected term of office, he declared a ‘war’ on poverty.  Money flowed to the states to open up offices and hire organizers to ‘fight poverty at the local level.’

The state office of Economic Opportunity was located on the second floor of the Hotel Olympian, on Legion Street in downtown Olympia.  They began to hire minorities and urged other state agencies to do so as well.

The deputy director for the office was John Finley from Yakima. He and his lovely wife Sylvia moved to the capitol city and began looking for a home.  The only house in Olympia that the realtors would show him was the little red house on Water Street that is now the ‘Swing’ restaurant.  That home had no neighbors.

They eventually found a home in Lacey.

John worked hard and Sylvia volunteered to help get the first library started for the Lacey community.  The local Moose Club heard of her work and invited her to one of their meetings to accept their thanks and a check to help the library grow.

It was a dark and rainy night, when Sylvia Finley was to visit the club and accept the check.  When she arrived at the door on Pacific Avenue, the club members realized that she was a Negro and she was denied entrance to the building.

Racism seemed to be everywhere.  Cities were erupting with protests, fires and anger. Militant blacks stormed into our Governor’s office in the Legislative Building and turned over every desk, emptied the files on the floor and defiantly told the staff: ’we’ll be back!’

Headlines screamed from Tacoma, Seattle, Pasco, Portland of the protests and confrontations.  Fires were set in our central cities and when the fire trucks rolled from the station, their all white teams of firefighters were shot at.

It was an awful time.

In the midst of it all, a courageous woman stepped forward to ask a question.  ‘Why isn’t every child, a wanted child?’ Why can’t I as the proven mother of four wonderful children, adopt a minority child who waits and waits for a family.

Barbara Babcock Dolliver was born and raised in Auburndale, Massachusetts.  After high school graduation, she decided to attend Swarthmore College and it was there that she met her husband to be James Dolliver.

The traveled together to follow Jim’s dream of working in a National Park in the American West and ended up in Everett, Washington.  Jim was a deputy prosecutor and active in politics.  They both ‘hooked their star’ to a young legislator from Seattle named Dan Evans and followed him to the Governor’s office where Jim became the Chief of Staff in 1965.

Barbara was a homemaker, a good mother and a school volunteer.  She raised Beth, James, Peter and Keith and as the civil rights wars broke out, she decided to step into the fray in her own way.

Barbara decided to speak up for women’s rights and to ‘legitimize adoption of a minority child’   There were no press releases, no public statements, no announcements on the courthouse steps.

No, instead, one day she just appeared to us all with a new baby.  And as we unwrapped the little baby blanket over this precious child’s face. We all realized what she had done.

Barbara Babcock Dolliver had broken the barrier.  This wonderful little bundle of joy was a Negro child.  And I must say, that Jennifer was the sweetest baby that I have ever seen.

Barbara, the First United Methodist church is honored by your presence. And finally, two of the finest people in the world.  We will present them together.


Thelma Ann Harrison was born in Mobile, Alabama and graduated from Blount High School. From there she decided to seek a bio chemistry degree at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  In her sophomore year she met Nathaniel Jackson and they were married in 1966 at the Friendship Baptist Church.

Nat was from Lillie, Louisiana and while attending Southern University, he fell head over heels in love with Thelma.  He was an activist and found himself in Chicago in 1965, helping to organize a rally at the huge Soldiers Field for Dr. Martin Luther King.  Marion Anderson was there to sing, Dick Gregory to tell jokes, and Dr King to speak.

When he returned to college, he accepted a job working for the Southwest Alabama Farmers Co-op and was assigned to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of the ‘old south.’  Marion was the hometown of Coretta King, Dr. King’s wife.  His challenge was to organize a visit of Dr. King to Marion.

He soon found that a job that should be easy, was darn tough. Many blacks did not want Dr. King to come.  Things were peaceful and some didn’t want to ‘rock the boat.’  One black man at a local church organizing meeting challenged him.’

‘What are you n—- s up to’

’Things are fine here’

Nat and his team prevailed.  Dr. King did come…the crowd was large, the message was good.

Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 60 days later.

Thelma Jackson was recruited to come to Richland, Washington to work as a research scientist  for Battelle Northwest. Nat followed her here and took a job working with black youth in the adjoining city of Pasco.  Soon they both found themselves involved in numerous community activities and they met Art Fletcher, the founder of the East Pasco Co-op and later a national civil rights leader.

Nat Jackson was recruited to come to Olympia, Washington to work with the State office of Economic Opportunity in Olympia.

They bought a house in Lacey and Thelma became involved in the Lydia Hawk Elementary School PTA.  She later became their President and she committed her life to seeking equality through education.

Thelma was elected to the North Thurston School Board, and subsequently has served as President for five terms.  She was active in the State School Directors Associations and became their president.  She has served as chair of the Evergreen State College Board of Trustees, first Chair of the Washington Legislative Ethics Board, as a member of the State Advisory Committee on Vocational Education, the League of Women voters. The list goes on and on. She is the mother of three beautiful children and the grandmother of four.

Nat worked on extending affirmative action as a statewide issue, went on Governor Evans’ personal staff setting goals for minorities and women, helped to establish the office of Minority in Women’s Rights, and was a founder of New Life Baptist Church.

Nathaniel and Thelma Jackson have made southern Puget Sound a better place to live.  The First United Methodist church is pleased to honor them today.

I asked each of our honorees who else helped.  Who were the Olympia heroes of this effort?  The names that they gave me are as follows:

Jim and Barbara Dolliver

Warren Flanigan of the Olympia School District

Gene Little of the Methodist church and the Department of Natural Resources

Gil Olson of Reliable Steel

Percy Bean of Olympia Hardware

First United Methodist Church

New Life Baptist, after it was formed by Henry Marshall


George Barner, retired County Commissioner and now Port Commissioner

Al Thompson, a local realtor

Virgil Adams, a local realtor

This is a bit of history about some of my heros.



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Zindt: Memories of Olympia in the 1920s and 1930s

by Mary Zindt

My brothers and I spent the summers doing farm chores. A hike to McAllister Springs was always included during summer vacation. It was about two miles from home. We went through a tunnel under Old Pacific Highway and then on a trail to the pristine, beautiful springs.

This natural gushing fountain of crystal clear water flowed over colorful pebbles to form McAllister Creek. Nature had landscaped this area with vine maple trees, salmon berry bushes and smaller plants. In the Fall, hordes of salmon fought their way upstream to this place to spawn.

An elderly man, Mr. King, boarded and roomed with us for a while. One day he took me to Olympia to see the parade of Circus animals up 4th Avenue. The elephants were huge! We didn’t to go to the circus and returned home.

In 1925 my family moved to a wooded 10 acres along a 2-lane gravel road (now Sleater-Kinney Road). I had just graduated from the 8th grade from McAllister School. There was seasonal work at the Olympia Canning Co. (peeling pears by hand, operating apple peeling machine, etc.) Many women worked there, many as young as I (18).

My education had been disrupted. One day I decided that I would like to attend Business College. We didn’t have funds for this. However, an uncle in Chicago said he would help. Daily transportation was not available. Pacific Highway was about a mile away. But somehow I managed. My day had secured a contract hauling U.S. mail by truck from the Nisqually Railroad Station to Olympia. He left home at midnight and returned in late morning. On Thursday afternoons he made a trip from the Olympia Post Office to Shelton Post Office in his Hudson touring car. Sometimes I would skip an afternoon class and enjoy the tour to Shelton.

The country was still in a deep Depression. As I became proficient at typing and shorthand I found temporary work. Carlton Sears had four Rexall Drug Stores in Olympia. The main store was at Capitol Way and 5th Avenue where I worked half days “jerking” sodas at the lunch counter and helping Mrs. Sears with bookkeeping in the office upstairs. Later on there was a half day job at the Ready Mix Concrete plant in the Port of Olympia area. The office was in a trailer (two small rooms), but no restrooms!!

The foundation of our new house was concrete from this Ready Mix plant.

By this time I had purchased my first car, a used Pontiac sedan. The Washington State Licensing Department was giving a test for typists. I passed the test and was hired.

The typewriter in the Department was partly electric (there was a carriage return button and lever for advancing the carriage to the next blank form). An early version of the electric typewriter?

Finally my employment became more permanent. I now had enough income to repay my uncle. Besides the monetary assistance, it encouraged me on my life’s journey, an impetus moving me forward at a time the United States was experiencing a deep Depression.

Mary Zindt was born in 1910 in DuPont, WA to Catherine and Emil Zindt, one of the first babies born in DuPont. Emil worked for the DuPont Powder Company which had come to DuPont in 1909. The first lived in DuPont, then moved to a house on Reservation Road.

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Bret: Living with the Pioneers

Living with the Pioneers

by Elizabeth Bret with photographs from her personal collection,

When I was asked to write about what it  was like living with the Percivals I wasn’t sure how to begin.  I was six years old when we left Santa Monica, my mother driving me and  my 15 year old brother Ross  in our car stuffed with our possessions up to my grandparents house on Water Street. It was 1931. My grandmother had visited us several times in California.  She had told me stories of Olympia and my grandfather and I was excited to see  “Grandmama” again and to meet  “Granddaddy” for the first time .

My great grandfather, Captain Sam W. Percival, had forsaken the sea in 1853 to become an entrepreneur of several businesses in the new little town.  When my grandfarther  John Percival was  16 he was put in  charge of running one of them, the  Percival’s dock, which he did for the rest of his life. But that is another story. Another sea captain from England, Charles Grainger, had settled in Olympia around the same time. His daughter, Elizabeth, was my grandmother. John and Elizabeth had two daughters, my aunt Marjorie and my mother Lorraine.


As we drove up to the curb in front of the house on Water Street, between 16th and 17th, both grandparents came out to greet us along with a bald man who my mother seemed to know. He was introduced as Mr. Rankin.  It was many years later my brother told me the Rankins had been  friends of my grandparents.  Mrs. Rankin had died and my grandparents had  invited him to stay with them until he resettled. As it turned out he stayed for thirty years until he died a few years after we arrived on the scene.

My grandfather looked exactly like the pictures I see of him today.  Always dressed in a suit  with a rather high starched shirt collar and often a bow tie.  His thick steel grey hair parted in the middle, topped a kindly face.  I started babbling to him and following him around the house when my grandmother told me that he was deaf and could not hear me.   I soon learned  If I shouted he could hear me and he could hear if adults spoke loudly.  In those days hearing aids were monstrous  ineffective contrivances.

My grandmother had the erect posture of the Victorian woman. How one walked  was a judging point in her eyes. An accolade for someone would be “She has beautiful carriage.”  Because I was tall she was constantly admonishing me for any sign of slumping   She resembled the Queen Mother Mary of England, grandmother of the current Queen.  I’m sure she was aware of it.  She wore the small pillbox style hats Queen Mary wore.   Her long white hair swept up in a French twist at  the back of her head. intensified her sparkling blue eyes.   I have a picture of her in her early nineties still standing tall and straight in her black suit and the pill box hat, looking very formidable although she was only about five foot five.


Mrs John Percival  in her late eighties

Mrs John Percival  in her late eighties


We quickly adjusted to the household routine.  Every morning Granddaddy would  put on his hat and swinging his cane would go for a jaunty walk down Capitol Way to the dock.  At lunchtime he would go to the Olympia Oyster House for his favorite oyster stew.  In the late afternoon he would take the bus back (uphill) and first thing  would open a can of salmon to feed his cat, Smokey. Can you imagine! Occasionally on Fridays he would come home with a bucket of Olympia oysters for our dinner. After dinner he would play solitaire at the dining room table. Later he would teach me to play checkers on the chess table.  I wasn’t very good and he would chuckle as he won the game.



Capt. Sam W. Percival House Taken 8-8-1888 at 8 o’clock

My brother, who loved boats, went with him often to his office, the  walls of which were completely covered with photos of various ships.   My brother had worked months building a scale model of Old Ironsides. the USS Constitution.  My grandfather took it to his office and  Noyes Talcott, a friend of my mother’s, displayed it in his jewelry shop window when the famous ship came to Olympia on its world tour.


Grandmama  began working on my manners which weren’t up to her standards yet and soon had me visit her friend Mrs. Lord up the street a few blocks to “the Lord Mansion” (the current state capitol museum) to test out the manners lesson.         “Remember when she comes in the room, you stand up and don’t sit down until she does. When I introduce you you say how do you do, Mrs. Lord” .and look at her face.  After passing that, table manners came next. First the cutlery and when to use it and other esoteric skills, such as  slicing off the top of a soft boiled egg in an egg cup.  To this day I  can put a Samurai to shame with my egg topping.

Mrs. Lord’s daughter lived in California so I apparently substituted for her grand daughter.  She would occasionally invite me to stay the night especially on Hallowe’en when she opened her house to all children to come in and perform…. dance, recite something, play the piano, whatever.  Any effort was rewarded with a small present –mostly candy.  In the summer time she would move to her summer house near Butler’s Cove just south of the Country Club. Once my grandmother and I were invited for dinner and I was to spend the night.  After dessert  her maid carried  in  a silver tray with one stick of gum on it for Mrs. Lord.  I was not allowed to chew gum so this was impressive but Grandmama explained the doctor had prescribed it for her digestion.


The ‘Darning Club” met on a regular basis. The women had been friends since young brides.  Besides Mrs. Lord was Mrs. Ingham, Mrs. Mills (Mills Funeral Home) Mrs. Bridges, and several others whose names I cannot remember.  They would meet at each others houses and have lunch and then darn or sew and chat away the afternoon.  On the days  Grandmama was hostess Granddaddy left earlier than usual and I played outside with the kids from the neighborhood..  However I was expected to come in  and speak to each of the ladies.  I remember once they were discussing a book , “Oil for the Lamps of China.”

When the  club met in a house on the bay I was always invited to come too and go swimming and bring a friend.  If the house wasn’t within walking distance  Mrs. Lord, who had a chauffeur named Ben, would pick us up.  Grandmama also played bridge with some other ladies  on a regular basis.  Through the prism of childhood it seems life in those days was more leisurely.  The depression was the reason  given for my not having some things I dearly wanted…..a Shirley Temple doll, a bike, otherwise I wasn’t aware of the turmoil in the country . The occasional “tramp” (today we call them homeless)  would appear asking for food and my grandmother would fix a sack lunch for him. We never saw “tramps” otherwise. They kept to the woods and the railroad tracks.  Once a very old lady came to the door selling packages of needles for ten cents.  My grandmother was very distressed about that.

Grandmama wasn’t  a great cook.  When my mother was growing up their home had been somewhere where the capitol grounds are today. They had a Chinese man named Toy who did the cooking and a lot of other things. But he had gone back to China “to die.”  So we had English fare…..roast beef or lamb and lots of peas with mint sauce and creamed potatoes.

After my mother moved to Seattle  I spent every school vacation with my grandparents until in high school when I had a summer job.  My brother meanwhile at age 17 had shipped out on a Luckenbach merchant ship helped by my grandfather and was gone for a year. As the war built up he became a merchant seaman,

There were a number of items in the house, a chest, some chairs and the piano  with red satin behind the delicate wooden carving on the front which had “come around the horn,”which meant they had come by ship around South America from   Massachusetts, from Captain Sam’s and Lurana’s  home.   It had great significance to them.  I started piano lessons from Mrs. Partlow and I practiced and practiced on that piano. It was sadly out of tune.  Granddaddy  had been in the Olympia Band as a young man and had been  quite a musician so was lucky to be deaf  and not suffer the twanging.  But not deaf enough apparently.  One vacation I came back and he had tuned the piano and was so pleased I  had noticed, when I shouted “thank you for fixing the piano!” As a footnote I ended up with the piano in California and kept it in storage until the owner of Denny’s Restaurants bought  it since he was a collector of antique musical instruments.

On Thursday  Grandaddy  would leave after dinner and go to the movie theater downtown. They had hearing impaired devices of some sort and they had a game, maybe Bingo, which  he played. I don’t recall his ever winning anything.

On Sunday my grandmother would take me with her as she walked to the  Episcopal Church which was where the current Baptist Church is now I believe.  She always sat in  “the Percival pew” which was next to the window with a brass plaque  honoring Sam’s wife Lurana.

There were two things I can think of that totally upset my Grandmother. One was the tearing down of the original Sam W. Percival home at the east end of 4th Street Bridge in 1937. It had even once served as the temporary Governor’s manse.  And the other was newspaper stories about Wallis Simpson who was marrying the Prince of Wales. She never spoke her name, only referring to her as “that woman” for ever more.

As W.W. II was developing overseas, my grandparents would sit by the radio (my grandfather cupping his ear) after dinner, in order to hear Edward R. Murrow reporting from London  with the sounds of the bombs dropping  in the distance and  in his sonorous voice …”and that’s it from London, good night and good luck”.


I wish I knew so much more about my grandparents.  If only I could ask those questions today. Therefore  my memories are from conversations overheard. One was how Sam Percival had been logging on Squaxin Island for his mill at Tumwater and had fallen from a tree breaking  his leg.  The Indians had bundled him up in a blanket and paddled him home by canoe , bringing him up to the house and unrolling the blanket on the floor.

Once I heard them speak about Lurana Percival’s  walk across the isthmus of Panama when returning to Olympia from  Massachusetts. Her sister had died in childbirth.  Lurana, carrying the newborn baby, chose to cut out the arduous five month trip around the horn and  instead rode a mule and walked  through the jungles and heat to catch a boat on the other coast.  But that  too, is another story.

Another  was about the time Grandmama and her two daughters were  on the steamship,The Queen, when it caught fire off  the entrance to the Columbia River. It was February 1904.They were returning home from a trip to California.  Everyone was ordered off the ship but my grandmother refused and stayed in their cabin until the captain came to her and said “Mrs Percival, I will charge you with mutiny unless you leave the ship.”  The daughter of a ship’s captain understood that and they went to the lifeboats.  As luck would have it the boat tipped over as it was being lowered throwing them all in the water.  As they clung to an oar for quite some time in the icy water my grandmother admonished the two girls to stop crying and to act with  bravery. Obviously they were rescued but fourteen others were not so lucky


My grandfather died at age 82 in 1942. It was only then after reading the editorial in the Daily Olympian dedicated to my grandfather that I realized who the Percivals were and the part they played in the development of Olympia. It mentioned the honor and integrity of those days when contracts were sealed with a handshake and the part John Percival and the Percival dock had played in the history of Olympia along with the other early pioneers. There were more stories about him in the Marine Magazines calling him “the Dean of the Sound.”  While reading old books and papers I have come to admire the toughness and fortitude, the character and ethics of those early citizens who created “our town.”

After several years my grandmother sold the house and went to live in Los Angeles with my aunt Marjorie and came home to Olympia in the summers  to  the Olympian Hotel traveling back and forth on a Greyhound bus.   There were still some of the Darning Club left .  We exchanged letters weekly and she would write of an active social life going to a “sherry tea” or  luncheons .

I lived in California then and luckily my children had a chance to know their beloved “GiGi,”  now in her early nineties.   She came to visit us often  and always arrived bringing  gingerbread men from  Van de Camp’s bakery. She continued to read and keep up with the news. Our friends enjoyed her company. We would ask her to stay and linger longer  but she would go back to L.A. saying she wouldn’t outstay her welcome.   She died in L.A. in 1962 at age 98.

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Goforth: Home Again in Olympia

By J. Pennelope Goforth

Everyone looks so much younger, the trees grown much taller, and there’s acres more development. These are a few of the things I noticed when I returned to Olympia after years of travel and living in Mexico, Canada, and Alaska. I wondered if I would feel at home again here. Altered yet still recognizable, Olympia 2009 retains the quaint rain forest town atmosphere of Olympia 1972 when I first called it home.

A young single mother of two toddlers I arrived in the spring of 1972 dressed in my Seattle city garb: a polyester dress, platform sandals and post 60s bouffy hair. A student at Seattle Community College on Broadway I had come at a girlfriend’s suggestion to check out transferring to a new innovative college located in Olympia. Each weekday I boarded the half-empty bus from West Seattle to downtown, worked through the morning work rush hour from First Avenue to Third and Union where I transferred to a standing room only trolley for the brief ride to Capitol Hill.

The college occupied several buildings along Broadway, the largest being the venerable old stone Broadway High School on the corner of Broadway and East Pine Street. My head was spinning from the typical college regimen of an hour of algebra on Tuesdays and Thursday followed by an hour of Medieval Literature then Macro Economics. Monday and Wednesdays began with work study in the library and ended with English. I felt like I was in a knowledge processing factory flitting from one discontinuous task to another in the ancient bowels of the 1902 stone colossus. My friends talk of independent study contracts with a single advisor within a coherent topical field in a modern new campus in the woods outside of West Olympia sounded like the Promised Land.

But first I had to find it. On a sunny spring-break day, leaving the children with my mother and lunch packed by my grandmother, I started out on a fact-finding mission that was to change my life forever. Driving the nearly new I-5 was the easy part; past the spacious Nisqually Valley nothing but Douglas firs, cedar, cottonwoods and maples ruled the landscape on either side of the smooth four lane highway. One nod to civilization on the top of the hill was the aromatic landfill with flocks of wheeling seagulls.

Taking the Capitol Way exit into downtown Olympia I entered pioneer Washington: old-world two and three storey buildings from the Victorian Era lined the main business street; a lawn of green grass sporting great trunked trees was dwarfed by a massive stone building that proclaimed ‘government’; and the ever present threat of left-turning fully loaded logging truck trailed black diesel plumes through the town. In my 20-something mind, gone the hustle of city life, eased was the anxiety of freeway driving. I had entered the 25 mile an hour zone. Which was a good thing as most of the downtown and dock was lined with delightfully decorated storefronts. Most of the short town site blocks were unified across the various shops by a curiously long awning extending over the sidewalk.

Meandering about the town looking for the signs to the college I saw The Spar, the Brown Derby, the food coop, Radiance, Yardbirds, local mercantile stores, the charming run down port with half rotted buildings seeping back into the waters at high tide. Turned around on the one-way streets for about 20 minutes I came upon 4th Avenue and headed over the bridge to West Olympia. I slowed to a crawl to take in a spectacular view of the capitol building on the south reflected in a peaceful lake and the snowy ridge tops of the Olympic Mountains just visible in the north above the blue, blue waters of Budd Inlet.

As I attempted to follow the few signs to The Evergreen State College, West Olympia appeared on a plateau at the top of the hill above the inlet: mostly a residential suburb neatly populated with Washington’s signature wooden clapboard two story houses. Spacious porches, carved wood lattice-work at the corners, lots of yard with a profusion of flowering rhododendrons and lilacs perfuming the air. A few churches, a cluster of stores behind a two-pump gas station and, oddly enough, a music store, Yenney’s lined Harrison Street. A series of wrong turns beginning on Kaiser Road led me deep into the forest again, second growth forest with few houses but lots of farms and time silvered cedar barns.

Another wrong but charming turn down rural Black Lake Road through more endless forest interrupted by farmland, sometimes cows and horses grazing in open fields. Surely it can’t be this far out I thought, turning south, then west again in a circle back to Harrison where a small pub house stood on the left; wooden somewhat dilapidated but obviously popular by the line of logging trucks and pick ups parked out front. Finally a sign to Evergreen Parkway on the right turned into a single lane winding through the forest for some miles ending in a smallish parking lot with construction-fresh clear cut around it. From there it was a short walk on a roughed out path that dramatically ended in Red Square. Somewhat at variance with the wildness of the forest a group of poured concrete buildings, mottled with the knot holes of the plywood forms guarded the red-bricked square. A blocky unadorned very tall clock tower presided over all. Only the absence of a flag pole flying the red, white and blue indicated this was not a military fortification. Among the raw excavated piles of earth yet to be landscaped several grassy areas peppered with spring fevered students lying about in the afternoon sun softened the scene.

I won’t say it was love at first sight, but the place, like the moss on the trees thriving in the rain, it became my home for the next seven years while I lived in various places between the college and the train stop of Tenino. Following graduation and a stint as a groundskeeper for the Thurston County School District, I left for the king crabbing grounds of the Bering Sea in 1978. I was not to return to Olympia for just over 30 years.

A half a lifetime later. It doesn’t seem like much in historical perspective where the trees grow for a few hundred years, the mountains a few thousand, and the tides run eternally. I returned in the spring of 2009 to visit with my daughter, Jessica, who had just graduated that winter from Evergreen. But like my very first trip, first I had to find her.

I left Seattle on my own this time, both my mother and grandmother passed on, only the strong memories of their motherly spirits now accompanying me. The Pacific Northwest had changed superficially over the years: millions more people now lived here altering countryside and the once individual towns all along the I-5 corridor. A corridor no longer through the grand forests but through strip malls, housing developments, shopping centers, 4-story high neon casino signs, and big box store complexes… all the way down from Seattle. In Tacoma the odious stack of the mill was gone. Now the Puyallup tidelands spiked with orange and white gantry cranes. I recognized the state green and white signs for Fort Lewis and its doppelganger, No Fort Lewis. Then the familiar mossy stone train trestle that marked the gateway to Olympia, crossing the wide, mostly unchanged, Nisqually Valley.

Once over the hill I noticed the landfill must have filled up after all this time and been filled in itself. Across Martin Road, it seemed as if as if I were on my way home but someone had relandscaped while I was gone—and it was not pretty. I got stuck in an off ramp only lane by a FedEx truck and ended up on College Road, then somehow turned around on the unfamiliar welter of shops on Lacey Boulevard then circled around to Ruddle Road. We had once lived on Ruddle Road on several acres of land there with a field, huge garden and outbuildings just north of a pond called Southwick. While I didn’t think the old farmhouse we lived in would still be there, I didn’t expect that the entire area—both sides of the road— would be blanketed in cheap-looking development housing; with so many for rent and for sale signs I wondered why they had been built to begin with. The only charm left on that stretch down memory lane for me was the towering rows of evergreens creating a sheltered passage, dappled green in the afternoon sun.

The once rural two-lane road that was the Yelm Highway and Ruddle [Ruddell] Road had been lined with family farm houses, barns and cattle, gardens and fields of strawberries and Christmas tree farms. Now it morphed into one and two-story housing developments and big box stores.

Of course one of our first outings together was to the Evergreen campus, now the alma mater of both mother and daughter. We stopped downtown for a late lunch. I suggested the Spar Cafe, for old time’s sake, when I spotted it. The Spar I recalled was a popular greasy spoon ‘truck stop’ for loggers and truck drivers as well as the locals. But she said that it had new ownership, a gentrified remodel and the food wasn’t that great. It seemed most of the eateries, spaced between the equally numerous coffee shops, were an ethnic blend of Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Italian. The familiar buildings seemed rundown a bit with a brightly painted mural here and there among the many empty storefronts with for lease signs. A young grunge-looking populace walked the tree-lined streets, sitting outside at coffee houses, or browsing 2nd hand book and clothing stores. They resembled the hippies of the 1960s sporting tattoos and neon hair. An antique dealer cluttered up the sidewalk with rickety old wooden chairs and racks of tattered finery on just about every block. Even one of my other favorite restaurants, The Brown Derby—where legislators, aides and lobbyists sat at the long breakfast bar with the hippies from TESC—had been transformed into a ‘junque’ shop. Still, old Mr. Schoenfeld’s furniture store and the aromatic Radiance herbal and massage place—a shocker for the more staid Olympians when it first opened in the early 1970s—along with the timeless YMCA and the theater on 5th Avenue held fast; remnants of a time of family-owned and operated businesses when you knew the people who ran the store and sharing news was as much a part of running errands as was the shopping. That spirit seemed alive and thriving as my daughter did exactly that with the clerks at Radiance and the waiter at the hole in the wall restaurant. We had Pacific Northwest comfort food: a fresh grilled salmon sandwich that told me home is where you can get your favorite food.

We stopped at the artesian well to fill her water container; it’s now surrounded by garish yellow concrete blocks and a black painted wall mural in a Diamond Parking lot in the middle of town. Then onto a quick drive through of the port area north of downtown. It seems the heart of serious shopping in Olympia has moved to a gentrified farmers market and the surrounding new shopping buildings. The old food co-op is gone but another tightly packed natural foods marketplace now perches on a hill above Pacific Street. Some of the industrial lumber ways and sawmills that once flourished on the gradually filled in tide flats north of downtown have given way to a marine park called Swantown with the nearly identical looking boat repair yard that I recalled. It also sported a new maritime version of a gated community with locked fences across catwalks down to the fingers of an upscale marina packed with $100,000+ sailboats and yachts fronted by a spacious parking lot. On the other side of the lot several desultory stacks of logs waited for shipment to China. Lumber was big business when I lived here; tramp steamers dating from WWII commonly docked at Olympia taking on cargos of lumber for the voracious market in Japan. Yardbirds with its huge silly yellow and black fowl perched on the building’s roof is gone now. Home Depot and Lowe’s rule here as elsewhere but they don’t evoke the same smile as the Bird. Several seriously nice looking apartment buildings, one for seniors, are now part of a new kind of pleasant urban neighborhood with nearby restaurants, coffee shops and a bakery or two. Sylvester’s Landing and the long new promenade area spanning almost the whole eastern side of the West Bay make for a pleasant walk and festival venue for the many reasons to party that Olympians are known for. (What else do rain forest dwellers do other than delve into history, read, or go to school?)

On our way across the bridge to West Olympia I was glad my daughter was at the wheel. She expertly navigated the roundabouts that looked dangerous to me. I recalled the S-curves at the bottom of that hill. I barely recognized Harrison but for Yenney’s Music and the kernel of the shopping empire that started as The Westside Shopping Mall. As we drove along Cooper Point Road we talked about our respective programs at Evergreen; her’s was psychology and mine had been a blend of media studies, physics and what then called New Age stuff like Kirlian Photography. She attended the day care center on campus that also served as an excellent Early Childhood Learning contract program. Memories of those years flooded our conversation as we pulled into the parking area. Large fluffy cedars had taken over the gravelly mounds of earth that were left in the construction wake when I first arrived.

When we got to Red Square, large native evergreens had grown up around the then bare concrete buildings softening their presence. As in other springs, students filled the many more grassy spaces enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. Even the stark clock tower seemed somewhat domesticated by the verdant greenery. The only jarring note in the natural symphony was the discordant, tortured looking trees in front of the library building. Stunted poufs of greenery capped the cut off bare stylized branches grown out of trunks with scabrous patchy looking skin. It hurt to look at them. Like the freeze-deformed spruces of Southcentral Alaska, I had the urge to put them out of their misery. They made the post-construction site ambience of my first view seem sweet, especially as it was accompanied by the gradual reclamation of the native shrubs and trees over the happy years I spent here. My daughter rolled her eyes and muttered about the ongoing controversy over the forcibly malformed trees.

We wandered around the buildings on the footpaths through the woods that are now paved, stopped at The Store, temporarily housed in a portable on the back side of a building—some things never change. Strolling through the CAB, I felt again the comfort of being in a familiar and loved place, a place that had become homey through usage and memories of camaraderie and the excitement of semester registrations. I could see in the animated faces in the ebb and flow of students and faculty around us in the foyer that the spirit of innovation and enterprise that magnetized liberal students in the post-1960s still resided here.

Jessica and I, ambled contentedly along a curving path between campus buildings. Happy in the company of my daughter, sated on local salmon, comfortable on the changing but familiar streets of Olympia, sheltered beneath the growing canopy of the rain forest, and awash in pleasant recollections I realized that I had, indeed, found my way home again, in so many ways. Just when I thought it doesn’t get much better than this, with a significant smile Jessica took me to a magical place I’d never seen before and didn’t even know existed: the Longhouse. I stood in awe at the door in front of the larger than life carving of a Native tribeswoman: her open, upturned hands extended in welcome. I felt well and truly welcomed home.

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