It is unusual for ordinary people to be recognized or well-known in a major city. Regular folks are seldom responsible for one major accomplishment, let alone dozens. Famous people are usually sports figures, entertainers, television personalities, tycoons, or people in politics. When average folks die, it’s only our friends and family who have a clue if our lives counted for much.
Such was not the case for Vivian McLean, who was 90 when she died March 24. While hers wasn't a household name, it’s unlikely there are many in Seattle or King County government who weren’t very aware of McLean's influence. A tireless community advocate, McLean spent decades lobbying for, and helping create, low-income housing, libraries, food banks, family services, and other programs for the underprivileged, many of them in the Deldridge, High Point, and broader West Seattle neighborhoods.
The celebration of her life last Saturday (April 9) at the Delridge Community Center drew a standing-room-only crowd of maybe 200. Along with dignitaries, most who attended were people who had somehow come under the spell of this most incredible woman. The story of her life work has been so sweeping and impressive that it almost defies credibility.
But fiction it wasn’t. Among other accomplishments, she co-founded the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association (DNDA), helped find a new location for the West Seattle Food Bank, and helped develop both the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center and the Delridge Community Center. She once told the neighborhood blog thehighpoint.com of the time she and her sister tried to get the city to build a library in the Delridge area, in the late 1950s: "At that time, the neighborhood was comprised primarily of immigrants and steel workers. The city told us, 'Those people don't read.'"
As the blog pointed out, in 2002, a brand new library was built in the neighborhood, along with new affordable housing in a building that is aptly named Vivian McLean Place.
McLean died at 90 still willing to be involved with community and civic projects. Those who came to celebrate her life and who knew her well were themselves stunned to learn the breadth of her accomplishments. She had inspired and mentored literally hundreds. McLean, with beautiful penmanship, often sent hand-written letters of encouragement or thanks — or critiques to leaders who failed her community.
Sometimes she composed short poems just to celebrate the beauty of a day or the joy of being alive. The time it took to create these must also have sent a message. She managed all this without Twitter or emails that could be deleted with one click of a mouse.
McLean was in many ways a recruiter. She could gather together a team, which she would then coach to become winners. Like all great teachers or coaches, she taught them how to believe in themselves and succeed on their own. She had a gift of creating champions of other ordinary people. She taught by example, persistence, courage, and hard work. She inspired integrity and humility along with the power to make democracy work the way it should.
McLean lived on a hill west of the Duwamish called Pigeon Point. Near South Seattle Community College, Pigeon Point is part of Seattle's Delridge area, which has never ranked high as a neighborhood for the affluent. Its residents are, and have been, working-class people representing a very broad slice of nationalities and cultures. Delridge was an area of town that wasn’t on the list for the first to get parks, community centers, libraries, or civic or cultural events. Delridge was the poster child of how the disenfranchised was defined. At least until McLean came along.
For much of her later life Vivian McLean was a tour de force in insisting the City of Seattle take notice of Delridge as a community. Unpaid, working with a smile and boundless energy and charm — along with an incredible work ethic — she brought her neighbors and the entire community together into a social and political force that demanded they be treated equally with other areas of the city.
McLean became known all over the city by others who worked to improve their communities. She was prominent in her efforts to create and inspire more volunteers to tutor kids in Seattle schools. She was instrumental and tireless in getting a library built. She lobbied, raised money, and was successful in the creation of affordable and low income housing. She sat on dozens of committees, commissions, and civic groups.
She met ex-mayor Greg Nickels early in his political career. He spoke at the celebration Saturday, praising McLean's impact on the city and noting that she was a force that couldn’t be easily dismissed. He reported that she wrote him often, giving praise for his good decisions and scolding him for his poor ones. King County Executive Dow Constantine joined with praise for her unselfish work to improve her community and heartfelt respect for her life's work.
Also present were a collection of City Council members who had come to respect her untiring efforts to make her city better. Jim Diers, former director of the city Department of Neighborhoods and author of a highly successful book on neighborhood involvement, remarked that he has told audiences worldwide about a woman in Seattle who can move mountains. As a result, McLean's achievements and name are recognized in dozens of world cities.
Courageous and outspoken, some described her as a woman to be reckoned with if you trampled on the spirit of her community. One described her as having an iron fist wearing a velvet glove. If you were unfortunate enough as a city official or a business to pollute the creek that passed through her neighborhood, or to treat her community or people with disdain or disrespect, god help you.
McLean was likely one of very few individuals who could have unseated any elected politician had she put her mind to it. But that, of course, wasn’t her style. Instead she probably would have offered them counseling.
It takes a special person to have so much influence and power and yet be a gentle unassuming friend. Her modest old farm home was a meeting place for gatherings of all sizes of groups, or individuals, who would come by in a time of need. McLean was there to hear their troubles or offer encouragement. In the summers people and groups met outside under a great walnut tree in a yard which is in some ways symbolic of the values she held. A greatness that survives over time.
We will miss you, Vivian. We will do our best to live up to your expectations and become better stewards of this place where we have chosen to live. Though I doubt many will come close to your example, you have at least taught us to try.
This story has been updated to correct Vivian McLean's age.