Ex-Mayor Mcneill Dies At 71 Humor, Grit Helped Her Break Gender Barrier, Endure Threats

Vicki McNeill, Spokane’s first woman mayor, died at home Thursday evening.

She was 71.

McNeill was diagnosed with lung cancer last August. Typically upbeat, she considered the disease another in a series of obstacles she hoped to conquer.

“I’m a great one for challenges,” McNeill said during an interview a few weeks ago. She gently joked then about her breathy voice and pending hair loss.

When McNeill realized she couldn’t outrun the cancer, she accepted her fate with grace, said her daughter, Ann Apperson.

Nearly 100 people visited her the week before her death, Apperson said. “Every time someone came in, she would smile and acknowledge them. … It was remarkable.”

That mix of warmth, tenacity and humor helped McNeill break the gender barrier and become mayor in 1985.

It also helped her through a rocky four-year term, during which she endured death threats and a failed recall attempt over her support of the waste-to-energy plant.

Under McNeill’s watch, the Ag Trade Center went up alongside the Opera House. Water and sewer service were pushed to the West Plains, making way for the Boeing plant.

Critics accused her of being imperious, dubbing her “Queen Vicki.” Supporters considered her one of the city’s greatest leaders.

“The best civic leaders are people who are committed and courageous about what they’re doing, but also balanced. That’s what Vicki was,” said Terry Novak, a longtime friend who served as city manager while McNeill was mayor.

McNeill chose not to run for re-election in 1989 at her family’s urging. While many doubted her chances, she didn’t.

“I may be the ‘rich witch’ from the South Hill,” she said at the time. “But I’m their ‘rich witch.”’

McNeill gained fame for her talent as a fund-raiser long before launching her political career. Days after moving into her South Hill home in 1962, she was drafted to raise money for the symphony.

She almost single-handedly filled the Spokane Opera House with chairs, raising nearly $800,000. She kept the push for a new Coliseum alive even after voters turned it down.

McNeill was appointed to the 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 in 1985.

McNeill was raised in Manchester, N.H., by an entrepreneur father and homemaker mother. She scorned dolls, heading instead for the soccer field or basketball court.

She graduated from Simmons College in Boston with an English degree in 1947. She worked a year as an editorial assistant before marrying Jim McNeill and moving to California, where he attended medical school.

In the last months of Vicki McNeill’s life, chemotheraphy and radiation treatments stole her energy and strength, but she refused to let the disease steal all her pleasures.

She baby-sat her grandchildren. She read voraciously. She kept a busy social calender.

Arranging an interview with a reporter in November, she declined a suggested time and date, saying with a husky laugh, “I have a hair appointment that day - and I’d crawl to that.”

Apperson said McNeill was surrounded by family and friends when she died. Her grandchildren played games on the floor and sang songs.

“It was a good death,” Apperson said. “She was surrounded by love. She taught me how to live, and she taught me how to die.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, McNeill is survived by a son, James McNeill III; six grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren, all of Spokane.

A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday in the Ag Trade Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.

The family suggests donations to the Women Helping Women Endowment Fund. Checks should be sent to Foundation Northwest-WHW, 421 W. Riverside, Suite 400, 99201.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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