Les Eldridge, a former Thurston commissioner, author and historian, dies at 81

Les Eldridge, a community leader, Thursday County commissioner, author, and historian, died Aug. 1 from congestive heart failure.
Les Eldridge, a community leader, Thursday County commissioner, author, and historian, died Aug. 1 from congestive heart failure. Courtesy of Mary Eldridge

Lester Waldron Eldridge, a community leader, Thurston County commissioner, author, and historian, died Aug. 1 from congestive heart failure, surrounded by family at his Olympia area home. He was 81.

Born Nov. 9, 1937 in Seattle, Eldridge spent much of his adult life in the South Sound. He was elected to the county commission in 1982 and served three terms. He helped guide the county into the era of growth management, championed creation of the Mima Glacial Heritage Preserve near Littlerock, and led the county’s efforts in comparable worth and non-discriminatory hiring.

Longtime Olympia area state legislator and fellow Democrat Karen Fraser served six years with Eldridge on the county commission. They also shared the same high school alma mater, Roosevelt High School in Seattle.

“He was always a man of good cheer and good will,” Fraser recalled this week. “He was well-prepared, polite and he loved history, especially maritime history.”

“He truly was a ‘man for all seasons ... husband, father, writer, singer, storyteller, political leader, civic activist, caring friend, historian, teacher … the list could go on and on,” former Secretary of State Ralph Munro wrote in a eulogy of the man called Les. “I loved the guy and will miss him immensely.”

Erudite, quick-witted and blessed with encyclopedic knowledge, Eldridge loved to sing sea chanties, write limericks and host New Year’s Eve parties with his wife of 39 years, Mary, ringing in the New Year with food, wine, song and friends.

“He was so kind to everybody,” his wife remarked. “He liked all kinds of people. He was my constant supporter. I grew so much with him.”

He overcame esophageal cancer 27 years ago, but struggled to recover from major heart surgery a year ago. Even in his final months and weeks, he was working on community projects, writing and sharing stories with friends and family.

“I’ve always considered myself an optimistic person and I know it came from him,” said Eldridge’s daughter, Katie Eldridge. “He had an innate ability to connect with people and get things done.”

Prior to elective politics, Eldridge was a top administrator at The Evergreen State College, which followed earlier stints as a student financial aid official at the University of Washington and Edmonds Community College.

“Les was my colleague at Evergreen for seven years,” former governor and Evergreen president Dan Evans said in one of dozens of tributes he has paid to Eldridge on social media in the days following his death. “He was smart, inventive, fiercely loyal to the college, funny and a joy to work with. … He contributed a remarkable share of his time, talent and loyalty to his community.”

His community service was exhaustive and diverse. Among his many positions were vice chair of Puget Sound Water Quality, president of the Thurston County Economic Development Council, maritime history instructor at Evergreen and South Puget Sound Community College, co-chair of the legislative steering committee for the Washington Association of Counties, president of the Washington State Capital Museum’s maritime chapter, and president of the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association.

“For each of these causes he brought an extra amount of enthusiasm and wit,” said former Secretary of State Sam Reed, who was Thurston County auditor in Eldridge’s county courthouse days. “When the going got tough and others grew discouraged, Les would persevere. He would roll up his sleeves and make it happen.”

After elected office, Eldridge was appointed by Gov. Gary Locke to chair the state Growth Management Hearings Board. Locke was one of five governors to task Eldridge with various assignments.

At Roosevelt High School, Eldridge played on the state championship tennis team and developed a passion for rowing, a craft he honed on Green Lake, first as a member of the Seattle Junior Crew and then on the storied University of Washington rowing crew. Much to his surprise, Eldridge earned the bow seat as the only underclassman in the undefeated 1957 varsity shell coached by the legendary Al Ulbrickson. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Eldridge said he was the shortest oarsman to letter in the history of the UW rowing program.

After a post-graduation tour of duty in the Army and while working at the Boeing Co., Eldridge coached the Green Lake Women’s rowing crew to five gold medals in the National Women’s Rowing Association championships. Later he was co-founder of the Olympia Area Rowing Association.

His love of maritime history was infectious and inspired in part by his father’s World War II naval service. Fellow maritime history buff Chuck Fowler said Eldridge was instrumental in keeping afloat the Harbor Days annual Labor Day festival and tug boat races in Olympia, helping the local maritime heritage group find a new sponsor – the Olympia Kiwanis Club – in 2012. Eldridge was a member of both groups.

Eldridge parlayed his love of maritime history and storytelling into life as an author. In 1987, he co-authored The Wilkes Expedition, Puget Sound and the Oregon Country, a history.” Upon retirement in 2004, he wrote and published five historical fiction novels about the American Civil War at sea. He contributed to several books on Puget Sound and maritime history, working on the second volume of “Tugs in the Capital City,” in his final days.

Mary Eldridge said her husband maintained a file filled with names of people who were experiencing difficulties in life, whether it was financial, medical or some other personal anguish. He stayed in contact with them, offering words of encouragement.

“He joked that he was working on his karma,” his wife said. “In my last conversation with him, I told him that his karma was in good shape.”

A celebration of life is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 22, at Swantown Marina. Details will be posted online at www.funeralalternatives.org.

John Dodge is an Olympia-based author and freelance journalist who retired from The Olympian in 2015.