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Originally published December 3, 2011 at 4:59 PM | Page modified December 3, 2011 at 9:11 PM

Joan Thomas, 80, steward of environment

Joan Thomas, a pillar of the state's environmental movement, is dead at 80.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes She leaves behind an impressive legacy. Godspeed, Mrs. Thomas. Read more
quotes She was a very good woman. We should all try to emulate her just a bit more. Read more

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Joan Thomas, a pillar of the state's environmental movement, is dead at 80, leaving a legacy of protection for the state's natural beauty, especially its parks and waters.

Born Jan. 23, 1931, in Detroit, she passed away at her Seattle home Monday. The cause was cancer.

Her daughter, Elizabeth Andre, said that even at 80, the passing cut short a life of quests and causes her mother was still pursuing: "She never would have been finished."

Mrs. Thomas' legacy is both broad and deep. With the Washington Environmental Council she helped expand state water law to enable protection of flows for fish and wildlife all over the state.

During the same legislative session in 1971, she also helped negotiate and pass the Shoreline Management Act, and the state Environmental Policy Act, foundational laws protecting Washington's environment.

She attended the University of Michigan, where she met her husband, Mort Thomas. The two moved to Seattle in the 1950s, where Mrs. Thomas joined the League of Women Voters. She rose to serve on the state board, and by 1967, she was the league's youngest state president, finding there a training ground for leadership.

"I grew up crawling on the floor at League of Women Voters meetings, and learning to run the mimeograph machine,"Andre said. Envelope stuffing for political and environmental causes was also a common ritual in the Thomas household.

When the family took vacations, it wasn't pretty pictures that her mother snapped, Andre said. "She would take pictures of drainage pipes and pollution."

Andre, 53, recalled she was one of the first students in the city to be bused voluntarily, because her mother wanted to further the cause of racial integration.

She helped lead the effort to require secondary treatment of sewage discharged to Puget Sound. And while she was not successful in blocking construction of the secondary treatment plant at West Point — which she opposed because of the industrial nature of the facility, and beauty of the shoreline — she helped craft a settlement agreement that prevented expansion of the plant there.

The settlement agreement also benefited Discovery Park by requiring the removal of roads and military buildings and an extensive native-plant landscaping plan. That was a hallmark of Mrs. Thomas' work: the ability to compromise when it was time, and do so productively — and stay in the game for the next round.

"She was a no-nonsense, practical person about issues; she brought great passion without losing the capacity to be solution-oriented," said Bill Chapman, who with her helped found the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. "There is a great need in our community for leadership toward the center with the courage to reach beyond your faction boundaries. That takes a different kind of courage."

In 1981, she was appointed the first woman regional manager at the state Department of Ecology, a post she held until 1987.

In 1997, Gov. Mike Lowry appointed her to the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, where she would serve for 13 years. In 2008 the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition awarded Mrs. Thomas its lifetime-achievement award. The award, named for her, was presented by two former governors from both sides of the aisle, as well as Gov. Chris Gregoire, to a standing ovation at a packed ballroom of the Washington State Convention Center.

For all her accomplishments, she eschewed titles, recognition or even credit, preferring instead to just get the work done, those who knew her best said.

Notable, too, was her trademark style: composed, patient and respectful. "You just felt good being around Joan," noted former King County Executive Ron Sims. "She would look at you and she had the warmest eyes, she had this way of just making you want whatever she wanted. Not just agree with it, as a policy matter, but really want it."

It was also that steady, unrelenting work that set her apart, Lowry said. "It was her determination; Joan was one who never gave up, but the strength wasn't just her activism, it was her consistency."

As her mother's last days came, Andre said, one afternoon she felt a kind of whisper in her ear, an intuition. She knew how her mother might want to spend a bit of one of her last good days: At a park.

"I got some sandwiches, and we got in the car, and drove to Golden Gardens," Andre said. "It was a sunny afternoon, and we just sat, for hours, and looked at the water."

Mrs. Thomas is survived by her husband and daughter, both of Seattle.

A gathering will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 17 in the gymnasium at Saint Edwards State Park, 14445 Juanita Drive N.E., in Kenmore.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Washington Environmental Council; the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition; or the Washington State Parks Joan Thomas Memorial Fund, State Parks Headquarters; P.O. Box 42650; Olympia, WA 98504-2650

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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