LYNNWOOD — Betty Lou Gaeng remembers exactly when she got into writing.
She was 15, and her father was working with veterans. He brought her to visit a naval hospital, where some of the young men were so severely injured they couldn’t pen letters back home.
Gaeng wrote the messages for them. If they weren’t sure what to say, she described the hospital scenes and told their loved ones why she was there.
At 91, she remembers a lot.
“I don’t just write history,” she said. “I am history.”
Gaeng’s way with words and her fastidious knack for research have earned her a regular “Looking Back” column on local news websites in south Snohomish County, where she’s spent much of her life. She’s also been involved with the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society, the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association, the Edmonds Cemetery Board and the Edmonds Historical Museum, among other efforts.
On Monday, she is set to receive a new honor.
“We are officially proclaiming Betty Lou Gaeng as our city historian, and we’re giving her a key to the city,” said Julie Moore, a spokeswoman for the Lynnwood mayor’s office.
The draft proclamation notes that Gaeng has helped her community to learn about its heritage, especially in recognizing the hidden stories behind locations, buildings and landscapes.
“I’m extremely honored,” Gaeng said. “I do it because I live alone, my family isn’t here, and my health is good. I’m not ready to give it up yet. It keeps me busy and my mind busy, and I just enjoy writing and studying. I’m not a person to play cards or go to movies, and I’m not much on TV. This is what I like.”
A retired paralegal, Gaeng also volunteered for a time as a docent at Heritage Park, home to a number of Lynnwood’s historical resources. She often found herself telling visitors about the past.
That work led to a conversation with Teresa Wippel, the publisher of My Edmonds News, MLTNews and Lynnwood Today. Wippel was looking for someone to write about local history. Six years later, Gaeng’s columns still are running.
She does much of her research through the newspaper archives at the genealogical society’s library — when it’s not something she knows first-hand.
“She has such a wealth of knowledge, especially given her longevity in the area,” Wippel said. “She is extraordinarily sharp, and her memory is incredible.”
A common bit of feedback that Wippel hears? “Please have Betty write more.”
City leaders have had similar experiences.
Gaeng helped their staff to design a history walk, and she led some of the events in person for around a year.
“People always come to me for information, and I supply it,” she said.
“You just spend a little time with her and you soak up all these interesting things about Lynnwood, which is so dramatically different from when she grew up here,” said Sarah Olson, Lynnwood’s deputy parks director. “She’s a great storyteller.”
And as always, Gaeng has more projects cooking.
On her mind now are the cemetery’s 2019 Memorial Day ceremony and the “Walk Back in Time” event, which features period costumes and stories about Edmonds pioneers. Future columns still in the works focus on the histories of Scriber Lake and Mountlake Terrace.
An excerpt from Betty Lou Gaeng’s Sept. 10 “Looking Back” column in Lynnwood Today:
Located near the Lynnwood Convention Center, just north of 196th Street, on what was once part of the North Trunk road system, it is the last historical structure to remain on the land that was the hub of the little village of Alderwood Manor. With its location near the City Center of Lynnwood, can it possibly survive, or will another more modern building, or even condos, replace it? Yes, I do know that with Lynnwood’s rapid growth, it is the development of the land that has become important, not old seemingly obsolete buildings. Sometimes, nostalgia is not enough to save the old structures.
Just like me, this old building has seen better days. However, when I look at it, I remember a long-ago time when it was the Masonic Temple and still held a sparkle of newness.