Toni Fritchman thought her father, the late Willis D. Tucker, Snohomish County’s first executive and a former Daily Herald editor, was all but forgotten 19 years after his death in 2000.
Then a curious fifth-grader named Spencer Armstrong contacted her, wanting to know everything about Tucker. Inspired by Willis D. Tucker Community Park in his neighborhood, Spencer was researching Tucker for a Washington state history project at school.
Spencer, 11, a student at Totem Falls Elementary School in Snohomish, his mom, Serina, and Fritchman met at the park, which was christened a month before Tucker lost his battle with cancer at 77. Fritchman told him story after story and lent him military records, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters and thank-you notes detailing her father’s life. They chatted for two hours.
“He was very serious, very polite,” Fritchman said. “The thing is, a whole generation has gone by, and I don’t think anyone knows who he (Tucker) is anymore. Just a few folks remember. It makes us a little bit sad because he was such a great guy and did so much for the county.”
Tucker had no political experience when he ran for Snohomish County’s highest position as a Democrat in 1980, but he was elected to the county executive seat and served three consecutive terms. He’s credited with overseeing the expansion of county parks, lifting the county out of a budget deficit and upgrading its solid waste system.
Born in West Virginia, Tucker was sent to Coulee City when he was 14 years old to work on his uncles’ farm so he wouldn’t have to work in the mines. He served in the Army under famous FBI agent Melvin Purvis during World War II, and went on to be the managing editor of the Western Sun, a former edition of The Herald focusing on south Snohomish County, for 15 years.
Spencer’s Washington Living Museum project is part of a curriculum led by teacher Kris Johnson.
Students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades choose from a list of famous Washingtonians to research. They write essays, design brochures and make posters. Then, in culmination of that project, they pose as that important man or woman in a “living wax museum” and come to life to share their subject’s life’s story.
Spencer plans to wear big-rimmed glasses with the lenses popped out, a business tie and a trench coat, if he can find one similar to the one Tucker wore on the campaign trail.
“I want them to see history as not something flat and boring, but recognize these are real people who had a large impact,” Johnson said.
After two months of research, Spencer has practically become a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Tucker.
“The county was really impressed with what he did,” Spencer said about Tucker. “Everybody really liked him, too, and he was really friendly. He always had a joke.”
Spencer started his research online, then emailed county officials and local reporters to learn more. He also scoured the Snohomish Library archives.
“It was kind of fun because every time I found an article, I’d get really excited and just scan it right away so I wouldn’t lose it,” he said.
He found the names of Tucker’s three children in his obituary and connected via Facebook with Fritchman, the first of Tucker’s children, who grew up in Snohomish.
“I had so much I wanted to know, and that’s why I made my question list so long,” Spencer said.
Fritchman lent Spencer some of Tucker’s mementos, such as photographs, one of which was taken when he was investigating American GIs accused of crimes in Europe during World War II.
“I really liked the stories that she told me about when he was in the criminal investigations unit,” Spencer said. “That just was really cool.”
Fritchman told Spencer other stories, too, like when her father escorted war zone-touring celebrities such as boxer Joe Louis and actress Judy Garland while in the Army, the time he and his fiance, Annette, drove to Missoula, Montana, in the middle of the night in 1946 to get married, or how he sent money home to his family in West Virginia from the Coulee City farm so they could reunite.
Thanks to Fritchman, Spencer had what he needed to tell a detailed story about Tucker’s life.
“I’ve had kids do amazing research, but not go beyond what they can find in print, whether it’s online or in a book,” Johnson, Spencer’s teacher, said. “I have not had somebody take the initiative like Spencer has.”
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, email@example.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
Spencer Armstrong’s essay on Willis D. Tucker
Have you been to Snohomish County’s Willis D. Tucker Park? Have you ever wondered about who Willis D. Tucker could be? Well, so did I at one point.
When I was assigned a report about a famous Washingtonian, I picked Willis Tucker. Not because I knew who he was, but because I wanted to know more. Willis Tucker was the first executive of Snohomish County in 1980. He was a good leader and friend to all. Ronald Reagan, our president at the time, personally wrote him a note telling him what a great leader he thought he was. If the president can notice the leader of a small county and take the time out of his day to write him a letter, this person must be very important, and indeed he was.
His mother thought so too. She stopped a young Willis Tucker from going into the coal mine in West Virginia. She said that he was meant for greater things, so Willis Tucker (age 14) was sent to Coulee City to help his uncles on a farm. He also took a job as a dynamite packer (no experience necessary) on the Grand Coulee Dam. When he completed high school, he was offered a football scholarship to go to Gonzaga University. Because he was his parent’s only child (out of nine) that completed high school, they bought him a gold watch to commemorate. Instead of going to Gonzaga, Willis Tucker enlisted in the Army during World War II. When he got off a troop train in New York, Willis Tucker then sold his prized gold watch and bought his sweetheart, Annette Rhoades, an engagement ring and sent it home to her in Washington in the U.S. mail!
In the Army, he became Agent Willis Tucker in the Criminal Investigation Division. After the Army, using his newly acquired skills at investigating, he went to work at newspapers, first in Oregon as a typesetter for the Sellwood Moreland Bee and then at the Snohomish Tribune, Western Sun and The Daily Herald in Everett as a writer and editor.
After his long newspaper career, Willis Tucker was approached by the Democratic Party and they asked him to run for the position of Snohomish County executive. Willis Tucker loved people, so politics was a natural fit. Willis Tucker loved the campaign process! He won the election for county executive in 1980 and served until the end of 1991. He created our modern waste management program and made many other great improvements.
In his retirement, Willis Tucker played in professional golf tournaments. He spent time with his wife, three children and seven grandchildren. Soon after his retirement, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. To honor him, the county dedicated 85 acres in Cathcart as a park. And guess what they named it? Willis D. Tucker Park!
The park was dedicated to him on May 18, 2000, which makes this the 19th anniversary of Willis D. Tucker Park. Unfortunately, six weeks later, Willis Tucker died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Now you too see why Snohomish County dedicated a park to him and why Ronald Reagan wrote him a letter commending his great leadership. Now next time you go to the park, you’ll know a little more about the man it was named after.
— Spencer Armstrong, fifth-grader at Totem Falls Elementary School