Naturalist John Beal, 56, was hero of Hamm Creek

John Beal was not your typical environmentalist.

He was a smoker and a Vietnam vet who called the industrial neighborhood of South Park home.

Yet for nearly three decades, Mr. Beal was one of Seattle's most aggressive and effective environmentalists.

Almost single-handedly, Mr. Beal brought a moribund tributary of the befouled Duwamish River back to life. In the process, he constructed a living, breathing testament to the restorative powers of nature — when it's given a little help.

"I consider him a true inspiration," said Kathy Fletcher, the executive director of People for Puget Sound. "He's the guy that had the vision that such a damaged area could be restored and could be healthy again."

Mr. Beal, who had a long history of cardiac problems, died Friday, June 23, of a heart attack. He was 56.

A native of Spokane, Mr. Beal met his future wife, Lana, at North Pines Junior High School. When her family moved to Seattle during high school, Mr. Beal would drive over the Cascades to spend weekends with her. They were married 38 years and had four children.

Mr. Beal joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam around the time the Tet offensive began in early 1968. He was wounded three times and returned to the U.S. in September 1968.

After the war, Mr. Beal owned a TV repair shop and later worked on electronic security systems. But he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had three heart attacks in the span of a few months. Doctors warned him that in a matter of months the illness could trigger another heart attack that might prove fatal.

One day while mulling his fate, Mr. Beal sat beside Hamm Creek and noticed the mess around him. He told one interviewer it reminded him of damage the U.S. had caused in Vietnam.

He set to work cleaning, restoring and, ultimately, protecting the quiet trickle of water.

He often told people that he had made a pact with God all those years ago, promising that as long as his heart kept beating he would devote himself to cleaning the waterway.

"His church was out at the stream," said his wife, who is a deaconess at River Glory Church in SeaTac. "That's where he met God."

"John's dedication to Hamm Creek was like a relationship to him," said B.J. Cummings, who knew Mr. Beal for 12 years through her work as director of the Duwamish River Clean-Up Coalition. "He credits the creek with giving him almost three decades of his life, and he wanted to give something back."

Mr. Beal had no formal environmental education when he began cleaning Hamm Creek. He also had little income.

He collected a modest pension from the military, and Lana worked at the Red Lion Hotel at SeaTac to support the couple and their four children.

Still, he doggedly pursued his cause, and by the mid-1990s the results were becoming clear. Salmon were returning to Hamm Creek, and native plants along its cleaned-up banks were rebounding.

In 2003, Mr. Beal was honored in the U.S. Senate for Outstanding Wetlands Program Development.

Mr. Beal developed educational programs that have taught scores of local children about the environment. The Concord Elementary School in South Park planted the John Beal Memorial Garden several years ago in thanks. Mr. Beal's influence on the local community is likely to continue in new forms. Before his death, he had been working with state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, on a Vietnam Veterans Conservation Corps, his wife said, "to help show others the healing powers of working with the environment."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Beal is survived by daughters Liana Beal of Burien and Michelle Beal of Federal Way; sons Robert Beal of Burien and John Beal of San Angelo, Texas; grandson Justin Lange of Burien; a brother, Harry Beal of Duvall; and a sister, Harriet Beal Cormack of Portland.

Memorial services will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Church of God building at the River Glory Church, 18435 42nd Ave. S. in SeaTac. A private ceremony will follow at Tahoma National Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the John Beal Memorial Fund, care of the River Glory Church.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or