Gary Putney

Known as the John Wayne of South Whidbey, Gary Putney has left behind a legacy that means so much to so many in our community. Since the late ‘70s, Gary Putney and his wife Diana have logged thousands of hours building and maintaining the Goss Lake Wood trails once overseen by the Department of Natural Resources. Steps from his home on Keller Road, the woods became Putney’s one true passion.

Gary Lynn Putney passed away quietly at home Sunday, Nov. 12, surrounded by family in a room just 100 feet from the closest trailhead to Goss Lake Woods.

In what Diana describes as a “war with cancer,” Gary battled through several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation since spring 2005. He was 67.

Problem solver

Gary was the kind of person who sought solutions to help a great many people on South Whidbey.

When trails were needed, the Putneys built them, blazing most of the trails in Goss Lake Woods and most recently mapping and building the connector to Saratoga Woods. When equestrians needed an easily accessed parking area at the Woods, Gary Putney lobbied the county to consider a large parking lot on Lone Lake Road. When Boy Scouts needed help with their Eagle Scout projects, Putney nudged them along, helping them find resources to build their kiosks at the woods. When garbage piled up along the trails, Putney made sure the woods were cleaned up. Putney built benches and trail signs, installed picnic tables and pruned back salal, huckleberry and Himalayan blackberry bushes.

If a tree came down across the trail, it was Putney’s chainsaw you could hear off in the distance. Equestrians, mountain bikers and trail runners, alike, appreciated his quick post-storm responses. He beat everyone to the clean-up effort up until last year when cancer slowed his pace.

“He would carry that huge chainsaw over his back,” Diana said. “He would never carry it on his horse because he was always afraid that it could have hurt the animals in the event something happened.”

Of course, the Putneys acknowledge the many volunteers who accompanied them throughout the years, although most volunteers know the Putneys were the catalyst for many of the projects out there. And you can’t forget the one animal who carried Gary Putney most: Lulu, the white mule, whose incredible size was one of only a few things that made Gary’s 6-foot-2 inch frame seem average.

“Gary Putney was a fine man, a stalwart fellow, the perfect neighbor, and he had a big heart,” wrote Kirk Francis, who worked building trails with Gary, in an e-mail to his Goss Lake Woods neighbors. “He was everything John Wayne should have been, and much more. Think about him and all that he did the next time you’re walking in those woods that he so loved.”

Terri Arnold, Island County Parks superintendent, agreed.

“The caliber of talent and dedication Gary brought to the Backcountry Horsemen and Island County Parks is irreplaceable in my book,” Arnold said.

“He was a one-of-a-kind guy who will be sorely missed in this community. I am thankful for the legacy Gary left at Goss Lake Woods, what a gift he was to all of us,” she said.

Raised a city boy

One would have thought Putney was raised on the back of a horse, but his upbringing was far from that of a cowboy.

He was born on Nov. 11, 1939, in Seattle to Frank and Ester Putney. He grew up on Queen Anne Hill, with his childhood days spent riding his single-speed bike up and down the hills to the one-room school house or violin lessons. He grew up fast; reaching 6-foot-2 in seventh grade. He was forbidden to play football due to his towering height. Using his bike-built muscular legs, he took up figure skating and even performed in the Ice Capades, sometimes dressed as a clown and once dressed in Vaudeville-style drag.

After high school Putney joined the United State Coast Guard, taking a tour in Vietnam during the war. He came home to the Seattle area where he was stationed in Westport for a time.

During that time he met Diana and the two fell head over heels for each other.

“I thought it was a set up when Gary arrived at my door in a suit,” Diana said. “I fell for him right then and there, but the clincher was when he went to my parent’s house in Yakima for the first time.”

Animal lover

Gary wasn’t raised with a host of animals like Diana was. In fact, he never had a pet. When Diana brought Gary out to Yakima for the first time, he took instantly to the horses and even hitched them up correctly without saying a word. Diana didn’t know that he had no prior experience with horses.

“Just the way he responded to the animals, I knew he was an animal lover,” she said.

Since horses were a huge part of Diana’s life, she bought him a saddle for their first Christmas together.

“I figured he better know that horses were going to be a big part of his life, too.”

In this case the saddle came years before the horse.

They married April 8, 1972, and dragged their saddles from Westport to Seattle. They finally came to Whidbey when they decided to move into a house once owned by Diana’s grandfather, Arvid Larson. Gary had already retired from the Coast Guard and had taken a year-long farrier class.

When Diana’s parents, Jim and Betty Eakin, decided to move back into the house, Diana and Gary found their patch of heaven on Keller Road. It was a humble home, mostly built with planks and Visquine.

In the evenings, Gary Putney rebuilt their home overlooking their pond and pastures.

Since the late ‘70s, Putney held a few jobs on South Whidbey. He was a chef at the Islander (now Hong Kong Gardens) and spent time working at Greg’s Rentals (now Double R Rentals), until Greg’s sold. They kept pushing Skagit Farmer’s Supply to open a location on the South End.

They finally opened in Freeland with Putney as the store’s manager. He worked there for 15 years before finally “retiring.”

During that time the Putneys volunteered countless hours with Island County 4-H and at the Island County Fairgrounds painting the barns, building tack boxes and creating horse-friendly box stalls. They also founded the Whidbey Wranglers 4-H club.

It gave the family plenty of memories.

During one of the fairs, a girl’s horse took off in the ring, sending her into hysterics.

Just before she was about to be thrown, Putney jumped the fence and yelled “Whoa!”

The horse came to a screeching halt and the girl regained control of her horse.

Later, he would spend hours in the Lion’s Club booth cooking corn or chowder. He also volunteered at the M-Bar-C Ranch cleaning tack and harnesses and making sure the wheelchair ramp was in great condition for the children’s programs at the ranch.

The protector

“Gary was always the protector,” his daughter Erin Hanson said. “He could find his way around anywhere, even in Japan. When you were with him you knew you were safe.”

Diana agreed.

“Gary would never get excited,” she said. “He would just jump in and take care of whatever needed to get done. When our grandkids got attacked by bees, Gary grabbed both kids and a bike and climbed up and out of a steep trail in seconds. It was amazing.”

Good cookin’

It was Putney’s need to protect — and some Coast Guard experience — that sent Putney to canning. There are some friends who say they are going to miss his famous pickles, jams and assorted canned vegetables. His family said they would feign incompetence in the kitchen just to keep his good food coming.

“I used to say, ‘Dad, how do you make that again?’” said daughter Kerri Kinny.

“He loved to cook and made so many great things like cinnamon rolls, bread, pies and the best turkey stuffing,” she said.

“My dad loved to make little dough cutouts of cowboy boots and hats for the tops of his apple pies,” Erin added with a laugh. “He was so proud of that. He even made flowers out of radishes. Everything was ‘gorgeous.’ That was dad’s favorite word.”

There weren’t many days that you couldn’t find him in his large garage-turned-temporary shop.

One day he’d be canning, another day he’d be creating bathroom accessories out of horseshoes and on another day he’d be wood working or cooking up a new batch of chili for judging during the Russell Maugens Memorial Ride and Chili Feed. Russell Maugens, a horseman and pilot, had been his mentor.

When not hauling hay from eastern Washington, Putney was hauling food bank donations for Good Cheer or supplies for the Lions Club, which he belonged to for years.

“Gary loved life,” Diana said.

“He wanted to make sure others were having just as much fun living, too. Even when he was going through his treatments, his mission was to make one man at the ferry booth laugh. By the time Gary’s treatments were coming to an end, the guy was smiling, laughing even. He said, ‘Di, I’m going to make that guy smile.’ And he did.

“Gary’s life was a gorgeous life. He helped when he could and would get make people smile. He waited to make it through his birthday and Veterans Day last week, and we got to smile with him,” she said.

Gary is survived by his wife, Diana, of Langley; his four daughters, Kerri (Randy) Kinney of Mukilteo; Gina (Brad) Dean of Rathdrum, Idaho, Joni (Ted) Mincy of Marysville, and Erin (Jeff) Hanson of Clinton; his mother Ester Hueneke and sister Carol Sprinkle, both of Des Moines, Wash.; and grandchildren Matthew Kinney, Jamie Dean, Sean and Michael Mincy and Nate and Kacie Hanson.

Celebration of life

The family is planning a celebration of Gary’s life on Saturday, Jan. 13, in Clinton. More information will be published in The South Whidbey Record.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Island County Chapter of Back Country Horsemen, 5203 Mutiny Bay Road, Freeland, WA 98249. Donations will go toward maintaining and improving Goss Lake Woods.