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Monday, June 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Nancy Compau, guardian of the Northwest History Room who shared her love of local history with Jimmy Marks and the rest of Spokane, dies at 84

UPDATED: Fri., April 10, 2020

Nancy Compau, head of Northwest History Department at the Spokane Public Library, works May 4, 1995, in the Northwest room vault where treasured volumes dating back to the 1700s are stored. Compau died on March 15, 2020. She was 84. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Compau, head of Northwest History Department at the Spokane Public Library, works May 4, 1995, in the Northwest room vault where treasured volumes dating back to the 1700s are stored. Compau died on March 15, 2020. She was 84. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In 2009, Nancy Gale Compau told her granddaughter Ava Pettoello, “Connecting and remembering your ancestors is just something that happens, it is life.”

Then 11-year-old Pettoello took down these words for an oral history project, but by all accounts, this is how Compau lived, collecting and sharing personal histories, and helping others do the same. Even the historical buildings she loved and protected were stories of the people who had lived or worked there.

Compau died on March 15 at 84. She was one of Spokane’s most knowledgeable local historians, known for her generosity with her time, her advocacy for historical preservation and her belief that all peoples’ stories mattered.

Compau made numerous National Register of Historic Places nominations, including a comprehensive historical survey for the town of Dayton, Washington. She was appointed to serve as a Historic Preservation Officer for the state of Washington.

She was the co-author of two children’s history books about Spokane, and provided vital research help for countless other historical books and projects.

Compau received the Cecil Dryden History Alumni Award from Eastern Washington University in 1992, Washington State Historic Preservation Officers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation in 1996 and YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Arts and Culture in 2012.

A dynamo

As former mayor Sheri Barnard put it, Compau was a dynamo.

As its historian, Compau was, in essence, the Northwest History Room of the Spokane Public Library. The physical room held its books and documents, but Compau was the bridge between the seekers and the sought, and she was quick, engaging and interested. Barnard remembers Compau providing a tour at the library’s dedication in 1990.

“Nancy was so involved in seeing that come to fruition,” Barnard said. “It was beautiful, and I remember her showing us around and how proud she was of the way it was set up.”

Barnard met Compau two years before that, when Barnard started the Friends of the Davenport to save and restore the historic Davenport Hotel, and Compau attended one of the first meetings.

Compau had an attachment to historic buildings, many of which were designated as historic thanks to her assistance. But the Davenport had sentimental value. After Compau graduated from Washington State University in 1957, she spent some time traveling in Europe, and then returned to Spokane to become a secretary to the manager of Northwest Airlines, which then had its office in the Davenport Hotel.

“My dad, when he was courting her, he would wait around in the lobby of the Davenport until she got off work and then they would go have a cocktail or something like that,” Jennifer Compau, Nancy’s daughter, said. “She’s always had this incredible love for the Davenport Hotel.”

Nancy and Parker were married on Feb. 6, 1960. Since Nancy’s death, Jennifer said her father has said on multiple occasions, “I put her on a pedestal, but the pedestal was real.”

Ellen Robey, who later took over Friends of the Davenport, met Nancy when she married her late husband Chuck Robey. Chuck had been close friends with Parker since they met at Wilson Elementary. As newlyweds, the Compaus and Robeys were neighbors in Browne’s Addition, and Ellen said she would have a glass of sherry with Chuck and Nancy in the eveining – while Parker was at law school – and Nancy would speak about the families who had lived in the various Browne’s Addition homes. Though they had died long ago, Nancy spoke of them as if she knew them herself, Robey said.

“She knew everything about all those old families who built all the mansions in Browne’s Addition,” Robey said. “But she also always knew the names of the maids. She was fascinated by all the maids and the carryings on that were sometimes written about. … Nancy had all that wonderful treasure in her head. I could listen to her forever.”

Education, family

Before pursuing her love of history, Compau received her teaching certificate from Whitworth University, and a special certificate from Clarke School for the Deaf in North Hampton, Massachusetts, for teaching hearing-impaired children to speak and lip read. She then went on to teach hearing impaired children in Spokane at Edna Davis School, which she did until she and Parker adopted Jennifer.

Nancy’s doctor was aware she had been unable to have a child, and had another patient who was a pregnant young woman.

“I was born and Dr. Stewart called up my parents and said, ‘Would you like to adopt a little baby girl?’ ” Jennifer said. “It was a blind call, and they said yes, and they drove down to the hospital.”

Jennifer was born Feb. 2, 1965, and on Feb. 10, Nancy and Parker took her home. They went on to adopt her younger brother, Paul.

“I grew up knowing from the earliest point in time I was adopted, and that I was with parents that wanted me,” Paul Campeau said. “I realized that I could have been in a situation where I wasn’t exactly a welcome gift, and I was put in a situation where I had this opportunity of a lifetime, if you will. In my mind – my sister feels similarly – that was us winning the lottery, getting the parents we have.”

Paul spells his name differently than the rest of the family because he attended a family reunion and realized there was a variety of spellings for the name throughout his family.

“The family came across from France, and at the very top of the family tree was a Paul Campeau, spelled the way I spell it, that brought everybody over here,” Paul said. “So, in talking with my mother, we decided that it would be kind of cool to rename me to be that.”

This is the kind of project that played out hundreds of times in Nancy’s day-to-day life. Nancy’s love of history and buildings was fully realized when she earned a Master of History from Eastern Washington University in 1985. Her thesis was Peaceful Valley, and she had assistance from one of her closest friends, Mary Donohue. Nancy would walk through the area, describing the features of all of the different buildings, and Donohue would take notes.

“It was a huge learning process for me because I could spell medical stuff,” Donohue said. “I had no clue what architecture words were. So she had her work cut out for her when she went to transcribe. … It’s something I would never have been exposed to, or gotten to do if it hadn’t been for Nancy. So it was really fun. We had many fun times like that.”

Doing a thesis project on Peaceful Valley might not be the most obvious choice, but it made perfect sense for someone like Nancy, said Mike Schmeltzer, a former Spokesman-Review editor. Schmeltzer first met Nancy while researching for an article in the Northwest History Room.

“A lot of people just really sort of looked down their nose at that neighborhood,” Schmeltzer said. “She did understand that part of our history is important, too, the workers. They weren’t maybe the people that paid to build the house, but they were the brick masons, the carpenters and the glaziers, whoever was up there actually building the houses, and she knew and she recognized their stories.”

The Northwest History Room

Nancy treated everyone with dignity, and it was in this way she avoided a curse. Jimmy Marks, the head of the “Gypsy” (now referred to as Roma) family in Spokane, invited his father’s spirit to haunt City Hall in 1997 after a police raid on the family in 1986.

“He went into my mom’s room and said, ‘I cursed everybody in the city, but not you, Nancy!’ and slammed the door and went back out,” Jennifer said.

Marks also loved history, and was a frequent visitor to the library’s Northwest History Room.

“He would pick out the books and she kind of just caught a glimmer of him struggling reading, and so she just grabbed the book and started to read to him,” Jennifer Compau said. “So then he would come in and research stuff, and want to learn about different stories and different things like that, and so she’d go find the stuff and they’d sit there and she’d read all these different things to him, so they developed a friendship through that.”

People often came into the Northwest History Room with geneaology questions. That’s how Jerrelene Williamson came to be friends with Nancy. Williamson had seen the television miniseries “Roots” and decided she wanted to find out how her family got to Spokane. Nancy was able to find the Breckenridge family in directories and the 1900 census.

Williamson founded the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers Society. In 1989, the Bon Marche department stores worked with that organization to honor the black pioneers in Washington state with a “Centennial Tribute to Northwest Black Pioneers,” and the organization put on an exhibit called “A Tribute to the Northwest Black Pioneers.” Compau was a member of the committee who helped collect photographs and other artifacts for the exhibit.

“I really want to tout Nancy, because she was a very good friend, and she helped so much with that endeavor,” Williamson said. “She was in the Northwest room for the longest time and knew so much about the Spokane community. And just a friend, you know? You wouldn’t think that she and I would become such great friends. But we were.”

Williamson wrote the book on the history of African Americans in Spokane, and it was clear Nancy held Williamson in high regard as well. Among her documents was a clipping of a 2010 Spokesman-Review article about Williamson, and Nancy had written a note on it: “A friend and a great lady!”

Taking notes

This was something Nancy had to do during one of the last stages of her life: Write notes to herself. The seemingly endless resource that was Nancy’s mind wasn’t cut off abruptly when she died. To her great frustration, Compau lost dates, people, places piece by piece, over the last decade of her life, in her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

But Jennifer Compau said she didn’t notice this loss when her mother was recalling details about historic homes in Browne’s Addition, Peaceful Valley, Dayton or any of the other topics where Nancy had a wealth of information. She made the connection over dishes.

The home Nancy shared with Parker was egalitarian, and in their division of labor within the household, Nancy had always been in charge of the dishes, and she had to load the dishwasher just so. One day, when Jennifer was at the house, Nancy went to unload the dishwasher and she was aghast with its disorder, and asked Parker why he had loaded it this way. He replied to her that he hadn’t, she had.

The time came when Parker had to start managing more of Nancy’s life for her. They would make appearances at parties and then Parker would guide them out when it became too overwhelming.

“There was always a real kindness there between them,” Schmeltzer said.

Parker began writing appointments in the calendar. If there was something Nancy didn’t care for on the schedule – such as doctor’s appointment, she would erase Parker’s note. Parker caught on to Nancy’s trick and started using pen. Nancy returned with whiteout, Jennifer Compau said.

The fact Parker began in pencil isn’t hard to comprehend: Pens were Nancy’s natural enemy, and no one was safe from her keen eye. Parker often took the grandchildren to the Northwest History Room after school to do their homework, and Trevor Park, Jennifer’s son, recalled with laughter getting busted by his grandma.

“She would basically go through, and, like, dump out my backpack to find the one pen that I would hide in there,” Park said. “Even as her grandson, I was still not given any sort of leeway in the library.”

Nancy treated everything in that room with such care, because to her, people’s stories were sacred. Among her documents was a transcription of a conversation she had with 23 residents of Canterbury Court in 1990. On the first page of the document, she wrote, “I used to give History talks, especially at Retirement Homes and get them to write some of their memories. Nancy”

She had titled the document “I REMEMBER …” and added two verses from poet George Cooper, “I am with you, Wandering through Memory Lane.”

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