Hank Koetje will be remembered as a gentleman and businessman who helped shape Oak Harbor.
“I think the community is going to miss Hank, and we won’t know it because he was kind of in the background,” said Dave Johnson, a former banker and friend.
Koetje died Sunday, April 14; he was 95.
The businessman and World War II veteran lived his whole life in Oak Harbor, save for the time spent in the Army and in college.
His friends and family members remember him as being incredibly patriotic and a gentleman.
“He was the nice one, and the rest of us were problems,” Al Koetje, one of Hank’s brothers, said with a laugh.
He left Whidbey Island in 1943 at age 19 when he was drafted into the Army. As a sergeant in the 66th Black Panther Infantry Division, he was aboard the ill-fated troopship Leopoldville on Christmas Eve 1944.
Later in life, at around 6 p.m. each Christmas Eve, Koetje would gather his family to tell the tragic story of the night’s events in 1944, according to his stepson, Dwayne Korthuis-Smith.
In an interview with the Whidbey News-Times last year, he still expressed visible pain at the memory of the loss of so many men when his ship was hit by a German torpedo. He regretted not ordering all of his men to follow him as he jumped onto a British destroyer that made a brief pass by the sinking troopship. The four who followed him all survived.
Korthuis-Smith said Koetje took immense pride in his country. On the Fourth of July he often corralled everyone outside to give the pledge of allegiance to the flag flying outside.
After he left the service, he joined his uncle Neil Koetje in running Koetje Real Estate. Later, he helped add insurance sales to the business. In 1957, he and his brother Al founded Island Savings and Loan. He also played a role in starting Island Title.
Oak Harbor saw a sharp uptick in growth during this time and Koetje’s businesses flourished, according to Johnson.
“He took care of things the right way,” Johnson said. “He took a good steady hand and did an excellent job.”
Al Koetje said even though his brother was a busy businessman at this time, he always tried to make time to spend with his family. He supported his younger brother’s sporting events and encouraged him to pursue higher education. Of all the advice his older brother gave, getting educated was the best, Al Koetje said.
Hank Koetje is described as humble, respectful and not easily flustered. While growing up, Al Koetje said, he and the other younger siblings had a tendency to pick on Hank, who was the oldest.
“Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t,” Al Koetje said.
In 1987, Hank Koetje married Marilyn Korthuis. In a November interview, they said they met at the marina.
“I had a sailboat and he had a power boat,” Marilyn Koetje said with a laugh. Between the two of them they had five children.
Marilyn’s son Korthuis-Smith remembers how polite Koetje was. He pulled chairs and opened doors for his spouse. He always gave ice cream to the grandchildren. And he didn’t gloat, even when he might’ve been justified in doing so.
Korthuis-Smith said Koetje could still beat him at tennis even at age 75.
“He never rubbed it in,” Korthuis-Smith said. “In fact, he’d almost coach me after … He was really humble about it.”
Koetje tried to keep his opinions and judgments to himself, Johnson said. But those who knew him best knew that he had a tell.
“You could always tell when he was getting upset or didn’t agree with you,” Johnson said. “He didn’t say anything, but you could see his jaw would twitch.”
It was also well known that Koetje loved his hometown. He was involved with Rotary, his church, the American Legion, Navy League and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Koetje said in the November interview that although he’s travelled extensively, he wouldn’t live anywhere else.