Grit and spunk cling to Spokane’s first woman mayor like a silk blouse.
“I’m a tough old bird, as they say,” says Vicki McNeill, diagnosed with lung cancer in August. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Radiation and chemotherapy treatments have left her tired and weak. Her once husky voice is breathy, “sort of sultry,” she says. A full, heavy cough punctuates her easy, cheerful chatter. Her hair could fall out any day.
McNeill takes the disease’s cruel path in stride. Cancer is something to be tackled, brought down and left behind, like other obstacles she has conquered.
“I’m a great person for challenges,” she says with a smile followed by a one-syllable “Hah!” She adds quickly: “I don’t need any more.”
McNeill knows that some people will blame her cancer on years of smoking up to half a pack of cigarettes a day - a habit she stopped a long time ago. Doctors have assured her the disease wasn’t a “smoker’s cancer,” she says.
“At the time I thought, if I brought this on my self, who could I pick on? But it wasn’t that,” she says. “It was just the pick of the draw.”
When asked to describe her, McNeill’s friends and family sound amazingly alike.
Words like “tenacious,” “straightforward,” “funny” and “optimistic” spill forth without hesitation.
The traits gave her the tools she needed to convince arts patrons to buy velvet chairs for the then-seatless Spokane Opera House. They helped her keep the push for a new coliseum alive with city and business leaders, despite its rejection by voters.
They became increasingly valuable when she broke into what many considered an old boys’ club to become the city’s first woman mayor in 1985. They proved priceless as she dodged fireballs of criticism for her support of the waste-to-energy plant - a battle for which she endured name calling, a failed recall attempt, even death threats.
“She took a bit of guff, and it didn’t bother her a bit,” says Luke Williams, a former city councilman.
In fact, she expected it.
“If you’re standing still, there’s no reason for anybody to criticize you,” she told a reporter in 1989. “If you’re making changes, people aren’t as comfortable.”
Looking back, McNeill remembers those four years as “a difficult time,” but adds they also were “a kick.”
“You tend to forget (the bad times),” she says. “It didn’t matter what anybody else thought. You were doing a job the way you thought it ought to be done.
“It was exiting.”
McNeill’s family, primarily her husband, convinced her not to run again for mayor.
“I personally got tired of the hassles she was faced with,” says her husband, Jim McNeill, who often seated himself in the midst of her vocal opponents during council meetings. “The people who appreciated her the most, even at social functions, were razzing her.
“She had done nothing but good for the community.”
At the time, some doubted Vicki McNeill’s chances for re-election because of the controversial issues she backed.
She never did.
“I may be the ‘rich witch’ from the South Hill,” she said at the time. “But I’m their ‘rich witch.”’ Causes McNeill championed dot Spokane’s landscape. Under her watch as mayor, water and sewer service were pushed to the West Plains, making way for the Boeing plant. The Ag/Trade Center went up alongside the Opera House.
“If she believed in something, she would just keep going,” says Terry Novak, a longtime friend who served as city manager while McNeill was mayor.
McNeill always has been drawn to places of action.
As a child growing up in Manchester, N.H., she scorned dolls, choosing instead to play soccer or hockey with her two brothers.
“It was a natural for her to crack that good old boys’ network,” says McNeill’s daughter, Ann Apperson. “She’d always been with the boys. She’s extremely competitive.”
Boys, McNeill explains, were always doing things, while girls were expected to sit quietly on the sidelines. “I found myself more aligned with boys,” she says.
Her father, who owned restaurants and sold real estate, convinced her there was nothing she couldn’t do. He also taught her to “be responsible for my actions,” she says.
She remembers her childhood as nearly idyllic: digging for clams at Hampton Beach, feasting at picnics in Manchester parks, reading anything and everything she came across, dreaming of being a writer.
McNeill says her younger sister recently described her childhood temperament as one of a “skinny fussbudget” - a depiction the former politician laughingly accepts.
“I was not happy unless I got my way,” McNeill says. “My mother used to say I had a hard head.”
McNeill met her husband at a college dance in 1946. “Jim tripped over my feet,” she says with a laugh.
Jim McNeill recalls their meeting in a more romantic light. A day earlier, a palm reader predicted he would meet a “really pretty brunette with dark eyes,” he says. “I met Vicki the next day. It fit like a good glove, and it has ever since.”
Vicki McNeill graduated from Simmons College in Boston with an English degree in 1947. She worked a year as an editorial assistant for a publishing company before marrying Jim and moving to California where he attended college.
Later, when he enrolled in medical school, she went to work. “I wasn’t going to just sit home and have kids while he was doing that,” she says.
She spent several years raising money for the University of California-Berkeley, learning skills that later became her trademark.
“That’s what you use English for: To sell,” McNeill says. “It was a natural.”
In 1962, Jim McNeill went scouting for a place to build a medical practice. He settled on Spokane, bought a house and went back to San Francisco to pick up Vicki and their two young children.
“He came home and said, ‘We’re moving to Spokane,”’ she says, adding she didn’t give her husband’s edict a second thought. “It really was his choice. He was the one who had to make a living there.
“I knew I could make it anywhere.”
Within days of moving into the modest Rockwood Boulevard split-level house she still calls home, she was drafted to raise money for the Spokane Symphony. Her fund-raising efforts soon became legendary.
“If anybody needed to raise money, Vicki was the one,” says former state Rep. Lois Stratton.
In Spokane, McNeill traded a paycheck for volunteer work, devoting nearly all her spare time to cultural and civic projects. The minute her children “headed off to school, I was out the door doing other things,” she says.
Expo ‘74 leaders enlisted McNeill to help fill the Spokane Opera house with seats - which she did, one by one. She raised more than $800,000, convincing people to “buy” the plush velvet chair of their choice.
“You’d have first call at tickets for that seat for 10 years,” she says. “I don’t know why people bought into it.”
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, McNeill served as the first woman trustee of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce and as chairwoman of the Sports, Entertainment, Arts and Conventions Advisory Board.
She was appointed to the City Council in 1982 to complete the term of her good friend Jim Chase, who’d been elected mayor. She won the seat a year later and ran successfully for mayor against former Councilwoman Margaret Leonard in 1985, winning easily by a margin of 56-44 percent.
It took time for City Hall and some Spokane residents to feel comfortable with the city’s first woman mayor.
A planner talking to the council just days after McNeill took office referred to the members as “You guys.” McNeill quickly corrected him: “You guys and gals, please.”
She urged her staff to prepare unsuspecting visitors that the “he” mayor they might expect was actually a “she.”
“People looked past me, looking for the mayor,” she says. “My staff was told not to take anyone by surprise. They’d say, ‘The mayor’s busy right now. She will be with you in a minute.”’
By mid-term, a host of contentious issues such as plans to build the Ag/Trade Center and the incinerator left McNeill’s critics sniping at her character and style.
Some dubbed her “Queen Vicki” for what they considered her imperious and insensitive manner. They said she didn’t listen and tried to ram through pet projects with little respect for public concerns.
“I didn’t think she was a good mayor,” says former mayoral foe Leonard. “She promoted things that were not in the best interest of the city.”
McNeill is adamant she listened to residents. “I always believed that you don’t stop what you’re doing because of what people say,” she says. “You listen carefully, but you don’t stop it.”
In fact, her quest for public involvement meant some council meetings dragged into the wee hours, says Roy Koegen, the city bond attorney who worked on the incinerator. “We had marathon meetings.”
McNeill’s patience for public testimony was limited. During one long meeting, an incinerator opponent approached the council at 2 a.m. to talk about her concerns the plant would poison her children. McNeill asked if she should get out her violin to accompany the testimony.
“She was not there to play games,” says pal Novak, at the time dubbed “King Terry” to match McNeill’s royal ribbing. “She always was straightforward.”
McNeill told a reporter in 1990 the best part of being mayor was the people. “I also answer ‘the people’ when they ask what’s the worst part,” she said.
Since leaving office seven years ago, McNeill remains active. She serves on the state’s Higher Education Board, and Mayor Jack Geraghty last year appointed her as chairwoman of the Davenport Neighborhood Development Committee.
McNeill has taken a break from both while she concentrates on her recovery. She devotes most of her time to her children, six grandchildren - there’s a seventh on the way - and husband.
The couple spends weekends at Lost Lake, an 800-acre retreat Jim McNeill bought in the late ‘60s without telling his wife.
“Dad came home and said, ‘I just bought a lake,”’ says Jim McNeill III, now 37 and an attorney. “She didn’t even bat an eye. It was just another challenge, another adventure.”
That flexibility helped make her an incredible mother and grandmother, say McNeill’s two children. “She never minds a change in plans,” says her son, Jim McNeill.
Ann Apperson remembers how her mother studied arts and crafts for her role as a Camp Fire leader.
“You can tell by my mother’s interest in politics that she doesn’t have that much of a domestic bent,” Apperson says. “But she became that because that’s what our interests were.”
McNeill’s children say their mother was busy, but she always made time for them, reading their favorite books or playing games in the backyard. She continues that tradition with her grandchildren.
Apperson says her mother’s cancer is helping forge a new, more intense bond between her parents.
“Their lives were so separate. They were such strong, independent people,” she says. “Now, there’s this very real devotion that’s wonderful to see.”
McNeill’s cheery, optimistic manner remains unchanged by disease.
“It’s difficult to see what’s happening internally to her,” says her son. “She doesn’t want her children to be concerned about her.”
Instead, McNeill makes soft jokes about cancer and the aftereffects of treatment. “I’m going to lose my hair any minute,” she tells a caller. “It’s stubborn, though. It’s not going to go easily.”
Living with the disease has to be difficult, she says wryly, “or more people would want it.”
The hardest part is feeling exhausted and out of control, McNeill says.
“It’s hard to pull back. I’ve been a fairly energetic soul,” she says. “And someone else is calling the shots - the doctors, God, everybody.
“It’s not the most fun I’ve had, but it’s manageable.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)