Pat Mummey, the only woman ever elected Spokane County commissioner and one of that board’s most controversial members, died at home early Monday.
She was 58.
As Spokane’s most visible cancer patient, Mummey used to half-joke that she was too ornery to die. It was that mixture of grit and defiance that got her elected to what many considered an all-boys club and that had sustained her since 1988 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Her contentious image often masked her achievements and a softer side. City-county agreements she fought for will determine how garbage, air and water are treated for years to come. But the role she regretted leaving most was that of grandmother. Her last interview was conducted with a grandchild asleep on her lap.
Mummey managed the end of her life as she did her career, right down to the final details of her funeral, including a list of enemies who wouldn’t be allowed to attend.
Among them is Jimmy Marks, leader of a Spokane Gypsy family who would shout down Mummey in public even after she had left office. At a 1995 gathering, Marks blared, “Mummey, you still alive?”
She also left instructions that Spokane County Coroner Dexter Amend not visit her home after her death.
Amend, who defeated Mummey in the 1994 coroner’s race, is under fire for bungling death investigations and questioning the sexual practices of the deceased.
“Amend won’t be allowed in my house,” Mummey said in 1995. “I don’t want him tripping over my body.”
In the final months of her life, the tireless Mummey arranged care for her ailing mother and called in Hospice of Spokane for her family, all while helping organize a chili fund-raiser for Democratic county commissioner candidate Ron Hormann.
Hormann is running for the seat of eight-year incumbent Steve Hasson, a longtime Mummey nemesis.
Despite years of vitriol between them, Hasson said recently that Mummey’s death would be a time of great sorrow for him.
“We fought like cats and dogs,” he said. “As much as we fought, she had a tremendous amount of courage and a formidable will we haven’t seen in this office.
“If she had her mind on something, nothing got in her way. Even though she was ornery, she was a great leader.”
DRAWING A BLUEPRINT
Mummey helped foster the waste-to-energy plant and the Spokane Transit Authority’s Valley and downtown bus centers. She gave teeth to the county Air Pollution Control Authority and Health District. She believed government could improve people’s lives, and she fought fiercely to limit grass burning, safeguard water and manage growth.
“Patricia Mummey stepped up to the plate for the citizens of Spokane County when this community needed someone with a plan and a vision,” said county Commissioner John Roskelley.
“She has left a blueprint for this community that says we can cooperate,” said friend and adviser Barbara Marney. “She said repeatedly, ‘We breathe the same air, drink the same water and care about the same things; we need to be looking at ourselves as a whole.”’
Born in Spokane, Mummey graduated from Rogers High School at age 16. Modeling herself after the only professional woman in her family, her aunt Myrtle Matsen, she enrolled in the nursing program at Deaconess Hospital.
She married Rod Mummey, a Burlington Northern brakeman, at age 18 and worked as a nurse while raising three children.
In 1981, Mummey was named president of the Spokane Chapter of the League of Women Voters. She spent the next three years monitoring Spokane City Council meetings but decided she would have far more impact as a county commissioner.
Her first shot at public office was the 3rd District commissioner seat held by Grant Peterson, the state Republican Party chairman who had brought President Reagan to town.
Mummey rang so many doorbells during her campaign that she developed tendinitis in one leg. But the effort worked. She pulled off a stunning upset in the fall of 1986.
Two months after taking office, Mummey convinced her two colleagues to hold their board of commissioners meetings at night - a practice that continues today.
She also quickly made her mark as an environmentalist, her greatest legacy.
“When the air is not clean, if the water is not clean, then it affects me,” she said in late 1986.
“It was a threshold more than a vision,” she recalled shortly before her death. “What was I willing to do to have clean air and clean water?”
She had studied garbage for 11 years in the league and became the most strident supporter of the $94 million trash incinerator. The project made Mummey enemy No. 1 among some environmentalists - the very people she championed.
It was part of the Mummey paradox: She could be your greatest ally or your worst enemy. She didn’t care. Once she had embraced an issue, she went to war to nurture it.
“She was a formidable ally and a formidable foe,” said former City Council member Joel Crosby.
“She never gave up on a vision,” said Carol McVicker, Mummey’s former administrative assistant and the first person outside her family she confided in after her cancer diagnosis. “She was dogged.”
Mummey was a close friend of former Spokane Mayor Sheri Barnard’s until the incinerator issue came up. Mummey was the project’s biggest supporter; Barnard, its biggest critic.
“For a period of more than two years, our relationship was quite strained,” Barnard said. “But ultimately, our friendship was much deeper than our political differences.”
In the heat of the battle, in September 1988, Mummey had her first cancer surgery. She returned to work just three weeks later.
In November 1988, she double-crossed her Democratic Party to endorse Republican county Commissioner Keith Shepard against newcomer Hasson. Hasson, who since has switched parties, won. Neither he nor Democratic Party leaders let Mummey forget their disappointment.
“I admired Pat because she didn’t play politics,” Roskelley said. “She stood for an issue on its merits alone, not because there were votes attached.”
Mummey never was impressed with party politics. When state Democratic leaders tried to take credit for her first election win, Mummey told a reporter, “They didn’t do squat.”
A PERSONAL BATTLE
By April 1989, Mummey’s health appeared restored. A Spokesman-Review headline proclaimed, “Without losing stride, Mummey beats cancer.” Mummey was quoted as telling her oncologist, “I never want to see you again.”
But she was realistic.
“If I should get it back, if I had to do all this over again, I could do it,” she said at the time. “Death is a part of living we have to accept. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept it when it isn’t your time to go.”
Visiting an ailing Shepard before he died of brain cancer, Mummey revealed what he needed to beat the disease. “I told Keith he had to get a lot ornerier.”
With her first term ending and her re-election campaign approaching, Mummey’s commissioner colleagues, Hasson and John McBride, flanked her Democratic opponent at a campaign rally and lent their support. But Mummey defeated George Marlton in a close primary and edged Republican Phil Harris in the 1990 general election.
By March 1992, the cancer was back and she began intensive chemotherapy, which caused her to lose her hair.
At one point, Hasson went on a Spokane radio station and said, “Pat is having a bad hair day.”
She was devastated.
Hasson said recently his comment was figurative and taken from a popular slogan at the time.
“She cried really hard,” he said. “I felt 6 inches tall. I always regretted what I said. If I had had any sensitivities at all, I wouldn’t have said it.”
Cancer forever altered Mummey’s public image.
For years, her bluntness had delighted friends and enraged enemies. As her career progressed, most people blamed her sharp retorts on ill health and her impatience on a shortened life span.
She never did.
“I’ve always been this way,” she said. “Cancer just gave me an excuse.”
Nor would she become a cancer spokeswoman, refusing to speak of the disease publicly. Although she counseled people privately, she said it wouldn’t help anyone to hear how a woman with good health insurance, a good job and all her blessings was coping.
“The more you talk about cancer, the more you become a victim of it,” she said. “Besides, there were a lot more interesting things to talk about.”
ALIENATION AND ACCOLADES
Friends marvel at how Mummey outlived her doctor’s expectations.
“How she lived as long as she did has given all of us a great deal of courage,” former Mayor Barnard said.
Mummey made another comeback to her job as commissioner in July 1992 under the headline “Pat Mummey returns, healthy, brash as ever.”
Her last years in office were marred by more dissension and alienation from unionized employees.
After one episode in which Mummey had criticized striking courthouse employees for wanting unreasonable wage increases, deputies were posted in her driveway to protect her from threats.
In 1993, Mummey’s cancerous spleen was removed and she announced she would not seek a third term.
When she was not named to the Northwest Power Planning Council, a high-paying post, Mummey ran for Spokane County coroner in 1994.
“I probably know more about my mortality than most people,” she said at the time. “I know I’m not going to live a long life like my mother.
“Things happen to me and it isn’t fair. But I can’t be a victim of this. I can’t say, ‘Gee, Pat, you have just five years to live - go home and enjoy the grandchildren and the flowers.’ “I can’t do that, I don’t want to do that. I want to spend as much time as I can being involved in something I think is important.”
Mummey lost the coroner’s race. Opposition from organized labor may have been the key factor.
She began having good and bad days.
Altogether, Mummey underwent five surgeries and virtually every experimental treatment available, from high-dose chemotherapy to taxol administered continuously.
Yet, she enjoyed months of good health.
At her early 1995 retirement party, hundreds of county employees, state leaders and City Council members gathered to celebrate her achievements. Crosby, who had sparred with Mummey mightily, served as master of ceremonies. The city unveiled the Pat Mummey Recycling Center at the incinerator complex, 2900 S. Geiger Blvd.
“I think her legacy will be her zeal for public service and her contribution to the whole waste-management process in this community,” Crosby said.
To the end, Mummey worked to establish a church day-care center, campaigned for Hormann and regularly counseled women leaders in county government. She turned over her papers to Washington State University researchers writing a book on local government.
But she also, finally, went home.
Mummey’s prickly image overshadowed a rich private life, from friendships dating to the Deaconess nursing class of 1958 to her marriage of 40 years. Holidays, vacations and most weekends centered on her four granddaughters, for whom she sewed quilts and pajamas.
As cancer spread to her spine and ribs and left her unable to walk, she rented an electronic wheelchair just so she could pick wildflowers with them.
“This community,” Roskelley said, “whether we know it yet or not, will miss her. I’ll miss her candor and wit because for years she showed us how to smile in the face of adversity.”
Mummey is survived by her husband, Rod; a son, Daniel, of Pullman; two daughters, Liann Sundquist of Seattle and Mary Kay Mummey, Spokane; her mother, Ruby Mayer, Spokane; two sisters, Joanne Palmer, Forks, Wash., and Nel Bylund, Spokane; and four granddaughters.
Services will be Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church, Third and Howard. Pastor Dorothy Riegel, former president of the League of Women Voters, will officiate. Memorials may be made to Habitat for Humanity. Hennessey/Smith Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
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