Dorothy Neil, 1909-2004

After nearly 60 years of writing and reporting for Whidbey Island newspapers, Dorothy Neil’s work won’t be featured in future editions of the Whidbey News-Times.

Neil, a long time reporter, columnist and historian, died early Saturday, May 8. She was 94.

No accurate count exists of the number of benefits, bake sales or board meetings — not to mention fires, weddings and accidents — Neil detailed in her long career in newspapers. The accounts of her sharp wit, candid style and keen interest in Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island and its residents are legion.

While family, friends and readers will miss Neil and her work, including what one former editor jokingly called “hard-hitting trash,” all agree there is more to honor than to mourn.

“Dorothy Neil was an absolutely extraordinary individual who was loved by everyone who knew and worked with her,” Wallie Funk, former editor and publisher of the Whidbey News-Times, said Tuesday.

Neil often said history is lost if no one writes it down. Her writing preserved early history along with oral history of North and Central Whidbey Island. She was also famous for telling people to give her a story or she’d make it up.

“We’ll be celebrating the life of a major character,” Lisa Tatum, Neil’s granddaughter, said Monday.

A long literary life

Dorothy Lee Burrier began her life on Sept. 30, 1909, in Mesa, Ariz., where her father, H.L. Burrier got his first pharmacist job. In 1910, the family moved to Mount Vernon, in Skagit County, to be near family. Dorothy’s years as a small-town girl involved chores, school and church. She spent time with her grandparents, in their garden and orchard, hearing tales of a far-away land: Missouri during the Civil War.

She developed a love of flowers and plants from her mother and grandmother. Her father gave her a kitten and her long affair with animals began. She recalled learning to knit during World War I and making washcloths for soldiers in the trenches. She wrote of the Spanish Influenza pandemic of the late 1910s and seeing ambulances and hearses filled with victims.

In 1926, the Burrier family moved to Oak Harbor. The trek involved early-model cars, rough roads and crossing Deception Pass on a small ferry from Fidalgo Island to Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island.

The high school in Oak Harbor did not offer Latin, so Dorothy finished her senior year of high school in Mount Vernon, living with her grandmother and traveling to Whidbey Island on weekends by ferry — construction on Deception Pass Bridge was still years away.

Soon after graduation, Dorothy found work as a bookkeeper for the Washington Egg and Poultry Co-op Association. The office was on a dock that jutted into Oak Harbor Bay near today’s Scenic Heights area. The intersection of today’s Highway 20 and Swantown Road got the nickname “Cackle Corner” from chicken and turkey farms nearby and the number of trucks loaded with poultry and eggs that made regularly runs from farm to dock.

In one “Top O’ the Morn” column, Dorothy wrote of walking home to Oak Harbor from the dock. Her pet bantam rooster, whom she named The Viper, would hear the noon whistle and wait for her to arrive. Then he often attacked her. Dorothy wrote of running for the house to miss The Viper but she lost several pairs of stockings to his adorations.

In other columns recalling those times, Dorothy wrote of the whole town meeting the ferry from Seattle which brought mail every evening at 6:30, of parties, skating on Hastie Lake, ballgames and days when Oak Harbor had no electricity, no running water and practically every family grew a garden and kept at least some livestock.

Dutch was spoken daily in town and on farms. She recorded traditions including smelt fishing in the fall, finding violets under Garry oaks in the spring and each Fourth of July, during a community picnic at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, politicians spoke of a bridge that would someday span the reach between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands.

Settling into marriage

She married Mel Neil in 1930 and after a honeymoon to Vancouver, B.C., they moved to Neil Ranch.

“Mel had a brand-new Ford sedan,” Neil said in 2003. “We often said I married him for his car,” she laughed.

His father was a logger whom Dorothy credited with bringing the first payroll to North Whidbey, paying loggers and running a mill. Later the elder Neils moved to the outskirts of Oak Harbor and established a farm and ranch. Today what was once the largest round-roofed barn in the Northwest is the Roller Barn. The old water tower was saved and turned into a tiny museum.

In columns remembering days on the ranch, Dorothy wrote about cooking for threshers in the late summer and fall.

In 1930, the Great Depression hit hard. The Neils lost the ranch and moved into Oak Harbor. Dorothy and Mel moved to a small house near the American Legion building. His parents moved to a house on then 300th Avenue, now SE Barrington Drive. When Mina Neil, Mel’s mother, died, Dorothy, Mel and their children moved in with his father.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally began building Deception Pass Bridge.

One of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to bring America out of the Depression established the Civilian Conservation Corps, and an army of young men came to create buildings in the state park and the stone-and-log guard rails along the highway.

Navy, and war, arrive

In the early 1940s, the Neils had three young children and needed more money. Dorothy walked next door to the paper and offered her services as a columnist. Since that paying job began, except for times here and there, local papers featured Neil’s work regularly.

But long before 1940, she had plenty of experience with local news. Her mother, Bertha Burrier, was a community reporter for the local newspaper. She, along with other writers, mostly women, told who had parties, which sister visited the other’s farm across the island, who had a new baby, who went to Seattle and which farmer’s cow had a new calf. Those columnists received a few cents for their work and a box of candy at Christmas.

She was familiar with what local people wanted to read.

“In small towns like Oak Harbor, people want to read about their friends and neighbors,” Neil said in a 2003 interview.

“TV, big city newspapers can tell about the world. But only small papers can tell about vacations, babies, parties, graduations.”

When the Navy arrived in the early 1940’s, Dorothy was there to note land being cleared and houses and farms being sold and some being moved to new areas. During World War II, Neil wrote of shortages everywhere, including housing. Farmers converted chicken coops into apartments and sailors begged for at least one room for a family coming to see them before they shipped out for war.

PBY Catalina Seaplanes were the first aircraft at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Neil’s columns mentioned all conversation stopping when the “Big Cats” roared overhead.

The Navy brought more jobs to town with construction and businesses opening to serve the larger population of sailors and their families. Neil’s husband Mel steered a small tug, “The Lily” in Oak Harbor and Crescent Harbor, clearing driftwood so seaplanes could land. He also found work as a carpenter in civil service.

Dorothy wrote of aspects of Navy life like learning to tell ranks and rates from uniform insignia and her first Navy flight after drinking a cup of strong Navy coffee. And she reveled in making sure the Navy knew Ault Field stood in Clover Valley.

Community icon evolves

Besides observing and writing about Whidbey Island, Dorothy Neil was a part of Whidbey Island. She spent time on the school board, town council and other community organizations and boards. She played the organ at church. She was named Citizen of the Year in 1967.

People asked her to run for mayor. “But Mel said absolutely not! I told him thank you,” Neil said.

She was named an honorary member of the Dutch community. Neil helped resurrect an old Holland Days celebration and turned it into Holland Happening. Following Dutch tradition of decorating homes with blue-and-white tiles, Neil, an accomplished artist, created tiles for each celebration. Whidbey Island Nordic Lodge, a recently formed group, had given her honorary Norse heritage. Her pride in her Irish roots led her to build a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Her husband Mel and son Jim were volunteer firefighters and Dorothy was a tireless supporter and promoter of local firefighters and fundraising efforts.

Neil had no regrets over her life. And while she admitted there were hard times, none she said were too much to bear — even the year she had whooping cough and the mumps when she was 8 months pregnant with her last child. She said doctors also thought she had tuberculosis for several years. Neil only recalled having a fever and needing to rest. One hot summer, she would take her children to the beach and would spend hours in the sun. Years later doctors examining X-rays noticed scars on her lungs.

“They think being in the heat cooked the TB out of me,” she laughed.

For years, Neil was recognized around Oak Harbor at meetings and coffee hours with her shillelagh and green sweaters and often a brooch with a cross or other celtic design.

Her granddaughters, Lisa and Cindy Lee Tatum, recall their grandmother filling her home with green carpeting and many Irish decorations from Beleek china to cavorting leprechauns.

Neil was very proud of her Irish heritage and visited Ireland where she played piano in pubs and kissed the Blarney Stone by climbing out on the parapet of a castle and bending over backward to plant a kiss on the stone.

“Dorothy had so many friends everywhere,” Wallie Funk said. “She loved everyone and Oak Harbor tremendously. She treated everyone she knew as a mother would.”

Funk and Dave Pinkham, another former editor, as well as newspaper staff, recall Dorothy’s home as being always open. Pinkham told of the newsroom being welcome to take breaks in her backyard and helping themselves to apples and plums. She often invited newspaper staff to her home for apple pie and coffee.

“She was the sweetest, kindest person,” friend and business partner Chic Schulle said.

“Dorothy could make quick, sharp comments, they never took away from her sweet spirit,” she added.

Neil also had strong political views and during election years, her yard could be covered with political signs — often, Funk said, signs of candidates from opposing parties would be side by side.

“I always joked I would never write an editorial endorsing anyone before looking at Dorothy’s yard,” he laughed.

Neil always promoted Oak Harbor and continually wanted the town to improve but without destroying its history. She was a great supporter of parks and particularly loved Garry oaks. She started several oak trees in coffee cans from acorns gathered from Smith Park and the oak tree standing at the post office.

Her desire to protect oak trees led her to a legendary armed conflict with city staff. When improvements were scheduled on SE Eighth Avenue, a thoroughfare shaded by numerous oaks, the city planned to cut down a large oak in the middle of the street. According to Neil, the city claimed the tree in the middle of the road was a hazard. Neil informed the city manager she would be at the tree with a shotgun to prevent any axing. Neil said she showed up at the tree with her shotgun but no one from the city came. Today, SE Eighth Avenue divides around the tree’s trunk.

“I’ve told people for years it was my tree,” Neil said in 2003 as she discussed triumphs and tribulations. Her hopes included seeing Oak Harbor’s Old Town along Pioneer Way restored as an historic relic for visitors and residents to enjoy.

While Neil approved of renaming streets for pioneers and significant city personalities, she protested the renaming of one street.

“The city should not have changed Flintstone Freeway to Bayshore Drive,” she said.

When developers filled in part of Oak Harbor to create more land, they invited residents to provide fill material. People dumped old concrete and rocks to be packed down. Neil said the area looked like the rock quarry cartoon characters Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble worked in for Mr. Slate. Neil wrote Hanna-Barbera for permission to use the moniker “Flintstone Freeway.” The company granted permission and today a small concrete car, just like the ones Flintsone and Rubble drove, sits along the water way. It’s been a family photo favorite for years. But the city renamed the strip later.

“That name was part of Oak Harbor’s history,” she said.

In Oak Harbor’s years, Neil said the biggest change was the arrival of the Navy. It’s worst change she laid at the feet of car salesmen.

“New cars, used cars, dumb cars line the road as people enter town,” she said. “It’s too bad newcomers have to come in that way.”

She was sure Oak Harbor could find what she called its small, charming roots.

“I’m sure Oak Harbor is coming back,” she said. Neil often said that change was life’s only constant. “We can’t expect the town to be the same forever, we can only hope to make it better.”

Even as her health declined, she was always interested in people and improving Oak Harbor. Friends would drive her for coffee and when bad weather and weakness kept her at home, coffee hour came to her.

Neil attended the 2004 St. Patrick’s Day festivities and spoke at the windmill from the comfort of a car which was driven to the windmill. She wore a favorite green hat and read a favorite Irish toast. While she didn’t attend Holland Happening, she enjoyed receiving visitors.

Neil continued her tradition of storytelling and remembering history on her final day.

“She wanted to make the city, the county, the whole world better,” Chic Schulle said. “Friday, Dorothy said ‘Oak Harbor just moves so slowly getting things done, like the pier,’” Schulle said. Oak Harbor’s pier burned in a spectacular fire in the 1960s. The city and a pier committee have been studying rebuilding the pier but no pilings have appeared.

“I hope the pier gets built and named in respect of her,” Schulle said.

Neil’s last family tale was of taking the ferry across Deception Pass to have her daughter Mary Lee in a hospital.

Neil’s granddaughter Cindy Lee Tatum visited her Friday. Tatum is due to have a baby girl any day.

“Her husband and father went with her,” Tatum said. “It was hard for her to speak but she wanted to tell me the story. She said it was a hard delivery and that her father crushed his hat in his hands.”

Even at the end of her life, Dorothy Neil was promoting Oak Harbor and passing on family and North Whidbey history.

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