The name Denny Ashlock may not ring familiar for many Spokane residents, like the names of the community’s politicians, athletes or rabble-rousers.
But he is owed thanks by anyone who ever enjoyed a sunny day on the Centennial Trail or a dive into Liberty Lake’s clear water. He’s owed thanks from anyone who has benefited from the teachings at Whitman College in Walla Walla or dialed 911 in the Spokane Valley.
Dennis L. Ashlock, who died Tuesday at the age of 59, shied from the limelight, even to the point of avoiding opening ceremonies for community projects he fathered.
By the time the ribbon was cut, he was usually well into his next project, anyway.
He was “a stalwart supporter of good things … A citizen with a capital ‘C,”’ said Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College, where Ashlock was a graduate and longtime member of the board of overseers.
“I can’t believe I’m talking in the past tense.”
Ashlock died of cardiac arrhythmia - an irregular heartbeat - at the vacation home he and his wife, Linda Ashlock, recently purchased near Ocean Shores, Wash. Funeral arrangements have not been set for the father of three grown children, who expected his first grandchild early this year.
Friends said Ashlock had chronic heart problems but downplayed their severity. In a 1990 interview, he acknowledged having anxiety attacks that he attributed to his many community activities.
A graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, Ashlock owned Ashco Insurance. But the business often was neglected as its owner doggedly pursued projects others considered impossible.
Friends say the secret of Ashlock’s success was that he never did anything alone. Rather, he prodded others until his dreams became their own, and eventually stopped being dreams at all.
That’s how it was with the Centennial Trail. Ashlock and a handful of others had the vision and ignored the naysayers, who in the early 1980s were legion. Trail boosters were called communists and fools for proposing the trail Ashlock hoped would create better appreciation of the Spokane River.
“The river was just being trashed. There were cars and junk all along the bank,” said Robbi Castleberry, a canoeist and horse rider who joined the effort at Ashlock’s prodding.
“I wouldn’t say it couldn’t have gotten done without Denny, but it would have been a different trail,” said Joe Custer, another early organizer.
Ashlock was absent in 1989, when then-Congressman Tom Foley helped dedicate a portion of the trail. He was in Dayton, Wash., helping restore the Columbia County courthouse.
“I played a small role,” Ashlock said that year, when asked about his role in building the trail. “Any project is done by a lot of people.”
In recent years, Ashlock turned his attention to Mirabeau Point, former site of Walk in the Wild zoo. Plans call for building a park, community center and other amenities.
“I called Denny (with the idea) and he said, ‘Man, I want to work on that,”’ recalled Greg Bever, Ashlock’s partner on the volunteer project. “He was our leader from that moment on. … He got us through a lot of rocky spots.”
Thanks largely to Ashlock’s leadership, the project will succeed after his death, said county Commissioner Kate McCaslin.
“That will be one of his greatest legacies,” she said.
A consensus builder by nature, Ashlock nevertheless made enemies at Liberty Lake, where the family moved in 1965. He was the driving force behind construction of the community’s sewage treatment plant in the 1970s, said Bill Funk, a scientist who worked on the project.
Several other scientists had told Ashlock the lake was fine, that the periodic algae blooms that chased away swimmers were natural, said Funk.
“He said, ‘Bill, there can’t be an inch of scum on the surface if it’s pristine,”’ said Funk.
The fights weren’t so much over whether to build the plant as to who should run it in the late 1980s. Ashlock didn’t want the leadership position, but was an outspoken campaigner for sewer district commission candidates during contentious elections.
“A lot of people at Liberty Lake wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Ashlock said in 1990.
But Ashlock never regretted the project, as long as he could see nesting grebes or soaring eagles from his home. He sometimes called friends to report such sightings.
“Isn’t that just marvelous,” he’d say.
In addition to his high-profile projects, Ashlock worked on campaigns to provide more tax money for fire districts and the juvenile detention center, and to change the county charter. He pushed for sewers throughout the Spokane Valley at a time when the very thought angered many Valley residents.
Those who worked with Ashlock learned to take the lead, rather than wait for politicians, said Castleberry.
She recalled that when others said they couldn’t accomplish a task, Ashlock told them, “Yes you can. You’re a citizen.”
In addition to his wife, Ashlock is survived by two daughters, Jennifer Ashlock of Lacey, Wash., and Alison Ashlock of Kent, Wash.; a son, Jon Ashlock, of Tacoma; a twin sister, Missy, of Spokane and brother, Steve, of Everett; and two sons-in-law.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: In memoriam In lieu of flowers, the family of Denny Ashlock suggests memorial donations to the Spokane Area Student Scholarship Fund, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA 99362; or to Mirabeau Point Inc., in care of Foundation Northwest, 421 W. Riverside, Spokane, WA 99201.