Deborah Knutson, who headed the Snohomish County Economic Development Council for a dozen years, was both driven and big-hearted. She was part of the effort to keep Boeing’s 787 assembly in Everett, yet she didn’t seek the limelight.
It was 2010 when she stepped down as president and CEO of the agency that later evolved into Economic Alliance Snohomish County. On Dec. 30, the 62-year-old Knutson lost her battle with multiple system atrophy, a rare neurological disorder with symptoms like those of Parkinson’s disease.
“She was one of those people who had the power, the connections, but there was nothing pretentious about Deborah,” said Matt Smith, director of industry and resource development with Economic Alliance Snohomish County. “Part of her leadership ability was reflected in her personal relationships with people.”
Knutson’s legacy will live on through a new scholarship fund established by Leadership Snohomish County. That nonprofit group works to develop new leaders with its nine-month program of classes. Through annual Signature and Young Professionals classes, participants spend one work day per month learning about different aspects of the county, including law and justice, arts and culture, and human services.
Smith spoke about the Deborah Knutson Women’s Leadership Fund during Knutson’s memorial service, which was Saturday at the University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Knutson, who lived in Seattle, is survived by her husband, Michael Williams; daughter, Erin Williams; and son, Garret Williams.
As of late Monday, $2,050 had been donated to the fund, said Kathy Coffey, Leadership Snohomish County’s executive director. Tuition is about $3,000 for one person to attend the Signature program.
Leadership Snohomish County is now accepting nominations for its 2017-18 program, the group’s 20th season. Coffey said mentoring is key to developing new local leaders.
Nicole Faghin, Knutson’s longtime friend, is a former member of the Leadership Snohomish County board. It was Faghin’s idea to start the fund, which will pay for one woman to attend Leadership Snohomish County classes each year.
“Deborah was a role model for other women,” said Faghin, 59, an environmental planner and lawyer with Washington Sea Grant. “I was really proud to know her, proud to be her friend,” the Edmonds woman said.
Along with honoring her friend’s memory, Faghin said the fund will address what she sees as a lack of women in local leadership roles. “I would talk to her about how important she had been to me as a role model,” Faghin said. “I wanted to see a legacy for her that represents being a woman leader in Snohomish County.”
Coffey said the scholarship recipient will join a Leadership Snohomish County class in September.
A $20,000 grant from the Women’s Funding Alliance recently helped Leadership Snohomish County examine barriers to female leadership. One goal is for more women to serve on local boards, Coffey said. “It’s beginning to change in Snohomish County,” she said.
Before Knutson’s tenure with the Economic Development Council ended, she said her most memorable accomplishment was being part of a team that pushed the Boeing Co. to assemble the 787 Dreamliner in Everett. The state offered Boeing more than $3 billion in incentives during that process.
“It was a true honor being part of the project, from site selection to first flight,” Knutson told The Herald in 2010.
“It was a statewide and regional effort,” Smith said Monday. “Being a cheerleader for Boeing, and what it means for Snohomish County, that was Deborah.”
Knutson’s daughter is proud to see her mother’s efforts honored. “It wasn’t until I was in college that I understood what she was doing with Boeing and aerospace,” said Erin Williams, 31, of Seattle.
Her mother was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy in 2012, but had started suffering symptoms several years earlier. Williams said she has run a marathon and joined in the STP (Seattle-to-Portland) bike ride to raise money for the Multiple System Atrophy Coalition.
“She was a compassionate, driven, gregarious person,” Williams said. “I know she would be honored to keep her legacy going.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
How to help
The Deborah Knutson Women’s Leadership Fund will help pay tuition for participants in Leadership Snohomish County classes. Learn more at www.leadershipsc.org/home.
To contribute, click on “Donate” at the website and check the Deborah Knutson Women’s Leadership Fund box.