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Islanders mourn passing of Vashon’s ‘ferry godmother’

Island political powerhouse Marilyn Omey died in her Dockton home on Wednesday, March 7, after a battle with lung cancer. She was 63.

Omey was a six-year veteran of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and an avid advocate for the transportation needs of the Island she called home. Tributes written by friends and family last week wondered how Vashon would fare without its “ferry godmother.”

“She was my mentor, my friend and my inspiration,” said Kari Ulatoski, who co-chairs the community council’s transportation committee with her father Joe.

She took on the position last December when Omey couldn’t continue because of her illness. Ulatoski said Omey first asked for help with her chair position last summer, and the relationship evolved into a mentorship over time.

Omey recently retired from the community council, but only when physical limitations forced her to do so. Omey’s friends and family agreed politics were her passion. She worked as a social worker, mostly for the state Department of Social and Health Services, before retiring in 1998.

“She’s always been interested in politics,” said Jennie Hodgson, a member of the community council. “She was a determined person and focused.”

Omey’s husband Bill Lunbom, a longtime Islander, recalls the way he met the young Marilyn Omey.

“I was running a body shop (in Burton) and she came in to get an estimate to get some work done on her car, and I took a liking to her and asked her for a date,” Lunbom said. “She always liked to say that ‘I got a husband, but I never got my car fixed,’ which is not true, but I let her say that.

“Somewhere she has tucked away the estimate.”

Although he was not as politically active as his wife, he said he helped her as much as he could.

“I was always proud of Marilyn,” Lunbom said. “She knew what she was going to say, and she usually hit the mark. I can’t imagine that she was ever off base. She knew politics, and she was for the people and doing what was right for everyone.”

He described his wife as “very honest, straightforward, caring and genuine.”

“One of our favorite things was having dinner out at Sound Food, back at the days when Sound Food was the place and you had to have reservations,” Lunbom said. “Also we were members of Vashon Allied Arts and went to most of the plays. She really enjoyed that.”

He said she was a member of a feminist women’s choir in Tacoma from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, which was something she was very proud of.

The couple traveled throughout the Northwest, often visiting museums since Omey was a bit of a history buff. In 1994, Omey, who had never travelled east of the Mississippi, took “the trip of a lifetime,” a two-week vacation to England. She made sure to visit the ancient site of Stonehenge, Lunbom said.

Omey was born on April 22, 1944, and raised in Kent. A 1962 graduate of Kent Meridien High School, she attended Washington State University and participated in debate and Model United Nations there. She was named WSU’s outstanding 1966 graduate in political science.

She went to work for the state Department for Social and Health Services after graduation and earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington while working.

Omey was born to Horace and Marjorie Omey and is survived by her husband, her mother Marjorie Omey of Vashon, brother Ronald and his wife Joanne of Buckley and brother Eugene and his wife Jan of Bellingham. She also leaves eight nieces and nephews and their children, numerous cousins and her many longtime friends in the Kent, Seattle and Pierce County areas and on Vashon.

Although Omey smoked for 20 years, she quit 25 years ago, friends said.

Omey was a founding member of the fledgling Ferry Community Partnership, a new effort to link up ferry-dependent communities throughout the Puget Sound and thereby strengthen the voices of these small regions, often easily overlooked when budget time comes around but tightly knit by their common bond to the public marine transportation system.

Islander Vickie Mercer conducted a survey of Vashon businesses with Omey in 2003 when murmurings from on high showed that legislators might be thinking of closing the Fauntleroy ferry dock.

“She was a feisty little gal,” she said. “ She was a smart lady.”

The pair conducted a total of four surveys together, Mercer said.

“She wanted to show how proposed changes would affect the community economically,” she said.

“She had been working in Olympia ... to try and have legislation written that would mandate that economic impact studies be required any time a change in service was proposed. Marilyn and I used to go and lobby together.”

She said Omey became infamous in Olympia.

“She now has a reputation that when she walks into a room and legislators see her face they walk away because they know she’s pressing issues that are difficult to deal with,” Mercer said.

Omey organized the ferry summit that took place Dec. 7, 2007, in Bremerton, a gathering of 140 ferry advocates, legislators, staff from Washington State Ferries and the Department of Transportation and ferry-riders from various communities throughout the Sound.

“Everybody who was anybody relating to ferries was there,” said Alan Mendel, chair of Vashon’s ferry advisory committee. “Unfortunately Marilyn’s not going to be here to see it follow through.”

He said she was someone who saw the needs of Vashon residents clearly, but also took into consideration the needs of the rest of the Puget Sound.

“She was a great supporter of Vashon Island and our residents and our concerns and interests, although she also saw the bigger picture,” he said. “She was a bundle of energy, she was a go-getter. She got everybody around her energized, and she put in a lot of years.”

Ulatoski said Omey was an “essential and integral part” of getting legislators to pay attention to the needs of ferry-dependent communities.

“It was an excellent first step in showing how we can all act together as a group,” she said.

Omey spearheaded an effort to make buttons reading “Ferries are marine highways,” encouraging other Islanders to be as public in supporting ferry politics as she was. Her role on the community council also had a populist bent.

“She just did a superb job (on the community council),” said Jim English, community council president. “She was always concerned for the welfare of her fellow Islanders. She always went the extra mile. She took on the role of overseeing the board — she was very organized, very committed, very much a lady.”

He said it was Omey’s persistence that got the community council to formally lend its name, by way of resolution, to the Ferry Community Partnership.

“I think the Ferry Community Partnership has the potential to bring us together,” English said. “It is bringing together the communities to look at issues.”

He said Omey’s personality was very warm and loving, and that she cared about the Island at large, “from the council standpoint as well as the ferry standpoint.”

“She will be missed,” he said, “She was the ferry godmother, and in our case she was the council godmother.”

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