Oak Harbor’s official cheerleader will cheer no more.
Helen Chatfield-Weeks passed away June 22 in the city that she loved and championed for so long. She will be remembered for her boundless energy, her optimism and her selflessness. She helped set the direction of the community through decades of volunteerism, advocacy and enthusiastic “hip, hip hoorays” at city gatherings.
Chatfield-Weeks was 97 years old.
“We lost a true community icon,” former Mayor Patty Cohen said.
“Her exuberance for ‘community’ could hardly be contained,” she added. “She had a laugh always recognizable no matter the size of the gathering. You absolutely knew when Helen was ‘in the building.’”
Jim Slowik, also a former mayor, remembers presenting Chatfield-Weeks with a plaque during a 2011 council meeting naming her the city’s official cheerleader.
“She was always happy, upbeat and positive,” he said. “She always looked on the bright side. It was clear that she just loved the Oak Harbor community.”
For decades, Chatfield-Weeks was an omnipresent force for good in the city.
She helped save the historic Neil water tower, served as president of the Navy League and the American Association of University Women, helped keep the Holland Happening celebration going, led the Irish Wildlife Society, volunteered on the city parks board, was an outspoken member of a committee to build a new pier, ran for city council, was active at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, sang and danced at Whidbey Playhouse productions, among countless other activities.
“She did so many things in her life,” her son Tom Chatfield said. “We’re still discovering all the things she’s done.”
Born Helen Fryer, in El Paso, Texas, she attended Northwestern University in Illinois and received a degree in speech alongside the likes of Charleton Heston and Patricia Neal, according to a speech she gave at the Yacht Club. She went in to become a radio host and met Tony Martin, Jane Russell and even Edward R. Murrow. She was part of a radio association that was invited to tea with President Harry Truman and his wife Bess.
Helen Fryer met Lt. James Chatfield in Texas and was married in 1948, starting a family and a life of exciting overseas travel. She recalled living in Italy and attending many parties at the home of Fiat president Gionanni Agnelli.
Unfortunately, James Chatfield was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in 1969, leaving his wife living in the Seattle area with six children, ages 3 to 18.
One day, as she told the story, she told everyone to pack up and she started driving north, not sure where she was headed. She saw a roadside sign for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and made the turn. She ended up in Oak Harbor and started a new life.
Tom Chatfield remembers his mother working for a radio station and then as a reporter and photographer for the Skagit Valley Herald for 18 years, covering local government and the Navy base. As a reporter, she flew with the Blue Angels in 1982 and covered countless Navy homecomings. In retrospect, he said, it was truly amazing that she was able to raise her children as a single mother, work two jobs and still have time to pick him up from football practice.
“She had one of those old-school type writers,” he recalled. “I remember her typing late at night. She had that thing going so fast.”
Chatfield-Week’s granddaughter, Lauren Steinbrecher, said she followed in her grandmother’s journalistic footprints and became a reporter at the NBC station in Salt Lake City.
After her children were grown, Helen Chatfield met a woodworker named Charlie Weeks and in time added a hyphen to her last name. She survived the passing of a second husband and continued to apply her boundless energy to improving the community.
“She went through a good number of husbands, and I personally admired her stamina and stick-to-itness!” Cohen joked.
Her community repeatedly honored Chatfield-Weeks for her contributions over the years while remaining in awe of her energy that didn’t seem to wane in her elder years.
Chatfield-Weeks’ photos chronicling life in Oak Harbor were displayed in 2012 when she was honored by the Island County Historical Society for her work preserving Whidbey’s history. In 2014, she was named grand marshal of the Holland Happening parade. There is a Garry oak tree planted in her honor in Smith Park.
“I believe her celebrated and infamous high-five kick in the air at every public event will be dearly missed,” Cohen said.