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Two Island women honored for decades of work on health care issues

Dorothy Johnson, left, and Opal Montague, at Montague’s home on the West Side Highway.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Dorothy Johnson, left, and Opal Montague, at Montague’s home on the West Side Highway.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Those who know the two women well say that Opal Montague was the gracious one, able to smooth ruffled feathers when the need arose, while Dorothy Johnson was the firebrand, the activist determined to right what she saw as a wrong.

It was a winning combination.

In the late 1960s, at a time when Vashon was considered medically under-served and the country was still trying to build President Johnson’s dream of a “Great Society,” Johnson and Montague — two young mothers — joined forces, working side by side to bring quality health care to Vashon.

Johnson formed a board of directors and asked Mon-tague to serve on it. With support from the University of Washington, they organized a group of 150 Islanders who went door to door, interviewing residents for as long as an hour to find out more about their healthcare needs.

Finally, with the results of that survey in hand, the fledgling board got a grant from the UW, rented a small house in Burton and staffed it with three nurse practitioners — the birth of the Vashon Health Center.

“I had a friend who needed health care and couldn’t afford it,” Johnson recalled. “It bothered me, because health is the most important part of your life. It’s a right, not a privilege.”

Montague smiled at her friend. “You were the spark all along,” she told Johnson.

“I didn’t do anything,” Johnson answered.

“Oh, you irritated a lot of people. You always told it like it was,” Montague reminded her, as the two women laughed.

Both women will be honored next week, when U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle) visits Vashon to discuss the nation’s new healthcare legislation. Kate Hunter, a member of the Sunrise Ridge Health Services board, said it’s important to recognize the role these two women played at a pivotal time in the Island’s history.

“They were so creative,” Hunter said. “Opal brought stability and seasoned thinking. Dorothy brought the passion. They balanced each other beautifully.”

They also performed what amounted to Herculean tasks at the time — not only starting a health clinic from scratch but securing a former Nike missile site when the Burton house proved too small. The government had never turned over a military base to a private group before, Montague recalled, but Johnson — determined and tenacious — persisted.

They were finally successful: In 1976, what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said their board could rent the 14-acre site known as Sunrise Ridge for $1 a year for 31 years; three years ago, the site was deeded to the nonprofit board, now the bustling home of not only the Vashon Health Center, but also Granny’s Attic, the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank and other nonprofits.

The two women had large families (Montague has four children, Johnson, five), as well as husbands who commuted to jobs at Boeing, where they both worked as engineers. Still, Johnson and Montague gave the clinic their all in those early days, working long hours to get it on solid financial ground.

They helped to start Granny’s Attic, initially staffed by a group of women who worked as volunteer receptionists at the clinic in Burton. “Dorothy and I told them, ‘Start fundraising,’” Montague recalled, and the receptionists began selling used items at a former gas station to raise funds for the cash-strapped clinic.

A few years later, Montague performed what Johnson called a virtual miracle when she convinced Group Health to allow its patients to go to the clinic, the first time the healthcare cooperative had agreed to such an arrangement with a practice outside of its system and a financial boost to the small clinic.

There were also significant disappointments along the way. Both women were sad to see the proposed Public Hospital District defeated five years ago, and both are sorry the board has been unable to secure the funds to build a better facility for the clinic, now managed by Highline Medical Group.

Johnson, 86, and Monta-gue, 84, stepped down from the Sunrise Ridge board in February, after years of service. Johnson said she’s glad to be relieved of the responsibility: She finally has time to focus on her garden, read books and do jigsaw puzzles, she said with a smile.

“It’s so nice for me to look at my calendar and see two days without anything on it,” she said.

Montague, too, needed a break: She spends her days at her modest farmhouse on a sweeping piece of land on Vashon’s west side, where she tends to 25 sheep and cares for her husband Leo, who was also a longtime member of the Sunrise Ridge board.

But both women acknowledged pride in what they helped accomplish. Indeed, the land at Sunrise Ridge, with its panoramic views of the mountains, is particularly special to them.

“Everyone who worked up there felt an ownership,” Montague said.

“They should,” Johnson quipped. “It belongs to the Island.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott will discuss the new health care legislation and answer questions from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, at McMurray Middle School. Organizers urge Islanders to send their questions in advance to Kate Hunter at kateahunter@comcast.net.

The event is sponsored by Sunrise Ridge Health Services, the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and Vashon Youth & Family Services.

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