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UPDATE | Environmental activist Theresa Gandhi dies

Theresa Marie Gandhi - Jeff VanDerford / Record file
Theresa Marie Gandhi
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / Record file

Activist poet Theresa Marie Gandhi, a strong voice on environmental causes for many years on Whidbey Island and beyond, died late Sunday, Jan. 3, friends of the family reported Monday. She was 63.

Gandhi, a Clinton resident, was born in Washington and attended the University of Washington and, later, Evergreen State College.

In 1983, she married Yogesh K. Gandhi, a relative of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of India during the country’s independence movement.

The family name opened many doors to the great-grand niece-in-law of the famed Indian pacifist. She met with Pres. Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, and also frequently spoke with other national political leaders.

Gandhi had a decades-long dream of becoming a U.S. senator, and began her long career as an activist when she cajoled Washington State University to sell a co-operative preschool for $1; the building eventually became an alternative high school.

A primary focus for her activism was centered on the earth and the environment. Gandhi campaigned against Gov. Dixie Lee Ray after the Democratic governor gave support to the proposed installation of a Northern Tier Pipeline Company’s proposed pipeline in Puget Sound.

Longtime friend Debra Malmos said Gandhi will be remembered for her “hold no punches” approach in facing challenges head on. Her most recent efforts were directed toward the preservation of wildlife in Puget Sound and Whidbey’s No Spray campaign, with the objective of limiting the use of dangerous herbicides on Whidbey Island.

“Teresa was the spark plug behind the campaign to end the spraying of toxic chemicals along island roads,” recalled another close friend, Marianne Edain.

Malmos noted that Gandhi was among the 20th century’s most influential activists for environmental, social and economic justice. A prolific writer and poet, she left behind her final work, a “Bill of Rights for Planet Earth,” which was drafted in the last weeks preceding her death.

But her strident opposition to issues often carried a glimmer of levity, such as the time she chastised county commissioners over their new wetlands regulations in early 2008, a stuffed toy in the shape of a large fish under her arm as she testified.

“I’m a fish out of a wetland. My children will die, with no stream water, to grow my fry. To kill my kind, you pave its way. Do you not know the cost to you, under the ESA?”

Most recently, Gandhi had been involved in the fight against the expansion of Navy training off the coast of Whidbey and Washington state because she was worried it would harm whales and other marine life. In protest, she wrote a letter to the editor that was labeled an obit for “Granny,” the last whale on the planet, killed by the Navy’s use of sonar.

As a “Hanford Downwinder,” Gandhi had long recalled the impact that radiation exposure had on her health, including heart disease, two types of cancer and a life-long thyroid dysfunction. According to her blog, she recently suffered a long bout with the swine flu.

A family friend said Gandhi died Sunday evening from liver failure after a long-running bout with hepatitis C.

A member of the Green Party, Gandhi campaigned for Democrats on multiple occasions, but a politician’s stance on an issue was always paramount to Gandhi.

She campaigned extensively for Barack Obama for president, for example, but wrote to him in November to say she was withdrawing her support because of a White House deal with the pharmaceutical industry on the cost of prescription drugs.

A highly spiritual person, Gandhi was a reverend in the Universal Church of the Master.

As a writer, Gandhi turned to blogging in recent years, mostly on political topics.

Still, she found time to share lighter moments with those who knew her well.

Edain said Gandhi was the kind of woman who could manage to stay upbeat even when feeling gloomy. She was quite a sight in her flaming-pink straw hat.

“She could be wild and crazy at times, but she was always there for me in a pinch,” Edain recalled. “And she was the only person I knew who had a toy poodle as a legally registered service dog,” Edain said. “Shawktipaw kept her smiling and that was the service he performed.”

Gandhi’s favorite music ran the gamut from Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash to Jim Nabors and Elvis spirituals; she was also a “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” fan, but loved movies with an environmental justice bent, too, such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Silkwood.”

In fact, films held a special place in her heart.

She met her husband, Yogesh K. Gandhi, when he came to the Academy Awards presentations in Los Angeles in 1983. He had been invited as a representative of the family by the director of the film “Gandhi,” Sir Richard Attenborough.

Malmos said on Monday that Theresa Gandhi was an exponent of unconditional love.

“She never spoke unkindly about those around her,” she said. “She was passionate about life and was always looking ahead to the next giggle.”

Plans for a memorial service on Whidbey will be announced later.

Record editor Brian Kelly contributed to this story.

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