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Shawn Vestal: Obituaries tell story of our past

Shawn Vestal

One obituary is a portrait of an individual. Several are a portrait of a place.

The obituaries of recent weeks told a tale of the Inland Northwest that included veterans and businessmen, teachers and prosecuting attorneys, nurses and restaurateurs.

Here, summarized, are some of them:

As a young woman, Ruth G. Cunningham drove a forklift at the Kaiser rolling mill during World War II. A Coeur d’Alene native, she taught school in Coeur d’Alene and Dishman, before taking time off to raise her daughters. She returned to teaching in Central Valley in 1966. She married Cecil Cunningham in 1947; because Cecil had been a prisoner of war for more than three years in Japan, she became an active member of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, and she was a frequent volunteer for the VA and veterans organizations. She was also a member of the Terrific Truckers Association, and her handle was “Shutterbug” – a testament to her love of photography. She died Oct. 10 at 91.

William F. “Bill” Campbell spent more than 19 years in the Navy, including three tours of duty in World War II and the Korean War as a transportation navigator. He was honorably discharged in 1962 and began a career in sales and marketing in Las Vegas. He spent several of his later years at the Spokane Veterans Home. A native of Niobrara, Neb., he was a passionate golf fan. He died Aug. 14 at age 87.

Sharon Alice Brewczynski worked as a nurse in the Spokane area for 30 years. A native of Pittsfield, Mass., she served in the Marine Corps before marrying her husband, Stanley, in 1964 and starting a family. She returned to college, first at Eastern Washington University and later at the University of Washington, to become a nurse in the 1980s. She died Sept. 26 at home, following a long battle with thyroid cancer. She was 72.

Doris Virginia Distad came to Spokane in 1933 to attend Kinman Business College. She and her husband, Lloyd, owned and operated Lloyd’s Sales and Service from 1943 to 1965; she later worked for Rusans, a women’s clothing store that started in Spokane and developed into a regional chain. A dedicated volunteer and member of many organizations, she spent more than 50 years helping the Spokane Lilac Association. She died Oct. 3 at age 98.

Joyce (Cherniak) Harper was born in Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, and attended a two-room school until eighth grade, when she left to live with relatives in Winnipeg and attend high school. Back home for a dance one weekend, she met her future husband, Don Harper. They married in 1950. The family moved around with Don’s career; Joyce returned to college after retirement to study accounting. At the outset of her college years, a discouraging dean reminded her that she would be 65 by the time she graduated. She replied, “Dean, I’ll be 65 whether I graduate or not.” She and Don came to Liberty Lake in 1990 to be near their first grandchild, and they ended up staying. She died Aug. 15 at age 87.

Donald K. Kelly was among the partners who established the Zip’s Drive-In chain; in the two decades since retiring from the restaurant business, he also built a long legacy of community and charitable volunteering. A member of The Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Don served on councils and was a Eucharistic minister to people who were house-bound. He and his wife, Diane, were recipients of the Bishop’s Medal, a high honor in the Catholic diocese. He was raised in Spokane working at the family business, Kelly Gardens; during high school and college he worked at local grocery stores, and later delivered Wonder Bread – which led him to a career in the restaurant business, first with the Dazy Drive-In. He suffered a recent stroke, and passed away Oct. 8, at age 76.

Mildred M. Knorr was born in Spokane in 1938, the third of six children. She called Spokane her home for her whole life, but enjoyed long cruises with her husband and family all over the world in her later years, including to Russia and Japan. She met Robert Edward Knorr while she was working as a waitress, and they were married in 1957. They raised four children, and had 18 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. She was a lifetime member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the VFW Post 1474 in Hillyard. She died Oct. 10 at age 75.

Doris Frances Chrisman moved to Colfax from North Dakota with her family when she was young, graduating from high school there in 1932. She graduated from Washington State in 1936 with a major in French, and married her husband, Burdette, that same year. Burdette taught school, and they moved to the Spokane Valley in 1942; when their children were older, Doris earned her teaching certificate and taught first grade and kindergarten for several years at Pasadena Elementary School. She and Burdette were married for 72 years; they had four children. She died Sept. 3 at age 99.

Dianne Dougherty-Earll spent her legal career as a deputy prosecutor, first in Whitman County and then for more than two decades in Spokane County. A native of Great Falls, she grew up in a military family. She studied history at Montana State University and graduated from Gonzaga Law School in 1985. She married John Earll in 1992. She died Oct. 9, after a cancer diagnosis several years earlier, at age 68.

An impeccable dresser and gracious host, Elizabeth “Betty” Bellefeuille loved working at the NorthTown Crescent department store. She suffered severe Alzheimer’s disease during her last years, but her family remembers all the life that came before: teaching her grandchildren to play poker, always having cookies or brownies ready, her legendary Jell-O salad. She died Oct. 6 at age 87. She was a champion at “dueling” word search, and her obituary opened with this line: “Heaven, sharpen your pencils.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.