People began to cheer when former state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen entered the room.
“We are here for a single purpose, to thank Mary Margaret Haugen for serving this community,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.
Approximately 100 residents from all over Whidbey Island descended upon the Coupeville Recreation Hall Wednesday to thank Haugen for her decades of service representing the 10th Legislative District, which represents Island County and parts of Skagit and Snohomish counties.
With all of her political accomplishments — the creation and passage of the Growth Management Act, requiring health insurers to include mammograms as basic coverage, funding hundreds of projects through gas tax increases, creating the Office of Farmland Preservation and the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation just to name a few — Haugen still found time to connect with her constituents.
“She has a remarkable gift to make everyone she comes into contact with feel like the most important person in the room,” Price Johnson said.
Even with her busy schedule, she would always remember birthdays, anniversaries, and find the time to send out thank you cards.
Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard and Price Johnson both agreed Haugen served as mentor for them when they started serving in local government. Both said they sought her advice.
“I would not be where I am today without this woman,” Price Johnson said.
“She is a personal mentor for me.”
Haugen was called to the stage and presented with a surprise to honor her years of service: a rhododendron named after her.
Frank Fujioka, a hybridist at Meerkerk Gardens, created the hybrid rhododendron and registered it internationally with the Royal Horticultural Society in May.
When selecting a rhododendron to be named after Haugen, Fujioka said he had a few thoughts on what qualities it should embody.
“I wanted it to bloom heavily and for it to be reliable,” Fujioka said.
The rhododendron Haugen received is the 10-year-old parent that was used for the first Mary Margaret Haugen hybrid rhododendron.
Touched by the gesture, Haugen dabbed her eyes with a tissue and cracked a joke about her sensitive nature.
“My five older brothers used to say my bladder was behind my eyes,” Haugen said.
Haugen graciously accepted the rhododendron and said she could not thank everyone enough for their support over the past 30 years.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Haugen said. “I was your advocate in Olympia.”
She also spoke about supporting the bill to legalize gay marriage in the state.
Haugen said her grandchildren told her they believe it was one of the most important things she has ever done.
“The people on this island challenged me, and I couldn’t have done it without them,” Haugen said.
Haugen said she is proud of her political career and it was the constituents who made that possible.
At the end of the ceremony, people mingled and visited with Haugen, catching up like old friends over coffee, pie and ice cream.
She made her way around the room, making sure she talked to everyone who came to honor her.
“I miss the people most,” Haugen said about her days in public office.