By Don Nelson
Mort Banasky, a Winthrop Town Council member and former mayor who devoted much of her 30 years in the Methow Valley to civic service, died at her home last week. She was 73.
Banasky was also a long-time fire tower lookout for the U.S. Forest Service — a job she loved and would talk about at length, with little prompting.
People who knew Banasky said she had boundless energy and enthusiasm for her council role, and she was also known for having and stating strong opinions.
Banasky initially served on the town council from 1988 to 1993, during which time she also was acting mayor and then mayor in 1992-93. Banasky lost a bid to remain mayor, but returned to the council from 1995-2001, and again from 2004 to the present. She won the election that returned her to office in 2004 by two votes, but faced no serious challenges since then.
When Banasky didn’t show up for last Wednesday’s council meeting, town officials became concerned. Reserve Deputy Marshal Ken Bajema checked Banasky’s home on Castle Avenue and found her deceased. County Coroner Larry Higbee confirmed that Banasky died of natural causes.
“She has never not called me if she wasn’t going to be there,” said town clerk Michelle Gaines, who had known Banasky since 1989.
“We all knew that was not her, to not be there,” Mayor Sue Langdalen said of last week’s council meeting.
Loved the lookout
In an earlier Methow Valley News article, Banasky said she moved to the Methow Valley in 1984 after working in the insurance industry in California and Washington state, including executive positions.
Banasky spent most of her fire lookout time at First Butte, finishing with a couple of years at Leecher Mountain, and was disappointed when that job ended. “That was her heart and soul,” said council member and close friend Gaile Bryant-Cannon of Banasky’s fire lookout job.
Banasky reserved a good portion of her heart and soul for the town as well, friends say.
“She’s always been there, always willing to step forward for whatever was needed,” said Langdalen, who served with Banasky on the council during Langdalen’s earlier turn as mayor.
Banasky was always supportive, Langdalen said, and would frequently take Langdalen aside to tell her she was doing a good job.
“It’s going to be a huge void,” Langdalen said.
Gaines said that Banasky “has just been one of the biggest supporters of the town and staff.”
Georgia Sanders, a familiar figure at the Winthrop Information Center, said that Banasky “was a great person, had a really good perspective on the valley, and worked hard to keep Winthrop the Western town it was meant to be.”
Bryant-Cannon said Banasky’s death came as an “absolute shock.” Bryant-Cannon had driven to Banasky’s home to pick her up for the council meeting, and became concerned when Banasky didn’t answer the door. Bryant-Cannon asked the town marshal’s office to do a “welfare check” on Banasky.
“It was hard,” she said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
Langdalen said it was agonizing to sit through the meeting — which included discussion of the controversial issue of allowing all-terrain vehicles on town streets — while not knowing what had happened to Banasky.
Bryant-Cannon said Banasky had been “absolutely amazing during the recent [wildfires] crisis … she was all over town.”
“She was wonderful,” Bryant-Cannon said of Banasky. “She could be thorny and opinionated. But she had friends everywhere.”
Council member Jessica Sheehan said she first met Banasky when Sheehan moved to the valley as a teenager. Years later, when Sheehan returned to the Methow, Banasky recognized her instantly.
Sheehan said she was impressed by the passion that Banasky brought to the council role. And she echoed another common observation about Banasky, always offered fondly. “Honestly, that woman could talk,” Sheehan said. “I used to tease her that she was making up for all the years of solitude in the lookout towers.”
“She loved what she did, she loved her town, and she genuinely cared for the people she served,” Sheehan said. “She wouldn’t have stayed involved for so long if she didn’t think she was making a difference.”
Winthrop resident Roxie Miller said Banasky could be counted on to listen to the people who live in town, even as she supported Winthrop’s Westernization theme.
“The livability of the town was always important to her,” Miller said. “She was always concerned about the residents as well as the merchants and tourists.”
“I enjoyed her,” Miller added. “She was so enthusiastic about the town, the people and the valley. She loved the place and it really showed in her decision-making.”
Longtime Forest Service lookout “Lightning Bill” Austin, who is back up at the Goat Peak tower after at stint at Leecher Mountain, posted this on his Facebook page: “[I] Feel blessed that I got to talk with Mort on the phone just before she passed … We both worked as forest fire lookouts here in the Methow Valley for many years … Gonna miss ya Mort!!!
Bryant-Cannon said that a memorial is being planned for sometime in the next few weeks at the Winthrop Barn.