He led his county into new age with a smile

Willis Tucker had impressive credentials - newspaper editor and Snohomish County executive - but his greatest trademarks were his engaging smile and passion for golf.

Tucker, who suffered from prostate cancer, died Friday at his Snohomish home at age 77.

As Snohomish County's first county executive, Tucker guided his community from May 1980 to December 1991, a period of rapid growth and change. The conservative Democrat balanced an environmental ethic with tight-fisted spending and a commitment to bringing more jobs and industry to the county.

"I never saw a happy developer or a satisfied environmentalist in 12 years in office," he said in a recent interview.

Tucker ran Snohomish County the same way he ran the Western Sun, the Everett Herald's former south-county edition where he served 15 years as editor. He hired people he trusted, then delegated authority and let them do their jobs unhindered.

That hands-off leadership style garnered Tucker some critics. But even his opponents conceded that at heart, Tucker was a good, honest man.

County Executive Bob Drewel, who succeeded him in office, said he considered Tucker a good friend.

"Absent Willis' encouragement, I would not have entered into this particular field of public service, and I have spent a considerable bit of time and energy trying to measure up to the remarkable job that he did on behalf of the citizens of Snohomish County," said Drewel, who received the news while vacationing in Hawaii.

Although Tucker's accomplishments as county executive were significant, he's best remembered as a genuinely nice, wholesome guy with a quick smile and a ready supply of jokes, puns and one-liners that made him a popular choice as toastmater.

When voters stunned Tucker in 1987, nearly unseating him in favor of a political unknown, he felt deeply hurt. But he was able to laugh about it, calling himself "Landslide Tucker."

Tucker spent his childhood in Beards Fork, W.Va., where his father was a coal miner. His parents put him on a slow bus, alone at age 14, for a cross-country trip to Eastern Washington, where his grandfather lived in Coulee City, Grant County.

Boarding the bus, he wore a crisp new suit from J.C. Penney - "cost 29bucks," he recently recalled - and in his hand was a shoebox full of sandwiches, supplies for the trip.

"Dumber than hell, I was," he said, laughing.

Tucker's performance as a 6-foot-2 quarterback on the Coulee City High School football team won him a scholarship to Gonzaga University.

But it was 1943, and World War II was in full swing, so he joined the Army. Although he requested an infantry post, he was sent to Fort Custer, Mich., to train for the military police.

Tucker, who as a child was a member of the Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man Club, received orders to report to the legendary former FBI agent, who was then an Army colonel. Purvis, who nailed John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, was impressed by Tucker and tapped him to investigate major crimes involving American soldiers.

After three years, including two in Europe, Tucker mustered out as a technical sergeant. He returned home to Coulee City, where he married his high-school sweetheart, Annette Rhoades. Tucker liked to say that was his biggest achievement in life.

His first job back home was pouring concrete for the Grand Coulee Dam. Concrete poisoning put him out of work and launched him into the newspaper business.

He started with small papers in Coulee City, Portland and Snohomish, trying everything from print-shop work to selling advertising to writing stories.

He co-owned the Snohomish Tribune for eight years, then sold his share and joined the staff of the Everett Herald. In 1965, he became managing editor of the Western Sun.

"He was a great boss," recalled Cole Porter, a former Sun photographer who now is The Seattle Times' director of photography. "He gave you the freedom to grow and was very supportive. He just encouraged you to do your thing, to explore your craft.

"When you look back and say, `Who made a difference in your early career?', Willis was one of those people," he said.

Tucker tried to compete with his peers at the Everett Herald by building a top-notch staff, former employees recalled. He gave his reporters free rein and aggressively helped them gain access whenever city officials tried to block information.

During his years at the Sun, Tucker blossomed as a community leader, making the political connections that would lead to his 1980 election.

In the 1960s, Tucker joined the Lynnwood Koffee Klatch, a group of south-county business leaders who at that time gathered at the Fred Meyer cafeteria.

"He's just a jolly fellow. He had no enemies," said Lynnwood developer Dean Echelbarger.

His humor served him well as a member of the Royal Court of Jesters, a Shriners order. Tucker - along with the late Lt. Gov. John Cherberg - also helped found the Washington Generals, an honorary group with "no defectors or traitors, no turncoats, only good guys."

In 1979, Snohomish County voters adopted a home-rule charter that created a county executive and five-member County Council, ending the three-commissioner system that had been in place for a century.

Everett Mayor Ed Hansen, at that time a Lynnwood attorney and chairman of the county Democrats, recruited Tucker to run for executive.

His Republican opponent in that first election was Gary Nelson, who now sits on the Snohomish County Council.

"We had a good time," recalled Nelson. "He told jokes at every candidates' night - they were ones we'd all heard at the Koffee Klatch."

Nelson said people liked Tucker because of his open, gregarious personality. But he described Tucker's political philosophy as "pseudo-Democrat."

State Rep. Jeanne Edwards, D-Bothell, a former Sun reporter, said, "When he decided he was going to run for office and told me he was a Democrat, I laughed myself sick. I just assumed he was a Republican."

But the party choice seemed wise, she added, because Snohomish County generally voted Democratic at that time.

Edwards said she was devastated to hear Tucker's health was slipping. He'd lost about 30 pounds when she visited him after the recent legislative session ended, but his spirits remained high and his jokes plentiful.

"He was always so up and positive, even when things were not going his way," she said.

When Tucker took office he faced the task of building an office from scratch.

"That was plowing new ground. He kind of paved the road in setting up how the Executive's Office would function," said Gary Weikle, who joined Tucker's team during the executive's second four-year term. Now Weikle is one of Drewel's executive directors.

Tucker entered office saddled with a $6 million revenue shortfall, which he solved by cutting programs, laying off staff and freezing salaries.

When he retired from office in 1991, after three terms as executive, Tucker said he hoped to be remembered for preserving the Snohomish River estuary. During his tenure the county purchased about 950 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat in the delta area east of Everett.

With chinook salmon - recently listed as a threatened species - depending on river estuary habitat for survival, "That foresight was pretty amazing," said Debbie Terwilleger, a senior park planner for the county.

Tucker's favorite type of open space, however, was a good golf course.

An avid golfer, he took ribbing from friends and foes alike about how much time he spent on the fairways. His handicap was a respectable 10.

In 1990, Tucker and Nelson both played in a Senior PGA Tour tournament at Inglewood Country Club in Kenmore.

"Willis was two foursomes ahead of us," recalled Nelson. "I heard this eruption of screaming and yelling - I thought somebody must have gotten hurt."

It was Tucker, who'd just shot a hole-in-one on a 190-yard par 3, winning a lifetime supply of dinners at Duke's restaurants.

"Willis was running around, shouting and screaming. It was hilarious," Nelson said.

Tucker is survived by his wife, Annette; a daughter, Toni Fritchman of Kirkland; two sons, John and Kevin Tucker, both of Snohomish; and seven grandchildren.

Funeral services are to be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 913 Second St., Snohomish.

Seattle Times staff reporter Eric Nalder contributed to this report.

Diane Brooks' phone message number is 425-745-7802. Her e-mail address is dbrooks@seattletimes.com.