I won’t lie. The thought of writing about my big-fish father-in-law, Wallie Funk, scared me. How would I summarize his long, noteworthy life in a blog post? What would I include? What would I leave out? In spite — or perhaps because of — my close association with the man we affectionately called “The Great Wall,” I didn’t feel up to the task.
Then it dawned on me: Don’t try. My husband, Mark, already wrote the obituary and did a bang-up job.
So . . . here are my impressions of the man I came to know, with some family lore thrown in. I’m also including Wallie’s late wife, Mary Ann (Ringwall) Funk, because I can’t write about one in-law without the other. Both were equally influential in my life. How long has it been? Mark and I got married in 1987 and dated about three years before that. . . My God! Has it really been almost 35 years? No wonder I feel overwhelmed.
I remember meeting THE PARENTS. It was over dinner at the Washington Athletic Club, where they and Mark were members. I’d never eaten at a restaurant with a dress code. For a girl brought up by a single mother of limited means, this was another world. I remember being mesmerized by Mary Ann’s large jewel pendant as I tried to appear poised and well-bred.
I needn’t have worried. Wallie did most of the talking while I smiled and nodded and chewed with my mouth closed. If I said anything, it was probably in response to the coincidence of my last name.
Mark and I met at the Herald in Everett, where we were both reporters, but my name had apparently come up before I knew any of the Funks. I was on the staff of the University of Washington student newspaper, The Daily, while Wallie served on the publications board. Mark and Wallie had spotted my byline and wondered if I was related to KING/5 TV reporter Don McGaffin. He, along with Wallie, had covered the horrific capture of Lolita and six other killer whales in 1970 in Penn Cove.
(I’m not related, though Don McGaffin did stop by to see me once at The Daily office.)
Anyway, we found common ground, the Funks and I that extended beyond their son. We bonded over our mutual love of writing and journalism: the mighty pen and the picture worth a thousand words; stories that marked history and made change.
Mary Ann — a former high school English teacher who did her part to keep the local bookstore thriving – was every bit as passionate about those things as Wallie, but she was comparatively quiet, the yin to his yang.
Wallie’s favorite holiday was Christmas; hers Halloween (she was born on Oct. 28). Mary Ann would entertain Mark and his brother, Carl, year-round with tales of trolls and monsters. For Halloween, she carved the pumpkin, and I bet it was her idea to have Wallie go out after dark and walk around the house with that lit gourd on his head.
“We had a record with the Headless Horseman story,” Mark recalls. “That pumpkin looked like a face with fiery eyes.”
I’m sure Wallie had a blast thrilling his young sons with a floating jack o’lantern, but Christmas was his time to shine. He’d get the tree, lights and decorations up shortly after Thanksgiving and leave them up long after the first of the year. (Towards the end of his life, Christmas was just part of the furniture.) On THE DAY, after the dinner plates were cleared and Mary Ann was busy in the kitchen serving up pie, Wallie would “hold forth” at the head of the table for anyone who cared to listen.
It was more often than not a stream-of-consciousness, anecdote-filled who’s who of Anacortes and Washington State politics, arts and history. I will admit, I sometimes got bored and looked for an excuse to drift away, maybe try to help Mary Ann with the dishes (only to be told no). Wallie’s energy for talk could be exhausting, but I usually learned something.
Mary Ann was every bit as opinionated as her husband. A former community college trustee and volunteer for Planned Parenthood, she could go on at length about creating equal opportunities for women and marginalized groups. And she read everything – novels, memoirs, biographies, newspapers and magazines, including her annual subscription to Mother Jones, a bi-monthly publication that aims to expose the evils of the corporate world, government and the mainstream media.
She famously got in the last word during a dinner conversation that has become family legend. Wallie was amazed to discover that one voter in Island County had cast a ballot for communist leader Gus Hall in the presidential election. He wanted to interview that person and get his or her story in the paper, even if that meant granting anonymity.
Mary Ann let him go on a while before she felt the need to interrupt. “Wallie,” she said, “it was me.”
That may have been what earned her the nickname “Red Mary Ann.” Her curiosity and appetite for ideas was tempered with the no-nonsense practicality of a North Dakota farm girl. Besides books for Christmas, she would give us stockings filled with fun diversions (a light-up yo-yo comes to mind) and the annual can of windshield defroster.
She was a feminist, but took a traditional behind-the-scenes role when it came to Wallie and his work as a newspaper publisher, community leader and local historian. They were both proud of that legacy and rightly so. Wallie’s efforts helped build Anacortes as well further the career of many an artist and journalist.
Relentlessly positive, Wallie sometimes countered complaints and self-pity with a verbal hand slap. (“There you go again with the negativity!”) “Can’t” wasn’t a word he knew. He could talk his way into anything, whether it was a ride-along on a fishing boat bound for the new state of Alaska, or the front row of a Rolling Stones concert to photograph Mick Jagger.
And he had a real talent for raising money to support his causes, including a museum for Anacortes. Nobody said “no” to Wallie, well, at least nobody who agreed with his community view. An outspoken newspaper man, he made his share of enemies, but he earned many more friends.
Wallie loved the spotlight, but he also took genuine pleasure in the accomplishments and good fortunes of others. He frequently asked after my mother, and was delighted to hear that she’d blossomed anew at Seattle’s Norse Home after decades of living alone.
He got misty eyed when I told him about my writing sojourns at the family’s Guemes Island beach house. Having just published his Pictures of the Past: Celebrating 125 Years of Anacortes History, he was awaiting the release of his daughter-in-law’s book. My one selfish regret is that he died before he could hold it in his hands.
But I can’t feel sad about Wallie’s passing. He and Mary Ann, who died in 2008, had long and interesting lives. As my husband wrote in Wallie’s obituary, “His family assumes his afterlife will be no less dull.”
I envision him enjoying one heck of a reunion with all the departed friends and loved ones. Yes, I’m sure he’s getting quite the welcome, Mary Ann smiling behind that characteristic mouth twitch of hers, as if to say, “It’s about time!”