By Brian Mittge / For The Chronicle
John Penberth, who proudly courted controversy as mayor of Pe Ell, county coroner, candidate for county commissioner, local Democratic Party leader and civic gadfly, has died. Four years after moving to Tucson, Arizona, he died on September 2 of complications from congestive heart failure at the age of 81.
Penberth was born in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, and raised outside of Pittsburgh. His father abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his mother destitute with six children. As a child, Penberth sometimes knocked on neighboring doors, asking if anyone could save a potato for his starving family.
In 1957, at the age of 18, he joined the US Marine Corps. There he met another Marine from Pe Ell who caught Penberth’s attention with his description of the abundant jobs in the mighty woods of the Northwest. On the surface, Penberth decided he would move west and become a lumberjack at the end of his tour of duty.
“I said to my mom, ‘I’m leaving here, I’m going west,'” he told The Chronicle in 2004.
He started putting on necklaces, then eventually bought and operated the Pastime Tavern in Pe Ell. He continued to send money home for years, $ 25 a month to support his mother.
Penberth left the woods after nearly dying when a log came loose and rolled over him, fracturing his pelvis and causing other serious injuries.
“He should have died,” said his daughter, Janice Penberth. “A few guys called him ‘Dead Man’ for 25 years after that. It is a miracle that he did not die then.
He was elected Lewis County Coroner in the 1970s. At that time, the part-time county position had no office space, so Penberth kept the coroner’s papers in a filing cabinet in Pe Ell’s family living room. It was one of many emergency service jobs he had in his life.
It was as a volunteer firefighter in Pe Ell that he met his wife.
Penberth was helping flush hydrants and washing the streets (as was the custom at the time) when young Donna Zock pulled up around the corner on her motorbike. She hit the wet sidewalk and slipped.
“She wasn’t really hurt, but she kind of crashed his motorbike in front of him, and that’s how they met,” their daughter said.
The two have been married for five decades.
Penberth rose through the ranks to eventually serve as the Fire Chief for the Volunteer Department. He also bought the West County Fire District’s first ambulance after growing weary of waiting for ambulances to arrive from the Twin Cities.
In the late 1970s, Penberth went to work for the Chehalis Police Department, where he gained a reputation for showing respect to both victims of crime and alleged perpetrators, according to his longtime friend Bradd. Reynolds, an officer with the Centralia Police Department who often collaborated with Penberth.
“John was never shy about helping people,” Reynolds said, “and I can’t think of anyone I would have preferred if I had to walk through a door, which is an old cop saying. If you needed to. back up, Penberth was the one you would want behind you.
Janice Penberth said that one of the only times she remembered her emotionally devastated father was after a fire in Chehalis while he was a police officer.
“He came in and out with a dead child in his arms,” she recalls.
A devoted democrat from a young age, Penberth served as Lewis County Democratic Party Chairman during the early years of the 21st century. He returned to the more moderate and conservative roots of the party.
“Democrats support property rights… in the same sentence, we also care about the environment,” he said in 2004.
He ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner as a Democrat the same year. He tried again in 2008, but this time as a Republican for his second run. In recent years, he was a staunch supporter of Donald Trump. Penberth’s daughter said her father saw something of himself in Trump’s outspokenness.
“I know my dad, in a way, sort of thought of himself like that, like, ‘I say what people think. I speak for the common people. I know he saw himself in that kind of light, ”she said.
In his later years, he was a strong advocate for the reopening of the Pearl Street Pool in downtown Centralia and was deeply frustrated that his work to secure state grants had not resulted in the revitalization of the swimming pool as a place where children could once again spend healthy time. outdoors every summer.
“He loved kids,” Reynolds said.
Penberth had a lifelong interest in Native American history and culture. During the Chehalis-Centralia Airport expansion decades ago, he would drive to the newly disturbed land in the evenings and collect arrowheads, which he then gave to the Chehalis tribe.
They were dated 9,000 years ago, her daughter said, and were on display at Lucky Eagle Casino.
He also volunteered on the reserve, putting his expertise as a woodcarver at the service of the young members of the tribe as they built canoes. On his own, Penberth carved three or four large totem poles.
One year, Penberth took his two granddaughters eel fishing with members of the Chehalis tribe at Rainbow Falls State Park.
After the death of his wife in 2017, Penberth visibly moved to Tucson, Arizona, to be near his daughter. He came to life there, buying a house last year. He even fell in love with a 94-year-old woman named Lena.
“He spent the last year in the sun, in love,” Janice Penberth said.
John Penberth is survived by his daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren with – he learned shortly before his death – a third on the way.