There is a woman in Renton who is an absolute treasure. Her name is Barbara Nilson, and she has touched the lives of multiple generations in King County, from her days as a high school teacher, through the years of volunteering for the arts and authoring books on local history.
She is well known by politicians, artists and by all of us who have been lucky enough to cross her path. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Barbara and share a few stories.
As I drove up to Barbara’s rustic log cabin in a woodsy area of Renton, I admit I was intimidated. She is a true Renton icon. She’s been a member of the National Association of Press Women for 60 years and is the only one to win two Virginia Marie Tolkins awards from the King County Historical Organization for her books on local history.
Former Washington State Governor Gary Locke tells how she helped him perfect his English when she was his Language Arts teacher at Seattle’s Franklin High School in the ’60s. When she’s at the events he attends, he always goes past the lines of people waiting to meet him to give her a hug. And when he was appointed US Secretary of Commerce, and then US Ambassador to China, he credited Barbara with helping him advance in his political career.
Barbara greeted me warmly at the door, and I became entranced with the stories of her life as we sat in front of the huge stone fireplace.
“My second husband, Ed Nilson, was a bachelor in his 40s when we married, and I was a divorcee with four children,” she told me. “He taught Industrial Arts at the same high school and had bought these five acres back in the ’50s. When we married, we designed the three-story home next to this cabin on a napkin at a local tavern with one of his past students. We used students to build it. One guy was a brick-layer, so it’s brick inside and out. Also, I didn’t want to have to paint walls.”
The log cabin started with a kit – logs dumped on the land with assembly instructions. Barbara’s 90-year-old mother who had always wanted to live in a log cabin helped build it and moved in.
They called it Valhalla after the Viking vision of the afterlife. Barbara moved into the cabin when her husband passed away. Now her grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in the brick house.
Born in 1928, Barbara’s life story is fascinating. She said she always loved to write and her dream was to be a war correspondent. She told me that at the age of 15, she lied about her age so she could join the USO during World War II.
She was in high school in Quincy, Washington while her step-dad worked for the Ephrata Airbase. I was anxious to hear about her time in the USO.
She looked like she was searching for words. I’m not sure what I expected, but she finally said, “Well, I went to all the Commissioned and Non-Commissioned officer dances. I was doing my part to raise morale on the home-front.
“I fell in love with a band member, she added. “They had two base fiddles – one filled with booze. We danced to songs like ‘Don’t Fence Me in” and ‘Lilly Marlene’. A friend and I would give Shirley Temple’s air-force husband rides back to the base.”
She said the officers on the base were called “90-day wonders.” They flew experimental craft like the P-38, B-17, and B-29 though soon they’d be shipped overseas.
While still in high school, she ran her uncle’s gas station on weekends. She and a girlfriend would pump gas and change tires.
“We made more money on the weekends,” she said. “The servicemen would be lined up around the block.”
There were 14 people in the graduating class at Quincy High. Barbara was the yearbook editor.
She started a weekly newspaper in Quincy in 1949 which was one of three off-set newspapers in the state of Washington. In 1958, she sold the paper and left for western Washington with her four children, going back to college in Bellingham. Graduating with a teaching degree and a minor in Journalism, she started her teaching career in Seattle but also wrote for the Maple Valley Newspaper for several years.
“I remember I was called by the editor one night because there was a major flood,” she said. “I tramped in the muck and mud behind Gary Locke taking notes when he was county commissioner.”
For a few years, Barbara was president of the now-defunct Washington Press Women, and remembers when Renton Mayor Denis Law won awards from the organization for his photography when he was in high school.
Barbara has traveled to every state and every continent, but continues to explore new parts of the world she hasn’t yet seen.
“I’m going to Peru this fall with my granddaughter on an eight-day walking tour – because I’ve always wanted to go and I’ve never been there!” she said.
At the age of 88, Barbara has more spirit and energy than most people half her age. Her sense of humor is infectious, and her curiosity and creative mind, inspiring. I laughed a lot during the interview, as she told me about her life.
“I don’t understand why people can ever be bored,” she told me. “I’ve always been curious about the world. If you have an imagination, there is always something interesting to see and do.”
In 1999 she published “Uncle Sam Wants You; Personal Memories of WWII.”
“It was a three-year pursuit. I interviewed people in Renton and Maple Valley who had served in the war. It was difficult to write because most of the veterans didn’t want to talk about the horrors of war, and the families didn’t want to open wounds if their loved ones had died.”
Then the folks in Ravensdale approached Barbara to tell their story. It was called “Ravensdale Reflections, An Oral History.” Most of the fascinating people she wrote about were descendants of coal miners from Europe who came to work in the mines here in this area.
In 2011, Barbara published “Renton High School Centennial Celebrating 100 Years.” Photos of multiple generations of Renton citizens can be found in those pages! She also collaborated on a mini-book about the Maple Valley Rotary.
Barb’s latest endeavor is the soon-to-be-published “Allied Arts of Renton – The First Fifty Years.” Barbara was an early member of Allied Arts, starting when in her role with the National Federation of Press Women, and she proudly talks of going to bat for two ladies on the board whose sons had been suspended from high school for publishing an underground newspaper. She got the boys re-instated.
She was also a founding member of Arts Unlimited in Renton and is the recipient of numerous awards from journalism, civic and historical organizations.
So while it’s been a quite fruitful life, Barbara doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon and I look forward to her next publication, her next community contribution, and the next time I can sit down with her for a visit.
I’m so glad to call this Renton treasure a friend.
Barbara Nilson will be hosting a book signing on from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Liberty Park Building. There will be wine, appetizers and door prizes. She will have all of her books with her. For more information, cal 206-772-4010.