Navos photo
Bernadine Mathison

Doing what she did brought her public recognition

I swear it was not a set-up.

When I heard the Highline Historical Society was mounting a Burien Community Center display of the “Extraordinary Women of Highline,” I thought my mother might be picked.

Most guys think their mother is the greatest.

She wasn’t selected among the first 11 but I thought it was a story that reflected an important part of our community’s history.

So we played the story up big on the front page of the Dec. 28 issue with a large photo of Jane Fenton Kelly, Highline’s first school teacher.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the historical society’s curator, Nancy Salguero McKay contacted me. She asked for a biography and memorabilia of Mom for an addition to the Extraordinary Women exhibit.

Again, I swear that big newspaper spread wasn’t a giant lobbying effort.

So now Bernadine Mathison is part of the free historical display open through Feb. 28. The community center is in the old Burien library building at 14700 6th Ave. S.W. It’s open Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m., and Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

It is such an honor to be singled out among the thousands of extraordinary women who have lived here since Jane and Michael Kelly trekked up from the Duwamish River valley in the 1870s to the High Line and settled near Sea-Tac Airport’s third runway.

It is even more amazing that Mom’s legacy is still remembered almost a quarter century after she died. She never held public office or a fancy business title. What she got done, she got done as a housewife/volunteer.

Also remarkable was her journey. Who’d have thought a little girl who lost her own mom at age 8 and was a sickly teen raised by an alcoholic aunt would grow up to be considered one of the special women of her community?

She came into her own in the “Can-do” 1950s and ‘60s when it was possible to make big changes in a booming Highline. It was a time when Highline schools superintendent Carl Jensen could become Highline Times’ Citizen of the Century (no word yet who is the front runner for Citizen of the 21st Century) by starting Highline Community College and the Occupational Skills Center, acquiring Camp Waskowitz and presiding over an enrollment explosion.

Among Bernadine Mathison’s claims to fame:
--Helped found the Crisis Clinic in Seattle and the Highline-West Seattle Mental Health Center, now Navos. After her death in 1989, the old Burien clinic was named after her.
--Member of the PTA or PTSA (whatever) for an astonishing 40 years--five kids spread over 17 years--culminating as Highline Area Council president.
--Helped start and first treasurer of Burien Arts Gallery that was located in what is now Dottie Harper Park. She and Dottie, a fellow Extraordinary Woman inductee, were colleagues in numerous volunteer efforts to make Highline a better place.
--Deacon and chair of the social action committee at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church.
--Named 1969 Woman of the Year by Burien Chamber of Commerce.

Possibly Bernadine’s Mathison’s most ongoing legacy to her community came ten years after her death. Mom and Dad decided to buy five acres of forested land in the mostly undeveloped countryside of Burien a couple of months after Pearl Harbor Day in 1941. As the war raged, they moved to Burien with three young boys into a 440-square-foot cabin while Dad started building the family home. In adulthood, I’ve had to adjust my childhood view of them as wary pragmatists.

Mom loved the trees as did us five kids. As we played outside, we nervously watched as real-estate developers drove down our long driveway in their fancy cars. They were intent on convincing our parents to pave paradise and put up wall-to-wall, ticky-tacky houses. Thankfully, nothing ever came of it.

In 1999, knowing Mom’s wishes, Dad donated the property to the city of Burien. With trails winding through the woods, playground equipment and picnic tables, it is now Burien’s largest neighborhood park.

Mom would be hugely embarrassed by this fuss about her. She would quickly point out she did what she did as part of committees with other unsung volunteers.

She would also acknowledge the other outstanding women celebrated in the display who all have their own uplifting stories: Jane Fenton Kelly, Ella Fenton Burton, Evelyn Yeager, Melba Eyler, Esther Balzarini, Rita Creighton, Lettie Gavin, Helen Kludt, Dottie Harper, Florence Smallwood, Vivian Matthews, Shirley Farley and Marilyn Jordan.

Of course, during all those years of community service she wasn’t Mrs. Bernadine P. Mathison to me, she was just Mom.

She was teaching her five kids, by word and action, principles like root for the underdog, help the helpless, family is important, believe in education, don’t waste, money isn’t everything and love the land.

Maybe that’s why we all ended up in rewarding, but not particularly lucrative fields, like journalism, education, historic preservation and government service.

I know it’s overly dramatic but I like to paraphrase what Sen. Ted Kennedy said about his brother, Robert when I think about the public recognition for Mom and the other extraordinary women:

My mother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what she was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent woman, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it.

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