Slide victim’s wife remembers the love of her life

OSO — Debbie Durnell was terrified to step out onto a dance floor in Everett.

The style was country swing, the Texas two step. “I’d never seen dancing like that before,” she said.

During the first song, she said she mostly just looked down, watching and trying to match the steps of her dance partner, Tom Durnell.

Later, he invited her to dance again. “Don’t look at my feet,” he told her. “Look at my eyes.”

As the music played and she followed his advice, she had a nearly inexplicable reaction. “I knew by that second dance … I had finally met the love of my life.”

Before the evening was over, she left her name and phone number for the bartender to give to him. She laughed as she recently told the story, reflecting on her spur-of-the-moment decision. “I never did anything like that in my life,” she said.

Once they met again, they quickly became a couple and never again spent a weekend apart over the next eight years.

They married in 2010, just after Tom retired from his work as a carpenter, and soon bought a home on Steelhead Drive.

“We were both so excited to buy a house,” she said. “That was the first home we ever bought.”

The house came with a three-car garage, but that use was short-lived. It soon turned into her husband’s woodworking shop.

“His work was perfect,” she said. “You never found a flaw in anything he made.”

Durnell, 65, had nearly finished library shelves for their home, hand-milled from cherry wood, when the March 22 Oso mudslide took his life. “It was the first time he got to do something like that in his own home,” she said.

Her husband was a man of diverse interests. His love of opera could find him listening to that music, such as Verdi’s “La Traviata,” for hours.

His collection of more than 10,000 recorded songs spanned the genres of rock, jazz, opera and country — most especially classic country tunes such as those of Bob Wells and the Texas Playboys.

“He was always learning more about music; he loved learning the history of music,” his wife said.

He made annual trips to Eastern Oregon for more than two decades to take in the Pendleton Roundup. “He loved watching rodeo as much as most guys love watching football,” she said. “He knew all the top-ranked cowboys.”

He didn’t do particularly well in school because of problems with attention disorder, hyperactivity and even a streak of mischievousness.

Instead, he became an autodidact, using his intense interest in reading to educate himself.

“He was really smart,” his wife said. “That was my first attraction to him. He had such a huge vocabulary. I never had to look anything up in the dictionary.”

Tom Durnell grew up in Eugene, Ore., and attended Lane Community College, where he studied theater design. He left college for his “dream job” in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s. His various roles included work as assistant stage manager and a tumbling assistant for the production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” He began his carpentry career there building sets.

“That was one of the proudest moments of his career,” Debbie Durnell said. “He loved the arts, not only theater.”

This year, he had purchased tickets for the festival — the first time they were to attend together.

Later in his career, Tom Durnell worked for theaters in Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as the scene shop at KCTS-TV, Seattle’s public station.

His work as a carpenter spanned nearly 20 years. Durnell was a master who took joy in making handmade wooden bowls, jewelry boxes and other woodwork for family and friends, his wife said.

While traveling through eastern Snohomish County three decades ago, he decided it was the place to retire.

The day of the mudslide, Debbie Durnell, 50, a certified nursing assistant at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, was at work. She lost not only her husband but her home, virtually all her belongings and several friends.

Last month, she filed claims against Snohomish County and the state of Washington. The claims seek a total of $3.5 million from the county and state, the first of five damage claims against area governments in the mudslide’s aftermath.

The landslide was so powerful that it carried debris across the valley and part way up the other side, roughly a mile away.

Amid all the dirt and debris were two photos from the Durnells’ home, which were found miraculously undamaged. They show him riding a horse at a friend’s house in Idaho.

“It’s precious to me, the only pictures I’ve gotten back,” his wife said.

“They found them like it was just taken out of a drawer. They weren’t even wet.”

One of the most endearing memories of their relationship was how easy their conversations where.

“We loved each other deeply and were each other’s best friends,” she said. “We knew that we had a love that would last forever, and for me it will.

“I have absolutely no regrets, other than we didn’t get enough time together. We had so many plans, things we wanted to do. It just wasn’t long enough.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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