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Coupeville veterinarians give back to communities impacted by landslide

A family photo taken around 1985 shows Ken Leaman, left, his wife Nanette and daughters Zarah and Amahra on their Snohomish County farm, which was located about a quarter-mile from the Oso landslide that killed 43 people in March. The hillside is seen in the background. - Photo courtesy Nanette Leaman
A family photo taken around 1985 shows Ken Leaman, left, his wife Nanette and daughters Zarah and Amahra on their Snohomish County farm, which was located about a quarter-mile from the Oso landslide that killed 43 people in March. The hillside is seen in the background.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Nanette Leaman

Before Ken Leaman came to Coupeville to set up a veterinary clinic in 1992, he operated his business out of his 10-acre farm on the Stillaguamish River in between the towns of Darrington and Oso.

Over 11 years, Leaman guesses he tended to animals on every farm in the area, oftentimes with his wife Nanette and four children along to share the experiences.

“In those days, we’d go out as a family with the little girls,” Nanette Leaman said. “You got to know everybody.”

When the Leamans left for a new, promising opportunity on Whidbey Island, they departed from an area they would hold dear for the bonds formed with friends and fond family memories.

It was those memories that made the news of Oso landslide, which killed 43 people on March 22, that much more heartwrenching for the Leamans and brought the tragedy ever so close to home.

Earlier this summer, the Leamans joined three other veterinarians and four staff members from Penn Cove Veterinary Clinic on a trip to Darrington to offer a day of free care for animals.

It was a way to offer help to a nearby community that not only was in dire need, but one that also held deep meaning to Ken Leaman and fellow veterinarian Lark Gustafson, who grew up in Darrington.

“We saw a lot of old friends. There were lots of hugs,” Leaman said. “It was very rewarding.”

The trip was also eye-opening.

When they traveled east on State Route 530 past Oso on their way to Darrington June 21, the landscape they once knew was barely recognizable.

“It was like a moonscape,” said Gustafson, a 1992 graduate of Darrington High School.

“I am shocked that anyone survived it at all, seeing the amount of earth that was moved. It was almost unbelievable.”

For Ken and Nanette Leaman, the tragic event of four months ago also brought deep sadness.

Watching the television news on that Saturday morning was almost a surreal experience met with both shock and horror.

The first reported death was that of Linda McPherson, the Leamans’ friend and former neighbor who lived two driveways down the road.

The Leamans had lived about a quarter-mile from the slide’s destructive path. The McPhersons’ farmhouse took a direct hit while Linda and her husband, Gary “Mac” McPherson, were reading the newspaper.

Gary McPherson was able to dig through the mud and survived.

“Our kids played with their kids,” Ken Leaman said. “They had horses. They were good clients. They were supremely wonderful people. To hear that she was dead right off the bat, it was just horrible. It just went on from there.”

The Leamans soon learned the fate of their former home where they lived from 1981-92. A friend in Darrington called to tell them that the farm was underwater from the backed-up Stillaguamish River, which later cut a new route, allowing the water to recede.

Ken Leaman and Gustafson discussed a way they could help the people of Oso and Darrington. They focused on setting up a free animal care day in Darrington, which took the brunt of the economic hit because the town’s access to major highways was blocked by the landslide.

The veterinarians and their staff volunteered their time to offer the free service, which mostly included vaccinations and general care of dogs and cats.

Leaman had to stop and gather himself as he talked about his experiences with the people of Darrington and Oso and their willingness to help each other.

“Those people up there, it’s a different world,” he said, holding back tears. “One phone call, you’d have had everybody and his brother with a trailer down there.”

Returning to his old stomping grounds to help was a no-brainer. It was only a matter of when.

“It was very emotional,” Nanette Leaman said. “We have such fond memories of the area and the people.”

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