Cecile Hansen Remembers Highline, Back in the Day
By Tim Burak
“We just called it the South End. Burien, Highline, White Center, we didn’t know about any boundary lines. We roamed all over the place.” That’s Cecile (Oliver) Hansen, Burien resident, recalling her teen-aged neighborhood adventures. Now well-known as the great-great grand-niece of Chief Sealth, and for her work over several decades as chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, she reminisced about her youth.
So how did she become a South Ender? “My dad bought some property on 4th Avenue South near 128th. I was in the first eighth-grade class at Puget Sound Junior High when that school opened in 1950. My home-room teacher was Robert Sealey. That’s where I met one of my oldest friends, Lois Olson Wickstrom. She and I still get together for lunch and talk about the old days.”
“We’d spend our Saturday’s at Coy’s Highline Theater on First Avenue. My mom would give me a quarter. That was ten cents for the movie and fifteen cents for goodies. We’d stay there all day. There was a lot of hollering and carrying on.” In those days ten cents bought you a double feature, cartoon, and a newsreel.
“Then I went to Highline High, where Mr. Leonard Johnson was principal. Nice man.” There were few other Native kids at the school, and hardly any non-whites. Her best friend at Highline was Fran Burak. “We were shy kids, used to sit together in the back row in shorthand class. Remember shorthand? We were faking it, never really got the hang of it, and finally Mr.Trowbridge caught on and told us he didn’t think it would be a good idea for us to take shorthand again the next year. That was all right with us. I wanted to be a lawyer.” She never became a lawyer -- marriage and family responsibilities got in the way -- but she has spent lots of time with lawyers, working to restore Duwamish tribal status.
“In the 1950’s we had to walk everywhere. Suburban buses were few and far between.” We went to one of the first hydroplane races over on Lake Washington. My dad forgot to pick us up afterwards, and so we had to walk all the way back from Seward Park. Nowadays kids complain if they have to walk a few blocks to school. I was an usher for events at Highline High – ball games and plays and such – and if you stayed for after school events, you had to walk home, sometimes pretty late. The neighborhood was way different back then. South of the stadium at Highline it was all trees as far as the eye could see, hardly any houses.”
“I loved to dance. KJR was the new radio station back then. But there was hardly any place to dance. So some friends and I joined the USO. The army would send a bus to the YWCA downtown and take us girls out to military bases where we could dance with the guys. Once a cousin asked me to line up a blind date for some soldier named Chuck from Fort Lewis. So I called up Fran and we all went out together, just driving around. Chuck and Fran didn’t hit it off. But later on Chuck and I got together, and we ended up getting married.”
Cecile has been to almost all of the Highline High reunions (Class of 1955). The next one, in 2015, will for 60 years. She’s wondering how old everybody will look, or how many people will recognize one another.
Her mother used to take her to the Duwamish Annual Tribal Meeting, beginning back in the late 1940’s. In 1974 she got seriously interested in tribal issues due to the fight for fishing rights on the Duwamish River. The tribe was given a small grant to open an office to conduct tribal business. She looked all over for office space, but had a hard time finding someone who was willing to rent to her. Finally she came across a classified ad in The Highline Times: Office space: $100 per month “Mr.Hall, of Hall Real Estate, had a space on 156th next door to McDonalds. He really helped us out, even helped us install a telephone”. In the late 1970’s, her old friend Fran came to work for her for a while, answering phones.Over the years, the tribal leaders were able to build a tribal center, now the Duwamish Longhouse, on West Marginal Way down by the Duwamish river.
Cecile is proud of her family, including her ancestors and her five daughters, seventeen grandkids and five great-grandkids. Her grandmother died in the great flu epidemic in the 1920’s.Her mother was raised in Indian boarding schools, starting when she was four years old, until she met Cecile’s father in 1934. Her uncle, Emmett Oliver, now 99, served as Superintendent of Indian Education for Washington State, and started the “Paddle to Seattle” canoe event in 1989, which still takes place every year. That shy little girl at Puget Sound and Highline has come far, picking up considerable leadership and public speaking skills along the way, mostly by observing and honoring the experiences of her elders. “I tell my kids: Listen, and you will learn.”