by Marcus Harrison Green
It’s hard for Gisela Baxter, Barbara Chamberlain, and Eugene Lux to accept the label living history but, as belly-bursting laughter boomerangs between them in the Southeast Seattle Senior Center’s (SESSC) meeting room, it fits each snugly.
There’s Gisela, who seems to have never been infected by the passivity embedded in most Seattleites, with her “tell it like it is” manner. Then there’s Barbara, whose bubbly personality seems to come from a daily intake of sunshine-infused vitamins. Then there’s Eugene, a former democratic state representative for the 35th and 11th districts, who, though more reserved than the other two, liberally laces his comments with wit.
While differentiated by politics and personality, they all share a friendship that has spanned more than 3 decades. They’ve also shared in joy and generosity towards the SESSC.
“We absolutely would not be where we are without them,” says Lynda Greene, the Executive Director of the Center. “Yes, they all happen to be white but it is what it is,” says Greene who is African-American.
If not for their heaping charity over the last several decades, the SSESC would probably have petered out before the mid-way point of its 51-year history, according to Greene.
The three octogenarians, along with an absent Jean VelDyke, are recipients of the Center’s first ever Trailblazer award, recognizing those who have been essential to the SESSC’s existence.
Though scheduled to be awarded annually, the Trailblazer award was created specifically to bestow recognition on these four individuals for unparalleled commitment to the Center that provides a buffet of activities for nearly 600 South Seattle seniors including dining, fitness classes, bingo, social service navigation, jazz concerts, art salons, thrift shopping and knitting circles.
Gisela, Barbara, and Eugene are meeting with me on a chilly first day of February to discuss their relationship with the center, which has spanned nearly 30 years.
Each, at least ostensibly, is also there to talk about their deservedness of the award, though none prove willing to embrace that task. Thankfully, they become loquacious once the topic turns to each other and those absent trailblazers.
“If Norman was alive, he’d be getting this award instead of me,” Barbara says glowingly, an indestructible smile plastered on her face.
She speaks of her late husband Norman Chamberlain, a long-time South Seattle community champion before he passed away in February of 2015. In the 1980s the couple donated the land the center currently rests on at the corner of Rainier Avenue and New Holly Street in the Brighton neighborhood.
“Norman’s mother and her partner lived across the street and had a beautiful view of Mt. Rainier. He said that someone was going to come in and build a high-rise and his mother wouldn’t have her view any longer, so we bought the lot.”
After purchasing the property, Norman spent the next several years driving around on his mower keeping the grass trimmed. In the early 1980s, as the couple became more involved with the local Chamber of Commerce and rotary club, they became aware that the Southeast Seattle Senior Center then known as Lee House and located just a few blocks from its current location, was in need of a new landing spot.
They made the decision to go ahead and donate the land they were holding in abeyance to protect Norman’s mother’s picturesque sight of the Cascades, but only after a little deliberation.
“I told him that will ruin your mother’s view!” Barbara laughs. “He said: that’s okay she can go there every day and have lunch and go dancing. And she did!”
The Center had the land, now all they needed was the building. That came courtesy of the trailblazer absent on this day due to business commitments, Jean VelDyke.
“This building was built without a mortgage. Jean negotiated the entire purchase of the center. When it finally got going we didn’t have a penny in the bank,” Gisela shares, adding that during the SSESC’s early years in the new building, which it’s occupied since 1986, Jean anonymously donated money to pay the salaries of the Center’s staff.
Jean stepping in whenever the Center found itself in need was a common occurrence throughout the years.
“Whenever we needed anything Jean would just take care of it, so I didn’t have to handle anything and I was okay with that,” a laughing Eugene says, as he recalls his time as SSESC board president which overlapped with Jean’s constant generosity.
Jean operating behind the scenes while others got the appearance of glory was simply a hallmark.
“Jean is a tough cookie. If you had a room with men with white hair smoking cigars she’d be in the middle running everything,” Lynda Greene says of the VelDyke Realty owner.
When attention turned to those present in the room – all of whom received their awards at a Saturday night ceremony at the Center – the praise was no less fawning.
“Her family donated the land so we literally would not be here without her,” Gisela says of Barbara, who is currently the SSESC’s board president.
“And she’s never really retired – only from work that pays. I’m so glad she’s our board president.”
Barbara, ever deferential to praise, lavishes some on Eugene.
“He was involved with the Senior Center before it ever came to this location. I remember coming to work parties here and see him working like crazy in the yard,” she says.
Gisela momentarily interjects. “Yes, he worked hard, but he sometimes had a hard time throwing stuff away.”
Guilty as charged, Eugene responds with: “I still have that problem…”
He also jokes that, had he not been involved in politics at the time as a democratic state representative attempting to get votes, he may not have taken as much of an interest in the center.
After the three finish sharing their latest laugh, Eugene expresses his admiration for Gisela and why naming her as an inaugural trailblazer was the right call.
“God, she’s been the mainstay here for so long. This was a minority community, and so people were a little standoffish because it was white folks who were kind of promoting this but, as time went on, people like Gisela made it possible for everyone to really understand and be accepting of one another… from the entire community.”
He adds that this is on display anytime someone walks into the Center, as a trip downstairs to the Center’s dining room confirms: yielding the sight of multiple races together, befitting one of the city’s most racially dynamic areas.
As the conversation shifted from the center’s past to its future, the focus turned to the need for additional outreach to the area’s senior community.
“We want to grow our community here with membership. We need to be out with other community and citizen groups. And we need to get a younger group of people involved on our board because, at some point, they’re going to become the leaders of this facility,” Barbara says.
Gisela hopes that the increased development in the area will also mean a natural increase of the center’s visitors.
“There’s obviously more apartment buildings being built in South Seattle. We hope that might have a positive effect on the membership here and that people will avail themselves of the resources we have here at the senior center.”
Barbara, however, meets the area’s continued development with a high degree of concern.
“I had a call from a realtor yesterday informing me that the city is looking to increase the height restriction from 40 to 55 feet and I could sell my property and someone could build a bigger building with more units and I said, “No! Not on my property!” Barbara exclaims, who currently lives in Rainier Beach’s Spinnaker Bay Condominiums but owns the apartment complex across from the Center and is no fan of up-zoning.
As our time speeds toward the finish line, they attempt to encapsulate what the center has meant to them over these past few decades.
“God it’s hard to believe so much time has gone by,” Eugene says. “This is a place for community.”
For Gisela that community is found in the small acts of affection, she receives from fellow members at the center. “I come down here to get hugs!” She pronounces.
It’s simple for Barbara: “This center and the whole surrounding community; there’s no better place in the city or state to live. That’s just my opinion.”
She adds another directed at young people within the community who she hopes will be future trailblazers: “You need to be part of the community. If you’re not contributing, you’re going to be isolated.”
Gisela and Eugene nod approvingly, with the latter providing one final addendum to those words of wisdom: “And stay out of politics!”
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image courtesy of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center: (From left to right) Gisela Baxter, Eugene Lux and Barbara Chamberlain.