Ken Westman made a wealth of contributions to the valley’s way of life
Ken Westman knew well the value of community in a meaningful life, and nowhere is that more in evidence than in the people he touched, in the place that he loved.
Throughout his life, but particularly later on during his Methow Valley years, Ken made a difference in people’s lives, and his legacy can be found in the many Methow Valley community organizations and residents that are stronger for having known him.
Ken died at home — as was his wish — on July 26, after a long illness.
Born in Bellingham in 1935, Ken enrolled in Boeing’s drafting school on Harbor Island immediately after graduating from Seattle’s Ballard High School in 1953, and worked for Boeing for the next five years, as well as spending two years on active duty with the U.S. Army.
An explorer with an entrepreneurial spirit, Ken forged a career that spanned varied skill sets and geography, working, at different times, as a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea; a tavern owner; a tugboat crew member; and, fatefully, a one-time gig as a chauffeur. The tugboat owner wanted to visit friends in Mazama, but could no longer drive. Ken agreed to drive him, in exchange for an all-expenses paid trip to the Methow Valley.
The Methow Valley in the late 1960s looked good enough to Ken to plant some roots in east of the Cascades, although he didn’t retire from commercial fishing until 1990. Shortly after his initial visit to the Methow Valley, Ken purchased 33 acres of land along Highway 20 and two years later added 13 acres along Wolf Creek Road, including what is now Brown’s Farm.
Fortuitously, single mother of four Elaine Button lived right across the road, where Woodstone Pizzeria at Wesola Polana is located today. It was Elaine who suggested that they purchase a truckload of day-old Holstein bull calves at auction, raise them, and split the profits.
A personal partnership
That successful business venture led to an even more successful personal one; they married in 1972, enjoyed Elaine’s children and a host of adopted children and grandchildren, and remained devoted to each other until Elaine’s death in 2009.
Ken and Elaine were kindred entrepreneurial spirits, engaging in numerous commercial ventures in the Methow Valley: the Westar Retreat Center (1988), the Farmer’s Exchange Building (1993), and the Winthrop Forest Service complex, which they purchased from Washington State University in 1993 and then upgraded and sold it to the U.S. Forest Service to keep jobs in the valley.
In 2000, Ken and Elaine were instrumental in developing The Country Clinic (now Confluence Health’s Winthrop Clinic) with Dr. Ann Diamond. Winthrop needed its own medical clinic, Elaine realized, so she and Ken bought and helped Diamond develop the property, carrying the low-interest loan themselves.
Ken’s volunteer service to the Methow Valley community was legendary. He participated on the Winthrop Westernization and Architecture Committee, the Winthrop Barn board, served a term as an Okanogan County District 6 Fire Commissioner, spent five years on the Okanogan County Development Council, 17 years on the Okanogan County Electric Co-op board, and four years on the board of Room One. He was appointed to the Mazama Advisory Committee and chaired the Communications District Board for years. In 2014, he served as Grand Marshal for the Winthrop ’49er Days along with Grand Lady Lois McLean.
He was a member of Kiwanis, an early booster of the future Winthrop River Walk, and supported valley nonprofit organizations that elevated social services, the arts, recreation, women’s rights, the environment, literacy and education. He was a founding member of Methow At Home and up until his final weeks provided weekly respite for a caregiver for a client with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Ken left a legacy in the Methow Valley, some of the fruits of which he did not live to harvest, such as the future new Winthrop library. An avid user of the Carnegie Library in Ballard as a child, Ken was an ardent supporter of the Winthrop Library, often bringing back books for the children’s section from his travels and writing checks whenever the librarian needed something for youth users. He was the first adviser to Friends of the Winthrop Library (FOWL), which is dedicated to building a new library. Says FOWL board president Shannon Huffman Polson, “Among other forms of support, Ken came in with generous financial support to help us hire a director and cover her position for the first year, and was committed to the long-term success of the project.”
Ken’s name remains on the library board roster, says Polson, “with the deepest respect, admiration and fondness for his life, his legacy, and his support of our new library as a keystone to the future of our community.” Ken will be remembered in the children’s section of the future library.
Ken was widely known and dearly loved throughout the Methow Valley, embodying the principles of what he called “neighboring” — the things folks do to take care of one another in a tight community. Says part-time resident Cathy Davis, who bought a West Chewuch home from Ken and Elaine in 1994, “He was a ‘gentleman-in-chief’ in the valley, with his deep knowledge and care for all that was going on.” Davis adds that Ken shared with her that “after all his many years of being a businessperson, he found his heart once he started getting involved with our local nonprofits, and how those were his more rewarding years.”
Ken’s sense of “neighboring” was unerring, says neighbor and friend Linda DuLac. “Ken was very generous with his time and also made his equipment available. During the long Carlton Complex Fire power outage, Ken let all of us shower and fill our water jugs, as he was one of the few that had a whole house generator. He was a big part of us feeling safe and loved while we looked out for each other.”
Friend and neighbor
But Ken was “more than a good neighbor,” continues DuLac, “he was a great friend. Books, fishing, nature, dogs, people, gardening, bird identification, sports, politics — you name it, we discussed it. He had a way of quietly listening and then giving his take on the situation, and his advice was most often spot on.”
DuLac speaks of a sense of humor that all who spent time with Ken experienced. “What we miss the most is that subtle chuckle he had,” she says, noting that she considered it quite an accomplishment to get a laugh or an eye roll out of Ken. “One winter evening Marcia Ives and I decided to watch the updated version of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ with Ken — all of us in pajamas. Marcia and I proceeded to comment about the buff, good-looking male star and his chic clothing. We got more eye rolls out of Ken that night than we had gotten all year.”
In his final weeks and days, Ken was surrounded by caregivers, family and friends, says friend and caregiver Marcia Ives. “Ken’s cognitive ability remained 100% until his last day,” Ives says, “and his memory was often better than mine, which he razzed me about. He had a great sense of humor and liked to dish it out, which he did with a lot of people once he knew they could take it. And I gave it right back to him, which he enjoyed.”
Ives drove Ken around the valley frequently, taking him to appointments and engagements, and says “I learned so much about valley history from him. He was so knowledgeable and involved and loved to share what he knew. He was generous with his time and resources, well-read, and a sponge for knowledge.”
Ives articulates what many knew Ken to be: “kind-hearted, loving, thoughtful, funny, intelligent, empathetic, open-minded, tolerant, a good friend, forgiving, involved, a hard worker, a thinker.” Helping Ken at the end of his life was, says Ives, “truly an honor.”
Ken endorsed the African proverb about it taking a village to raise a child, and was an advocate for improving the lives of children and families, from early childhood education to affordable housing to alleviating hunger. “Everybody benefits when the children are taken care of,” he said.
Ken was a fierce advocate for Classroom in Bloom and was honored at the ribbon-cutting for the school garden’s newly-built greenhouse, although he could not attend in person. “Ken was a large part of the dream” explains Classroom in Bloom executive director Kim Romain-Bondi, “and he helped build this greenhouse with his ingenuity and thoughtful ideas about the importance of kids growing their own food.”
Ken’s investment in children is most apparent at Little Star Montessori School, whose recent capital campaign and school expansion were made possible only through Ken’s sale of the property at an extremely favorable rate. “Ken was the honorary co-chair of our capital campaign, along with Gaye Pigott, and sold us the land where our new building and expanded playground now sit,” says school director Dani Reynaud. “The Little Star expansion wouldn’t have happened without him.”
In tribute, says Reynaud, Little Star has planted a beautiful flowering pear tree for Ken on its new playground, with a leaf plaque that reads “Ken Westman: thank you for helping us build a place for all children to shine.”
Ken’s tree, says Reynaud, “stands strong and green, with limbs outstretched toward the sun.”
Ken is survived by his brothers John Westman (Debbie) and James Westman (Rosefay); his sisters Marilyn Westman (Terra) and MaryAnn DeFrees; his stepchildren Cindy Putnam, Candy LaRoche (Dan), Wendy Lundine (Donald); his adopted grandchildren Paula Young (Mark), and Bill Westman; his grandchildren Jenny, DJ, Becky LaRoche, Andy and Robin Button. He was preceded in death by his wife, Elaine; his mother and father, Hannes and Lenore Westman; his stepson Jack Button; and his adopted grandchild Julie Weston.
Ken’s faithful Boston Terrier, Snoopy, has been adopted by an active and loving Methow Valley family who knew Ken well.
The community is invited to a celebration of life for Ken on Sept. 29, at 2 p.m. at the Winthrop Barn. Light refreshments will be served. In keeping with Ken’s community’s spirit and wishes for a new Winthrop library, contributions can be sent to the Ken Westman Memorial Fund, C/O FOWL, PO Box 592, Winthrop, WA 98862.