Werdna Finley, Longtime Advocate Who Brought Theater To Children

Werdna Finley, an Olympia resident, was a lifelong advocate of theater and drama and her endless volunteer work is credited with helping establish productions for children in Washington.

Mrs. Finley, 81, the wife of the late state Supreme Court Judge Robert C. Finley, died of cancer Wednesday at her home. She was the mother of three children who followed their mother's lead and spent large parts of their lives involved with the theater.

"As kids she hauled all of us to every (theater) production that was available, anywhere," explained her son, Randy Finley, who started the Seven Gables Co., which owned approximately 20 movie theaters in Seattle, Portland, Bremerton and Tacoma from 1970 to 1986.

Randy now owns a winery - Mount Baker Vineyards - near Bellingham.

A daughter, Pat Finley, who recently moved to Annecy, France, was for several years hostess of Seattle Today, a daytime television program on Channel 5. Before that she was a stage actress in New York and later did several television series.

Another daughter, Mary Ellen Finley, nicknamed "Sparkle," now lives in Seattle and works in retail sales, but for about 10 years worked as a director and stage manager in New York theater productions.

"We were a very theatrical family," Randy Finley said, explaining that even his father, Robert, went to law school only because he could not make a living as a jazz musician during the Depression.

Robert Finley subsequently won election to the state Supreme Court in 1951 and was still on the bench when he died in 1976.

Randy Finley believes it was the pageantry and mystic nature of the theater that attracted his mother and why she volunteered all her spare time working to promote children's plays and drama productions.

Agnes Haaga, professor emeritus of the School of Drama at the University of Washington and a longtime friend, credits Mrs. Finley as one of the founders here of Junior Programs, which was organized in 1939 to sponsor plays for children.

Mrs. Finley was very intelligent and had an imaginative way of seeing things, Haaga recalled. She could make extravagant creatures from driftwood she found at La Push, Clallam County, a favorite vacation spot. "She could do beautiful driftwood sculptures," Haaga added.

But it was her love of children's theater that dominated much of Mrs. Finley's life, and in 1988 the American Alliance for Theatre and Education presented her a special citation to recognize her 50 years of working for children's theater and drama.

Mrs. Finley was director of the Children's Theatre Association of the Northwest in the 1950s, she served as children's theater representative on the advisory council of the Northwest Drama Conference, and she was the editor of the Children's Theatre Association's national newsletter for five years, to name a few of her children's theater activities.

Pat Finley said her mother's attitude was, "you must contribute something to the world - make the world a better place."

"She was a drama major (in college) and she wanted to be a critic," Pat Finley said. "Her heart was always in music and theater," she added.

Randy Finley said his mother preached self-sufficiency, making her children buy any luxuries they wanted, such as a bicycle, with money they had earned. In a way, she was responsible for the seed money for the Seven Gables Co. he later created, Randy said.

When he was 11, Randy had two paper routes at the same time. He delivered a daily Seattle paper in the morning and a daily Olympia paper in the afternoon. When he had saved enough money, his mother took him to a property-tax auction where for $125 he bought a 2.5-acre piece of property on the west side of Olympia, Randy recalled. That property became part of The Evergreen State College and the state paid him $20,000 for it many years later, which allowed him to start the Seven Gables Co., he explained.

"She wanted us to produce and contribute," her son said.

His mother's unusual first name came from her Norwegian father's insistence that his first child be named Andrew, after himself, Randy said. When his first child was a girl, Werdna, Andrew spelled backwards, became her name. She was proud of it, Randy explained, and met two other women with the same first name, both of whom were from Scandinavian families.

"She was a neat lady," Randy Finley said.

A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Olympia. Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetary, also in Olympia. Visitation hours were scheduled today from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Olympia's Mills and Mills Funeral Home.

The family asks that remembrances be made to the Thurston County Food Bank.