South Whidbey has had many changemakers over the years, but perhaps none so great as Lynn Willeford.
Community members are sharing memories of the late Willeford, who passed away on her 73rd birthday last Sunday after a three-year fight with brain cancer. She and her husband, Blake, owned and operated the Clyde Theatre in Langley, the oldest movie theater on Whidbey.
Referred to as one of the “Startup Queens” around the South End, Willeford was responsible for helping found numerous nonprofit organizations, including South Whidbey Free University, South Whidbey Community Co-op, the Back to School Program, Hearts and Hammers, Friends of Friends, Whidbey Island Local Lending, Women of Whidbey and South Whidbey at Home.
“All it takes is keeping things small, coming up with an idea that people really resonate with and being clear that the people you serve are never customers,” she told a Record reporter in 2017.
During a Women of Whidbey talk she gave in 2012, Willeford delved deeper into her “circular logic,” speaking about a sustainable model of giving and receiving that relied on neighbors helping neighbors, rather than charity.
“You’re never going to know when you’re going to be the one who’s less fortunate, when you’re going to be the one who really needs help because you’ve gotten a bad diagnosis, or you’ve been in an accident, or you’ve lost your job,” Willeford said.
“If you give everybody a way to contribute to the community safety net at some level — either through their time or their talents or their money or their friendship or their homemade chocolate chip cookies — as an exchange of equals, then you’ve created this lovely circle of joy and caring and compassion that labels no one a loser and no one a winner,” she explained.
Although not all of the organizations she either founded or co-founded still continue today, there are some that have stood the test of time, even expanding to other parts of the country. Hearts and Hammers, which Willeford began in 1994, has inspired similar home repair efforts not only county-wide but also in other states.
Marcia Wiley is longtime volunteer for Hearts and Hammers and has been involved with the organization since its first year, when Willeford asked her to be a house captain.
Wiley was also involved in South Whidbey at Home, another enduring organization Willeford created in 2015.
“It was just a marvel to me how she could have a vision of something and just pull a group of people together and start brainstorming it,” Wiley said.
“She would recognize other people’s skills, even if you didn’t recognize them yourself,” she added.
Jim Scullin, another longtime volunteer for Hearts and Hammers, said he had “box seats” to witness the goodness Willeford wove into the fabric of the life of the community.
“If I could speak with Lynn today, I would just tell her of the gratitude I have for her, for her work and this compassion and connection she wove into our community,” Scullin said.
Mary Jane Lungren, a former president of Friends of Friends Medical Support Fund, said Willeford saw a need for the organization, which was established in 1997.
“I always felt like she held everyone to high standards, but no one as much as herself,” Lungren said. “She expected a lot of herself and therefore the people around her. That’s how she got things done.”
Willeford also encouraged Lungren to volunteer as a Sunday ticket seller at the Clyde Theatre in Langley.
Ann Medlock, who collaborated with Willeford on a few occasions, referred to her as “the spirit of the Clyde.”
When she first came to Langley in 1984 from New York City, Medlock was pleasantly surprised to find an appealing schedule of movies at the theater, all in good taste and tickets reasonably priced.
“She would just go out and find the best things and bring them to that tiny little theater,” Medlock said.
Over the years, Medlock found herself entangled in some of the organizations Willeford founded. Medlock was a writer for the South Whidbey at Home newsletter and, to her astonishment, found herself climbing up on a roof and pounding shingles for Hearts and Hammers.
“If Lynn asked you to do something, the only thing you could do was salute and say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” Medlock said with a laugh.
Several other community members had colorful memories to share of the South Whidbey icon and self-starter.
Vicki Robin, a best-selling author who moved to Langley in 2005, said Willeford was her landlady and the first person she met on the island.
Robin immediately tried to befriend Willeford by inviting her on walks, and soon learned the key to their friendship was earning Willeford’s trust.
Willeford was Robin’s editor for her book, “Blessing the Hands that Feed Us.” Robin said she knew she could count on Willeford to be brutally honest about her book — which she was.
“There’s not a lot of people in my life who I let boss me around. Lynn was one of them,” Robin said. “If Lynn told me something was true, I took it as truth.”
Robin was even part of Willeford’s Women of Whidbey series.
“She was such an interesting combination of so warm and loving and yet crotchety and bossy,” Robin said with a laugh, adding that these were all things she also told Willeford.
Robin mentioned that Park Avenue, where the house she rented from Willeford is, should be renamed “Lynn Willeford Avenue” in memory of her friend.
Even Island County commissioners, both current and past, who may not have known her well had nothing but good words to speak of Willeford.
“I knew her by her legacy,” Janet St. Clair said during a recent meeting. “This was a woman who took extraordinary intelligence and passion and put it to work for her community.”
Helen Price Johnson recognized Willeford as smart, witty and no-nonsense.
“It’s hard to think of anybody else who had such a broad impact on building South Whidbey community,” Price Johnson said.