Through photos and civic service, Oak Harbor resident K.C. Pohtilla has worked to leave lasting impressions on others

Skip Pohtilla relaxes with his wife K.C. in their Oak Harbor home. K.C. will be Grand Marshal at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.   - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Skip Pohtilla relaxes with his wife K.C. in their Oak Harbor home. K.C. will be Grand Marshal at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

From K.C. Pohtilla’s kitchen window, she can see historic downtown Oak Harbor and the blue waters of the Puget Sound.

For a photographer like Pohtilla, the beauty isn’t lost. But this view also is the source of a bit of apprehension.

In one week, Pohtilla will play an uncomfortable role just down the street from her home. She was named Grand Marshal for Oak Harbor’s 40th St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which will wind its way through downtown on March 16.

That means Pohtilla will be in a place she tries to avoid -- the center of attention.

“I don’t do this,” she said. “I’m behind the camera. Nobody wants to look at me.”

Pohtilla, 61, was given the distinguished title of grand marshal for her vast contributions to the Oak Harbor community. Thousands in fact, if you try to count the number of photos she’s taken and given away at community events.

“She just has a big heart,” said Barb Jacobs, chairman of the Irish Wildlife Society, which organizes the parade. “We wanted to honor her for all of her service to the Oak Harbor community and beyond.”

The list of Pohtilla’s city and civic involvement is long. She is chair and a founding member of Oak Harbor’s Arts Commission. She is a member of the City of Oak Harbor Parks Board and Irish Wildlife Society, among other organizations. She founded “Driftwood Day” in Oak Harbor and also has been volunteer coordinator for the Community Harvest Celebration for the past 11 years.

Yet, it is Pohtilla’s contributions as a photojournalist that has made her recognizable around Oak Harbor as well as on base at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Pohtilla, whose husband Skip is a retired Naval officer, is a longtime photographer of the Oak Harbor Area Council of the Navy League, a civilian organization that supports the Navy.

Since squadrons first began returning to NAS Whidbey Island from the Gulf War in 2002, K.C. has taken photographs of countless military homecomings, answering the call at all hours of the night.

She was driven to capture “welcome home” images of enlisted, whose arrivals weren’t as formal or ceremonious as officers, and provided photos to the squadrons.

“She made it her mission to get photographs of everybody,” Skip said.

For K.C., a longtime freelance photographer, assisting the Navy in this way became a labor of love and a way to show her gratitude for the military.

But on a deeper level, her role during these photo opportunities also was both personally inspiring and therapeutic.

K.C. suffered spinal cord injuries during a fall while shooting pictures at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in 2001.

The injuries affected her motor skills and balance and she had to relearn how to use her hands and learn to walk again without assistance.

“By having a war, they let me walk,” K.C. said.

“She feels that the squadrons having her shoot the homecomings is the reason she’s able to walk,” Skip said of the motivation it provided.

K.C. has grown accustomed to tackling health issues.

She has battled cancer since the late 1970s and last year underwent the second of two kidney surgeries to remove part of the organ. Recovery from a second surgery in two years hasn’t been easy for someone not used to sitting still.

“It’s remarkable what she’s accomplished and overcoming the problems she’s had,” Skip said of his wife of 36 years. “She’s not let anything stop her. I’m very proud of her. She’s a remarkable individual.”

Her dignified status at the St. Patrick’s Day parade won’t be the first time she’s been honored on the streets of Oak Harbor.

In 2010, the Fourth of July parade was stopped when K.C. received a “Meritorious Public Service Award” medal from the Secretary of the Navy.

She will be the second person in her family to be Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Her mother, Eve Doyle Oliver, shared the honor in 2006.

The role couldn’t seem more fitting to K.C., who lives on Ireland Street and is the daughter of two Irish parents.

But that doesn’t mean K.C. is comfortable with the role.

“Horrifying,” K.C. joked. “It’s just going to be very embarrassing. I don’t like recognition.”


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