Al Koetje remembered as city leader, Navy supporter, loyal friend

The former mayor and businessman who helped guide the city of Oak Harbor during a time of growth and aspirations passed away Oct. 28.

Al Koetje was 89 years old.

Koetje was among the last of a small group of influential businessmen who were definite “characters,” his longtime friend Mel Elvebak said. Together with men like Ted Zylstra, Don Boyer, Wallie Funk and Mike Milat, Koetje was active in the community in countless ways and shaped the city from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

Koetje became mayor in 1972 and stayed in office until 1996. He owned a successful insurance and real estate business, Koetje Agency, with his brother, Hank. He somehow found time to be involved in an extensive number of community groups and charitable efforts, as well as state organizations. He was a former president of Rotary and was proud of his 24 years of perfect attendance.

He was key to the city’s strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the Navy.

“I think he laid the foundation for Oak Harbor,” Elvebak said. “He knew the Navy was going to be a good friend for Oak Harbor and he made sure Oak Harbor was a good friend to the Navy.”

Koetje’s greatest challenge as a mayor came when NAS Whidbey was placed on the Base Realignment and Closure list in 1991. Together with a few other key figures in the city, Koetje spearheaded an effort to convince the Pentagon not to close the base. In the end, NAS Whidbey was the only base that was removed from the list.

Koetje started the Save NAS Whidbey Task Force and served as chairman until he passed the position to Mayor Bob Severns just a few months ago. Koetje’s advocacy for the Navy was known beyond the city limits.

“Al Koetje was a strong leader for the Navy presence in Oak Harbor as mayor and continued that leadership long after his tenure,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said. “He set an example for mayors after him.”

But for all his professional and political success, Koetje is remembered best as a gregarious gentleman and loyal friend.

“Al was a good friend,” Chris Skinner said. “He loved his family and he loved Oak Harbor. He grieved deeply and quietly when friends and relatives died and then always told me, ‘Life goes on, Chris. Life goes on.’ And so it does.”

Skinner, a local attorney, explained that Koetje was close friends with his father-in-law Ted Zylstra. Skinner’s wife, Debbie, knew Koetje as “Uncle Al.”

Koetje and Zylstra owned a boat together, originally the “King Rat.” The two men and other friends met on the boat each Saturday morning, Skinner explained, but each had to complete a chore before settling down to talk and have a glass of “milk.” For Koetje, it was usually vodka and ice.

In September 2001, Koetje and his wife, Cherita, along with Zylstra, Mary Kearney and Dwight and Lois Mitchell, were on a Holland America cruise with other Husky football fans to watch the University of Washington play against a team in Miami. The game was canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the cruise line offered a side trip to Chichen Itza. The Koetjes were set to go along with their friends, but Cherita didn’t like the look of the airplane, Skinner explained.

It was a fateful decision. The plane crashed and all 25 people aboard died.

In memory of his lost friends, Koetje continued the Saturday morning tradition, toasting his friends on the boat; the Skinners had purchased Zylstra’s share in the vessel and also continued the tradition.

Many people stopped by to join them.

“To a person, they admired Al for his wisdom and experience and probably most of all for his enthusiasm for life,” Skinner said. “He laughed often and often when there was nothing to laugh about.”

Bob Severns, the current Oak Harbor mayor, met Koetje when he moved to the city 45 years ago but got to know him during maritime adventures. Starting on Koetje’s 75th birthday, Severns, Skinner and other friends celebrated with a “road trip” on the boat. It became “quite a tradition,” Severns said, but after a couple of years they decided it was best to stay in the marina.

“We made it into a guy thing,” Severns said. “Smoke a cigar, eat an oyster and have a drink.”

Severns remembers how “regimented” Koetje was, whether it was coffee with friends or a family vacation.

“You could set a watch by that guy,” he said.

Elvebak also knew Koetje for about 45 years. Koetje was “quite an athlete” who played basketball at Whitworth College, Elvebak explained, and his athleticism and competitive spirit continued into his golden years. The two men regularly played handball, tennis and basketball together. They played on a basketball team representing the Koetje Agency.

“Our big rival was Stuurmans Insurance in Coupeville,” he said. “We’d go head to head.”

Their friendship expanded beyond competition. Elvebak said they were able to just sit and talk for hours. Koetje had a dry sense of humor and laughed when Elvebak would give him “a hard time.” Koetje was a big Husky fan and Elvebak was a Cougar fan.

“We enjoyed competing together, we enjoyed talking together and we enjoyed an occasional drink together,” he said. “He was just a good friend.”

Koetje is survived by his wife Cherita, daughter Alana (Koetje) Morris and son Randy Koetje. A full obituary will be published at a future date.

A memorial service for Koetje is on planned for 2:30 p.m., Nov. 21 at the First Reformed Church.

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