Elizabeth Tanner helped to preserve Pike Place Market

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Elizabeth Tanner was a frugal woman, a child of the Depression who often thought of herself as a poor Nebraskan even after she had a not-so-poor life.

"If she could save two cents, she would walk a mile," said her grandson Nicholas Tanner.

Frugal, but not cheap, with her time and money.

"She would just give as much as she possibly could to whoever needed help," said Bonnie Tibbles, who like Tanner volunteered for the Pike Place Market Foundation. "I don't know if I ever walked through the Market with her that she didn't put a dollar out to someone."

A recipient of Mrs. Tanner's generosity is the Market itself, which she helped save in the late 1960s and early '70s as executive secretary of the Friends of the Market. For that and later work at the Market Foundation, she never received a dime.

Mrs. Tanner died Thursday (March 14) of complications of a December surgery. She was 81.

Mrs. Tanner started working for the Friends of the Market in the mid-1960s, soon after her son Nick, a University of Washington medical student, died while hiking in the Cascade Mountains near North Bend.

"To have stayed home and nursed my sorrow would only have accomplished a loss of sanity," she wrote in a family album.

She ran the office, wrote letters, answered the phone, organized fund-raisers, coordinated volunteers and carried picket signs. While Victor Steinbrueck, UW architecture professor who led the save-the-Market effort, was on a yearlong sabbatical in 1968 and 1969, Tanner kept at it. The Market was spared the wrecking ball by a citizens initiative in 1971.

"I can say the Market was saved in large part to the tremendous work of Elizabeth Tanner and the undying commitment that she gave to it," said Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, Victor's son, who sponsored a proclamation yesterday honoring Mrs. Tanner.

With her husband, George, an executive with Crowley Maritime, Mrs. Tanner later lived in Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, San Francisco and Florida.

Shortly before her husband died in 1986, she again turned to the Market "for my survival," this time volunteering for the Market Foundation, which raises funds for the Market's human-services agencies.

"We always called her 'The Boss,' " said Marlys Erickson, the foundation's executive director.

Among other things, Tanner wrote thousands of thank-you notes to contributors.

It was a labor of love.

"Here, there is no deceptive lighting, no Madison Avenue advertising, no plastic covering up — and most importantly, no need for it," she wrote in "A Cook's Tour of the Pike Place Market."

The cookbook was sold to raise money first for the Friends of the Market and, almost 25 years later, the foundation.

"Chrome, glass, plastic and glib advertising will always be a poor substitute for warm human beings eager and anxious to please you as you wander from vegetables to meats to cheese. This, then, is the true marketplace — a place of people."

Mrs. Tanner is survived by her son Michael of Camano Island and two grandchildren, Nicholas of Seattle and Joseph Tanner of Sacramento, Calif.

Services will be at 2 p.m. today at Wiggen & Sons Funeral Home, 2003 N.W. 57th St., Seattle. Donations may be made to the George and Elizabeth Tanner Fund in care of the Market Foundation, 85 Pike St., Room 500, Seattle, WA 98101.

Eric Sorensen can be reached at 206-464-8253 or esorensen@seattletimes.com.