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Elsie Olkonen, Clinton’s guiding light, passes away at 92

Elsie Olkonen shares cake-cutting duty with her son, Evert Olkonen, at the 100th anniversary of the Clinton Community Hall in September. - David Welton photo
Elsie Olkonen shares cake-cutting duty with her son, Evert Olkonen, at the 100th anniversary of the Clinton Community Hall in September.
— image credit: David Welton photo

Elsie Olkonen, a cornerstone in Clinton’s foundation, went out the way she came in, with a smile on her face, her son said.

“She always had a big smile for everybody,” Evert Olkonen of Clinton said Thursday. “She looked at everybody in the ER and gave them a big smile. Twenty minutes later she was dead.

“She just didn’t want them to feel bad,” he added. “She was fighting, and they were doing their jobs.”

Elsie Olkonen, eight days shy of her 93rd birthday, died Oct. 22 at the Colby Campus of Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.

A near lifelong resident of Whidbey Island, her life and work reflected the emergence of Clinton from a backwater at the end of the ferry run to the diverse bucolic community it is today.

She was active in almost every part of the area’s formation, from community hall to library to business sector to social groups to real estate to politics.

“She was into everything,” her son said. “When people needed help, she was right there figuring out solutions to their problems. Everything she did was oriented toward helping people.”

Born Oct. 30, 1917, on the family farm in the Deer Lake area of Clinton, she graduated ahead of schedule, and at the head of the class, from Langley High School in 1934.

Through her years on the island she worked at Whidbey Telephone Company, was a newspaper reporter and spent 22 years in real estate.

She was a longtime member of Daughters of the American Revolution, Esther Moe Lodge, and was best friends with Esther Moe herself, her son said.

Her commitment to the community extended into her final weeks, when, as keeper of the founding documents of the Clinton Progressive Association, she attended the 100th anniversary last month of Clinton Community Hall.

“She was there in full smile,” Elisa Miller of the Progressive Association said Thursday. “She was a powerful leader of almost everything local.”

Her commitment to education was strong, her son said, and she led the fight to establish the Clinton Library. She’s commemorated by a carved bench out front.

And she loved to cook, Evert Olkonen said, and helped put together cookbooks to raise money for charities.

“Elsie’s smorgasbord meatballs — I’d like to franchise those,” he said.

“When Scoop Jackson came over to the house, he always asked for Swiss steak,” he added. “It was incredible, and nobody in the family could duplicate it.”

Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Everett was Evert Olkonen’s godfather, and was one of several local and regional politicians, including Sen. Warren Magnuson and Rep. Al Swift, who became close to Elsie Olkonen as a result of her dedication to the Democratic Party.

The story goes that all three showed up at a local event at the Clinton Community Hall because “they weren’t going to turn down Elsie,” her son said.

One year, she was in charge of the Democrats’ state convention, he said.

“When she ran things, she ran them,” he said. “She always wanted to go in there and solve problems. She was very good at finding compromise.”

At one point, the party wanted her to run for governor.

“They were serious about it,” Evert Olkonen said, “but dad said he’d move into the woodshed. He didn’t want to live in Olympia. She ultimately said no — family first.”

She married Al Olkonen in June 1942, and they had three children. They were proud to be Finnish, her son said, and they instilled in their children lessons learned from the Great Depression.

“They taught us to take care of others,” Evert Olkonen said. “They were an amazing generation of people.”

He said another story about his mother demonstrates her tunneled focus.

When her husband died in 1989, her son gave her a puppy named Max, a Rottweiler and black Labrador combo that grew to be 165 pounds.

Max would ride around in the backseat of Elsie Olkonen’s car as she ran errands. One day, in a big hurry, she rushed into the vet’s office to collect Max. She grabbed the leash of the first big black dog she found and put him in the car.

After several miles, the dog jumped into the front seat, which Max never did.

“You’re not Max,” she said.

“She had the wrong dog,” Evert Olkonen said. “Max was so mad, he wouldn’t look at her for days.”

A funeral service was held Friday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland, with burial in the family plot at the Clinton Cemetery. An online obituary and guestbook is at www.visserfuneralhome.com.

Remembrance donations can be made to Friends of the Clinton Library or the Clinton Progressive Association.

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