Island loses one of its leaders

Tom Roehl led a double life.

In Coupeville, he was known to hundreds as the backbone of youth athletic programs, the man who spent 20 years leading the local athletic association and nearly that long as an assistant high school football coach.

In his other life, he was the man who best fit the unofficial title, “the mayor of Freeland.” That’s where he made his living as sole proprietor of T.J. Roehl and Associates as a planning consultant, and where he managed the water district and advised the Port of South Whidbey for many years.

On Saturday, his life came to an end at the age of 56 at Whidbey General Hospital, after a lengthy illness. As a Greenbank resident, he had lived between Coupeville and Freeland, and he will be missed in both communities.

Coupeville High School head football coach Ron Bagby was one of many saddened by Roehl’s death, news of which quickly circulated throughout the community.

“It came as a real surprise, a real shock,” Bagby said Tuesday. “He was unbelievably dedicated. For 18 years he was my assistant coach. It (youth athletics) was a big part of his life.”

Roehl was a big man who could look threatening, but it was all a facade, especially when it came to kids. He had a soft spot in his heart for kids and they returned the affection. “He was absolutely loved by everybody. He was a big ol’ teddy bear,” Bagby said. He spent the day contacting players about Roehl’s death, and all reacted the same way. “It’s a big, big, big, shock,” Bagby said.

Although Bagby was head coach of the Wolves, he always looked to Roehl for advice. “He was like my big brother,” he said. “He took care of me for many, many years.”

In his other life, Roehl was the top authority on planning issues in Freeland. He did project planning and management for the Port of South Whidbey for 23 years and was also the project planner and manager for the Freeland Water District. In addition, he served as the chairman of the Freeland Sub-Area Planning Committee from its inception in the late 1990s.

Amidst all that work, he also played a major part in Island County’s creation of a comprehensive land use plan.

Phil Bakke, the county’s planning director, said he does not remember Roehl missing a single Island County Planning Commission meeting between 1998 and 2000. It was during that period the commission created the comprehensive plan, based on the state’s Growth Management Act.

“He’s contributed thousands of hours to county planning and public testimony,” Bakke said Monday, shortly after hearing of Roehl’s death. “I can’t think of a member of the public who was that involved.”

Bakke said he and Roehl worked closely on planning issues in Freeland. But they were not always on the same side of the issues.

“He was certainly a spirted debater,” he said. Roehl usually represented pro-growth interests in land use battles. Bakke credited Roehl with keeping the Freeland Sub-Area Planning Committee on task over the years through the strength of his personality.

Roehl always had an interest in Island County politics. He wrote about them for Whidbey Press in the late ‘70s, and later served on the county planning commission as well as the Coupeville school board. At one time he made an unsuccessful run for county commissioner. During this period he and his wife Jodi ran the butcher shop and delicatessen at the Greenbank Store.

Also remembering Roehl this week was Jan Smith, who served eight years as a Port of South Whidbey commissioner. During her term of office, which ended last year, Smith said she got to know Roehl as a “colorful, much maligned” project manager who was, in her mind, knowledgeable and practical above all.

She credited him for almost single handedly creating Possession Beach Waterfront Park and its trail system, as well as one of South Whidbey’s best-loved waterside spots, Freeland Park.

She also noted that Roehl wrote the Port’s first comprehensive plan and provided all of the agency’s “corporate knowledge,” which he shared with the Port’s elected commissioners.

On top of all that, she said Roehl knew how to work a room, especially when members of the public got angry.

“I’ve seen him bring about calm,” she said.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. An obituary appears on page 7 of today’s Whidbey News-Times.

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