What do you call it when three obsessive wordsmithing sisters write an obituary together for their 102-year-old mother? A most excellent tribute to a life well lived, and long! You only get one obituary, might as well make it a story.
I wrote the first draft of this many months ago, maybe a year or more, I don’t know. Maybe the last time we thought she was having her final crisis. Maybe thinking writing it would make it needed. It languished, all but forgotten, on my laptop. I kind of wish I had read it to her. But at what point does one read their parent their own obituary? Rebecca says she would have had corrections.
I think she would be amazed by the outpouring of attention to her death—a front page article in the paper and two columns by regular columnists—from a town grateful for her life and her contributions. She left a legacy in this town she called home for almost 60 years.
This version includes a some sentences that were deleted for submission to the newspaper, an attempt to make it insignificantly shorter.
Stellajoe English Staebler was born in Morristown, Tennessee, in 1916, to Jessie Bell Jarnagin and John Calton English. As she had hoped, she died as she slept, on April 21, 2018, just short of 102 years.
Stellajoe loved the Great Smoky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and the flora of each—leaving thousands of photographs for her daughters to deal with. And she loved her family: her husband of 51 years, George R. Staebler, who preceded her in death by 23 years; daughters Jo Ann, Gretchen, and Rebecca; son-in-law Peter; grandchildren Nicholas, Joanna, Emma, and Joel; granddaughters-in-law Kristy and Wynne, and grandson-in-law Michael; and great-grandsons Max, Ethan, Elliot, and Adrian. Her only regret in dying was to miss watching those little boys growing up.
Stellajoe was a secretary and bookkeeper for Tennessee Valley Authority when she met George, a happily displaced Michigander. They courted in the Smoky Mountains before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and entered meteorology training at NYU, far from her for the next year. Following his training, they married and spent six weeks together in Texas before he half-unexpectedly shipped overseas. They were separated for another two and a half years, linked by love poured out in 1000 letters.
During their separation, determined to help the war effort and end that “terrible” event, Stellajoe worked for the Civil Service at airfields in Washington, Michigan, and Florida, courageously moving around the country by train. When George finally returned and was employed by the U.S. Forest Service, they moved west as they had dreamed in their letters, eventually settling in Centralia in 1960.
Stellajoe worked as a secretary for the Forest Service until their first child was born and then cared for home, husband, and children for the rest of her life. She sold World Book Encyclopedias door-to-door until she earned a set for her family, hoping to inspire in them a pursuit of knowledge. She sold Community Concert tickets and took her family to every concert as reward. She served many years as a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher, in keeping with her passion for service to others, particularly children and youth. As a nonagenarian, she volunteered at the senior center.
A patron of native arts, she befriended and drove basket weavers from the Chehalis Tribe to grass collection sites and purchased their baskets, along with needlework of the Laotian women who lived in Centralia. After her daughters left home, she joined George, who served as Director of Forestry Research for Weyerhaeuser Company, on trips around the country and the world, always collecting handcrafts of the indigenous people. She enjoyed dabbling in art and craft herself—proven by boxes of fabric scraps, jars of homemade dye, and bags of dried wildflowers. When an eye surgery made it difficult to endure sunlight, she became queen of hats, especially those of a local maker.
She loved entertaining—and putting to work—her grandchildren when they made solo trips from the east coast to visit, instilling in them an enduring love for the Pacific Northwest that became home to three of them; the eldest migrating to her beloved Appalachian mountains.
In her mid-60s she reestablished herself as a quiet activist—begun as a high school senior speaking out against racial segregation in the Deep South. She became involved in world peace efforts, environmental protection, gun control, the Tinnitus Association, and late in life spoke out for marriage equality. At age 100, after moving from her home to Cooks Hill Manor, she joined the resident council, advocating for better food after holding a personal sit-in in the dining room. Born before women had the right to vote, she thrilled at the opportunity to cast her ballot for a woman for president in 2016. She was proud of her appearance in the book, We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born before Suffrage.
Following George’s death, she maintained the family home with the assistance of a cadre of friends and hired help who became friends. She called her 80s her favorite decade, as she reclaimed the independent spirit of her 20s. When she was 86, first her youngest daughter and 10 years later the middle one returned home to live with and care for her—though mostly she thought she was caring for them. She lived in her home until a few months beyond her 100th birthday. Although blind, she learned to navigate life at the Manor, knowing the names of every aide as well as the residents, recognizing them by their voices, as she courageously fought her last battle: old age.
Her greatest passion and achievement was protecting the forest behind her Seminary Hill home. In 1980, she approached the City of Centralia with a plea and a plan to preserve the area from logging, led a successful signature drive, and co-founded the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area (FSHNA). She remained an active member even when she could no longer clean or walk the trails, securing refreshments, making calls, and distributing photo cards. In 2016, on her 100th birthday, the new shelter at the Seminary Hill Natural Area was dedicated to and named for her. In 2017, she was awarded the Rufus Kaiser Award for her work in establishing FSHNA. Fittingly, she slipped earth’s bonds hours before FSHNA’s annual Earth Day cleanup. Her last request was that her daughters tell her how many came to the workday (34). She will be forever found in the trees and wildflowers on her beloved hill.
A celebration of Stellajoe’s life will be held June 9, 2pm, at Centralia First United Methodist Church.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be mailed to The Stellajoe Staebler Scholarship Fund at the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, 212 Union Ave SE, Suite 102, Olympia, WA 98501 or make an online donation at www.thecommunityfoundation.com.