Former Island County Commissioner Gordon Koetje of Oak Harbor died Wednesday, March 30, at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Koetje held office in the days when Republicans dominated county politics. In 1992, for example, he served on a board that also included Republicans Dick Caldwell, who represented District 1 on South and Central Whidbey; and Dwain Colby, who represented Camano Island and North Whidbey.
Koetje won a close race against Wes Lupien to become county commissioner in 1986, eventually serving six years. In 1998 he ran for state representative, but lost badly to Democrat Dave Anderson of Clinton.
A builder, developer and outdoorsman, Koetje was known to express his displeasure with what he saw as a slow bureaucracy and unnecessary rules.
Caldwell recalled that Koetje was more interested in individuals than policy.
“Gordon was a people person,” he said Thursday from his Ledgewood Beach home. “He looked at an individual’s situation and tried to do what he felt was right. He was oriented much more to people than general principles and philosophy. He was very pragmatic.”
Rufus Rose, a South Whidbey Republican who has been involved in county politics for decades, served on the planning commission when Koetje was a county commissioner.
“I think Gordon had a good heart about the community and the county,” he said. “He was frustrated about county services, he wanted more responsive service.”
Repeating a story Koetje told him years ago, Rose said that one day Commissioner Koetje was sitting in his office and decided to call the planning department with a question. They weren’t in the same building, but Koetje could see the planning department office across the way through his window.
Koetje made his phone call but nobody would answer the phone. He noticed a light on a telephone would blink on and off with each ring. So he handed his phone to his secretary and hustled across the street to the planning department. He barged through the door and declared, “The phone is ringing and it’s me!”
“He just wanted to talk to somebody,” Rose said.
Bud Wallgren, former owner of the Les Schwab store in Oak Harbor, and Koetje were friends since their boyhood days. Koetje belonged to a Dutch clan that has been here for many decades, while Wallgren’s family arrived when Bud was in the fifth-grade in 1948.
“We played football together, he was a very good running back,” Wallgren said, adding with a laugh, “he was a little lighter then.”
In his political days, Koetje looked more like a linebacker. He was bulky and bald and often drove his pickup and sometimes wore work clothes to community meetings, particularly if he planned to do some steelhead fishing from the beach along the way.
Wallgren, Koetje and three other friends made a fishing trip to Alaska each July for the last quarter century, angling for halibut and kings bound for the Kenai. In all those years, Gordon’s 77-pound king he caught four years ago was the biggest of the lot.
Wallgren said Koetje was a good friend but a bit direct for some. “He tended to say things like they were and a lot of people didn’t like that,” he said.
Although Koetje was known for his pro-development views, he voted in favor of the Conservation Futures property tax to save public access to Double Bluff Beach, one of the big issues of his era. Through the years the tax has helped acquire hundreds of acres of public property and several beach access sites throughout the county.
“He had a really big heart,” Wallgren said. “He had a rough exterior and people didn’t understand him, but he was just a great guy.”
The exact cause of Koetje’s death was not immediately known. Wallgren said he had suffered some heart problems, but he and his wife Jane were still planning a trip south in their motor home this spring. That all changed when he fell backward in a parking lot after a youth organization’s charity fundraiser several weeks ago, hitting his head. He was airlifted to Harborview where he underwent surgery.
“He was in the process of recovery but his heart gave out yesterday,” Wallgren said Thursday.
Burley Funeral Chapel of Oak Harbor is in charge of arrangements. Funeral services will be held Saturday, April 9, at the Oak Harbor First Reformed Church.