Monroe author’s journalism ‘really made a difference’

Nellie Robertson wasn’t born in Monroe, but with writing and a love of history she made that community her own.

She was the author of two history books, “Monroe: The First 50 Years 1860-1910” and “Monroe: The Next 30 Years 1911-1940.” For many years, she wrote for The Monroe Monitor &Valley News, where her newspaper column was called Nellie’s Knickknacks.

Late in life, she turned to fiction. Regional history, including the 1910 avalanche that slammed two trains and killed nearly 100 people in the Cascades, figures in her novels, among them “Wellington Wisdom” and “Beyond Wellington.”

“She wrote her first novel when she was 70. She always wanted to do it,” said Billie Wayt, Robertson’s daughter.

A native of Olympia, Robertson died Nov. 21 at a care facility in Lacey. She was 86.

Robertson retired from The Monroe Monitor in 1992. She had moved to Monroe in 1972 with her second husband, Bill Robinson, who is now deceased.

About 10 years ago, she returned to her hometown of Olympia to be near family. Wayt lives in Olympia and Robertson’s son, Bob Wagner, is in Pierce County.

“I remain in awe of her,” said Louise Lindgren, an historian who lives in Index. Lindgren said she admired Robertson’s ability to push on from her Knickknacks column “to doing the sort of journalism that really made a difference.”

“She tackled some complex issues,” Lindgren said. “And she wrote wonderful fictional stories based on historical happenings.”

Lindgren is retired after serving as Snohomish County’s senior planner for historic preservation. With others, Lindgren has been involved in the Snohomish County Women’s Legacy Project, a collection of profiles of notable area women. One of those legacy project profiles, written by Teri Baker, is titled “Nellie Robertson: A Lifetime of Writing.”

In interviews with Baker, Robertson recalled that at 12 she was going door to door “getting the news” and writing a neighborhood newspaper. Her first job at The Monitor was composing ads, but according to Baker’s article she was writing a recipe column within a week.

Her years in Monroe were interrupted when in 1976 her husband took a job in Petersburg, Alaska. At The Petersburg Pilot newspaper, she was a feature writer, typesetter and circulation manager. When the couple moved to Dillingham, Alaska, she worked as an office manager. She was eventually elected mayor of the town, before her husband’s retirement brought them back to Monroe.

“She was a jack of all trades,” Lindgren said.

Renne Duke, of Snohomish, is retired from The Monroe Monitor, where she and Robertson developed a longtime friendship. “She was always so patient,” Duke said. “She trained many of the reporters on computers. I’m sure computers were not there when she first started. She learned every one of them, and she taught every one of us.”

Duke said her friend liked history and loved to write. “Her history books, when I was at The Monitor, we used them every week for reference.”

Wayt said that after moving south her mother lived at the Boardwalk Apartments, a senior living facility in downtown Olympia. “She had a great wit, always throwing out one-liners. She called it ‘wrinkle ranch,’” Wayt said. Her mother died after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

“With her books, she always did extensive research. She looked at old newspaper clippings. It was just really fun to read,” Wayt said.

Robertson was proud of an “honorary doctorate” awarded by doctors at Valley General Hospital in Monroe in recognition of her articles covering health, Wayt said. “She didn’t have a degree at all,” said Wayt, who described her mother as an avid reader.

“She hooked in anywhere she went. That was just her,” Wayt said. “Her glass was always half full.”

Lindgren also saw Robertson’s upbeat approach to life.

“She had a great sense of humor, and an ability to bounce back,” Lindgren said. “She had hardship in her life, but she never dwelled upon that. I look for real role models, and she was one of them.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Books available

Nellie Robertson’s history books, “Monroe: The First 50 Years 1860-1910” and “Monroe: The Next 30 Years 1911-1940,” are available for $20 each at the Monroe Historical Society Museum, 207 E. Main St., Monroe. Information: www.monroehistoricalsociety.org

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