The indomitable Irene Waters dies at 84
By Meg Olson
At memorial celebrations in Point Roberts and Bellingham, every person who got up to speak about Irene Waters told of a fiery spirit and a passion for doing that made a lasting impact on the communities she called home.
Irene died on January 6, 2009 at the age of 84 but left behind a legacy of public service and memories of her strong-willed determination to get things done.
“Irene left a huge footprint in this community, especially for someone with such small feet,” said Renée Coe at a January 10 celebration of life at the Point Roberts community center. “She was a doer and never let any grass grow under her feet.”
Born in Stettler, Alberta in 1924, Irene moved to Bellingham at three and graduated from Bellingham high school, later attending Western Washington University.
In 1946 she and Ken Waters were married and the couple bought into a family business, the Reef Tavern in Point Roberts, in the mid 1950s. Irene ran the kitchen at the Reef and her nephew Jeff Butts remembers her for fish and chips and milkshakes and a no-nonsense disposition. “I learned early there were two people in my family not to cross – my dad and Irene. My dad was 6’3”, 220 pounds and a Marine Corps major,” he said.
With their three daughters, Barbara, Marilyn and Carol, active in Blaine schools, Ken Waters served on the Blaine school board and after his sudden death in 1963 Irene was appointed to fill his position. She served on the Blaine school district board until 1970, several years as president.
Irene sold the Reef Tavern and moved into the house she and Ken had built on Adelia Street in Blaine in 1966, though she returned to Point Roberts weekends and summers to enjoy the beach she always loved.
The cover of the program for her January 12 memorial service in Bellingham pictures her as many remember her, pants rolled up, feet bare, out in the clambeds.
Living in Blaine Irene worked for a while as a cook at Robbie’s drive-in in Birch Bay when fellow school board member Murray Goff offered her a job at Goff’s Department Store. “She worked here for 20 years,” recalls Murray’s son Greg Goff, as a clerk and helping with alterations. She retired in 1989.
After moving back to Point Roberts full-time in 1975 her daughter Barbara Schille remembers she served as an informal school bus, commuting to her job in Blaine. “When kids got into trouble and couldn’t ride the bus for two weeks she drove them,” she remembers. “They never rode with her twice.”
Volunteerism was a cornerstone of Irene’s life. It might be easier to list the Point Roberts organizations she did not work with than those she did.
For 30 years she was a member of the local parks and recreation district board of commissioners, acting as president for many years. “The children’s program was especially near and dear to her heart,” said current parks board president Shelley Damewood, and every year she welcomed local children to her beachfront home on the last day of the summer program for swimming and hotdogs.
She was an active member of the historical society, storing a museum’s worth of artifacts in her basement while working to get a museum to properly store and display them.
With the local quilters group she helped plan and create the millennium quilt that hangs in the community center. She was part of the Pioneer Group that laid the groundwork to found the local health clinic.
An avid gardener, she shared plants and ideas with fellow garden club members. “Autumn crocuses given to me by Irene will bloom in my garden every fall,” said garden club president Carol Fuegi. She was also active in the local church and helped start the local senior center program.
Mark Robbins, who took Irene’s place on the Point Roberts parks board, said that Irene was the first person he met when he moved to town, a story he has since heard from many others. “People gravitated to her because she was so central,” he said. “She worked hard to keep what’s good in our community but she welcomed changes too.”
Irene’s energy propelled a number of Point Roberts projects from wish-list to reality. “Without Irene our school would not exist,” said Deb Wilkowski, secretary at the local primary school. “Without Irene we would not have a medical clinic in our community,” said nurse practitioner Virginia Lester. Samantha Scholefield said her support was vital to getting the annual holiday craft fair going. “She is leaving a big vacuum that has to be filled, not by one but probably by several people in the community,” she said.
Donations in Irene’s memory to the Point Roberts Historical Society may get her last pet projects done.
“There are two things she felt she left undone – the museum and a lighthouse at lighthouse park,” Schille said. “Right to the end she had all these plans and she wanted you to get moving.”