Longtime legislator Grace Cole dies; she put kids first

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Grace Cole never forgot her roots.

The former Democratic state representative made public education and issues surrounding children her focus, never straying far from her upbringing in a Depression-era Idaho town where the one-room schoolhouse was the center of the community.

Cole, one of Shoreline's cadres of women politicians who found their way from the School Board into state politics, died Saturday in Seattle. She was 78.

"Whatever was good for her own kids was good for her own state," said state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, a close friend and colleague who car pooled with Cole to Olympia for nearly a decade. "She was very community-oriented. She took the attitude from the one-room schoolhouse to Olympia. She wanted everyone to succeed."

Cole served 16 years in the state House of Representatives beginning in 1981 when she was appointed to the seat in the 32nd District. Re-elected seven times, Cole supported higher teacher pay, smaller class sizes and child-labor regulations that sought to prevent work hours from interfering with schoolwork.

Cole sponsored bills that ended corporal punishment in schools. Honest and pleasant is how many of her colleagues remembered her - except when discussing corporal punishment.

"She would get so angry over this issue," said state Sen. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle. "She had such a strong commitment to education, and she fought long and hard to end corporal punishment."

Born in 1922, Cole grew up in a politically active family in Sagle, Idaho. Her father served on the school board. What probably affected her most was coming of age in the Depression and then World War II, said her son, Bryan. Her childhood house was near the railroad tracks, and frequently her father would take in hobos hopping the trains, offering them a meal and a resting place in exchange for chopping wood and other household chores.

"In that era, the only way to get ahead was through education," her son said. "And she wanted everyone to get ahead."

Cole attended Washington State College. She married Carl Cole while he was stationed in the Army in Spokane during World War II. Cole transferred to Oregon State College, where she and her husband were anti-war and pro-democracy advocates. Home economics was her major and the area in which she made her early career, sometimes hosting a cooking show on KING-TV and writing a newspaper food column.

Raising four boys, Cole became more active in school-district issues. She was elected to the Shoreline School Board in 1970, and took her causes to Olympia. "She was always there as a mom, whether it was sitting through a piano recital or a soccer game," said her son. "But she also wanted to improve society."

Bryan Cole fondly remembers licking stamps and pounding in yard signs during his mother's election campaigns. "She didn't do it for personal gain. She spent her golden years in politics."

Cole, like U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and other women who emerged from Shoreline's local political scene, worked on issues related to women and their families. In the Legislature, she served on a number of committees, including education, labor and natural resources. She chose not to run again in 1998 to care for her ailing husband, who died in November of that year.

"Grace Cole set a new standard for public service with strong words and a soft heart," Murray said yesterday. "She led the way for advocates like me to follow her. ... Most importantly, she made a difference for thousands of families throughout our state by standing up for education, the environment and social justice."

Beside Bryan, Cole is survived by sons Ron of Couer d'Alene, Idaho; Randy of Yakima; David of Seattle; and several grandchildren.

Viewing will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow, and 9 a.m. to noon Thursday at Bleitz Funeral Home, 316 Florentia, Seattle. A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Friday at the University Unitarian Church, 6556 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Cole's name to the Center for Human Services, 17018 15th Ave. N.E., Shoreline, WA 98155 or to the American Association of University Women, 5003 N.E. 194th Pl., Lake Forest Park, WA 98155.