A life of service: ‘Mother Steen’ made her hometown better

Throughout the purpose-driven decades of her life, Barbara Steen became a pillar of the community — leading and contributing to worthy causes that beautified and enhanced life on Vashon.

Barbara Steen, an islander known to generations as “Mother Steen” for her devotion to her community, died on Dec. 27, 2022, on Vashon. She was 93 years old.

Her death, according to her daughter, Marsha Berry, came after her hospitalization in early November with COVID-19, a broken hip, and ongoing heart problems.

Barbara’s purpose-driven life on Vashon spanned the Great Depression well into the new millennium — a time when the island was transformed from an agricultural community into its modern-day mélange of commuters, newcomers, and an ever-shrinking band of old-timers.

Throughout these decades, Barbara became a pillar of the community — leading and contributing to worthy causes that beautified and enhanced life on Vashon.

These efforts included more than 50 years of service to the Vashon Heritage Museum, which she worked to help create with others in the 1970s, based on the vision of its founder, Reed Fitzpatrick.

For the rest of her life, she continued to support the museum through her work as a board member and officer, a researcher and expert on the museum’s collection, a fundraiser, and as a regular docent until the age of 91.

She capped these decades of service, in 2020, by becoming the museum’s candidate in Vashon’s whimsical unofficial mayor’s race — with every vote for her garnering $1 for museum programs. Her platform for the race? “Everyone has a story that deserves to be told.”

Bruce Haulman, the museum’s president, described Barbara as one of the backbones of the small museum and many other organizations on Vashon.

“For the museum, Barbara was the docent’s docent, and the collections committee’s collector,” he said. “Her warmth, her kindness, and her basic sense of the good made her an invaluable member of every group she worked with.”

In the mid-1960s — while raising two active children and also working full time — Steen banded together with friends to found the Vashon Island Golf and Country Club, becoming a charter member.

At the club, she was known as an accomplished golfer, winning multiple women’s tournaments but also serving as secretary to the board, writing the club’s bylaws, fundraising and recruiting members, and helping to oversee the club’s expansion to include a pool, a clubhouse and bigger pro shop.

Another lasting contribution by Steen was her key role, in the late 1960s and 70s, in transforming the island’s neglected cemetery into a more park-like and peaceful place. Leveraging her volunteer status as the cemetery board’s secretary, she was a leader of a successful petition drive to put the formation of King County Cemetery District #1 on the ballot, ensuring that through a modest property tax, the graves of islanders would be well tended.

Her knowledge of the cemetery was encyclopedic, said Christy Calhoun, who worked with Barbara at the cemetery in the 1990s and remembered walking the cemetery grounds with her in order to prepare the first digital record of it.

“Over the course of a few days, Barbara told me the background, family histories, and some sad or funny stories of nearly every person whose name was written on a stone there,” Calhoun wrote, in a tribute posted on Facebook, after Steen’s death. “Vashon’s history and making sure it was passed on to its next generation was a true passion of Barbara’s — Vashon has lost a treasure trove of stories.”

A woman of abiding faith, Barbara was active in church life, volunteering in many capacities at Vashon United Methodist Church. She also had a long practice of regularly visiting elders residing at Vashon Community Care.

In addition to all this, she was known for an almost dizzying array of interests, which included bridge, bowling, hunting and fishing, photography, painting, and memoir writing. She pursued lifelong education, said her daughter Marsha, frequently taking classes to further her work in local organizations and personal interests.

Barbara was born in Seattle on June 27, 1929, to Jennie and Ray Crocker.

Jennie was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Anna and John Trones, who arrived in Vashon in 1908. The family lived in Colvos, where they were charter members of the Lutheran Church — a building that now houses the Vashon Havurah.

John later built the Colvos Store with the intention of operating it as a grocery store, but instead settled into life as a farmer. His skills as a builder were also employed when he helped clear the land and build Bethel Evangelical Free Church, which the family joined.

After graduation from high school, Jennie commuted to work in Seattle, via a steamer. There, she met Ray Crocker, who was in the Navy and stationed in Seattle. They married in 1923, and Barbara was born six years later.

For a time, the family lived together in California, where Crocker was stationed. However, when Jennie became debilitated by asthma, she returned to Vashon with three-year-old Barbara, to live with her parents while her husband was out at sea.

When Barbara was nine years old, her mother died, and her beloved grandmother and grandfather subsequently raised her.

Under their devoted care, Barbara thrived, reveling in her tight-knit Colvos neighborhood — a place that Barbara always, of course, properly pronounced as “cul-vis,” with emphasis on the first syllable.

She attended the two-room Columbia Grade School, and with friends, she rode her bike and roller-skated down the newly paved Westside Highway.

A plan for Barbara to live with her father and his new wife, in Hawaii, where he was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a pilot, was abandoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Another wartime consequence, for Barbara, was witnessing the forced removal of Vashon’s thriving community of Japanese farming families, which took place on May 16, 1942 — a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

Barbara, speaking at a Vashon Community Care talk in 2013, recalled the terrible day on Vashon, and her lifelong reckoning with that injustice.

She said that islander Mary Matsuda Gruenewald’s book, “Looking Like the Enemy,” had helped her understand the horror from the perspective of her friends.

“That’s a memory that won’t go away,” Barbara said, in a panel discussion sponsored by Vashon Community Care in 2013. “When we found out they were being evacuated off the island, my friend and I got on our bikes and went down to the Heights, via Cedarhurst, and saw the truckloads and busloads of our friends. … It was a very sad time to see them leaving.”

Among Barbara’s most treasured possessions was a hand-carved pin with her name on it, which had been crafted and sent to her from an interment camp by one of her Japanese friends.

Barbara first met her future husband, islander Max Steen, in the sixth grade, but did not date him until high school, after winning her grandmother’s permission to do so because Anna Trones deemed that he came from “a good Norwegian family.”

Max’s immigrant grandparents, like Barbara’s, had arrived on Vashon around the turn of the century.

The couple married in 1950 — a loving partnership that lasted for 59 years until Max’s death in 2009. Their two children, Gordon and Marsha, were born in 1952 and 1953, respectively.

In May of 1955, the young family moved into the house where Max had grown up — a modest home, built by Max’s father, on a two-acre property on Vashon Highway, just south of the newly built Vashon Theatre.

The house became a hub of activity — with a front lawn that, over the years, became a prime spot for the family’s many friends to watch the Strawberry Festival parade.

Barbara continued to live in the Steen home for the rest of her life.

When her children entered school, Barbara joined her husband in working for the Beall Greenhouse Company, becoming an office manager and personal assistant to Ferguson Beall. Her working life continued for 40 years and included longtime employment at RTS Incorporated, a local manufacturer’s representative.

But even as a working mother, Barbara was prodigiously involved in the lives of her children, volunteering in their classrooms and in many other capacities for the school district, leading troops of Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, and later, serving as a track mentor, softball coach and as a watchful chaperone at Vashon High School dances.

Barbara’s daughter, Marsha, said that her mother, without ever defining herself as a feminist, had provided an example to her, through her leadership in the community and by chafing at unfairness directed at her gender.

For instance, it irked her mother to no end, said Marsha, that she couldn’t get her own name printed on her credit cards.

“She signed up for the credit cards by herself, was the only person who used them, the only one who paid for them, but the name read ‘Mrs. Max Steen,’” Marsha said, adding that her mother had once called the Bon Marche to complain about this issue.

Todd Pearson, a longtime islander who spoke at Barbara’s funeral on Jan. 7, described Steen as having a “very defined sense of what was right and wrong” and that she “took it upon herself to repair any situation she deemed needed fixing.”

“Barb Steen, mild-mannered den mother, was an immovable object and also an unstoppable force, all at the same time,” Pearson said.

Her eagerness to support her son Gordon’s track career at Vashon High School also led to one of her lasting achievements — persuading the school board, in the early 1970s, to come up with the money to build a track around the school’s football field. But this happened only after Barbara, Max and a group of their friends took matters into their own hands, personally constructing a practice track on the school grounds.

The track that was approved by the school board remained in place until 2019 when a capital bond measure — which Barbara vocally supported — helped pay for a new, state-of-the-art track on which the VHS team could finally hold home meets.

“It is time for our community to decide, as it did nearly 50 years ago, that we must provide adequate facilities for our schools,” Barbara wrote in a letter to The Beachcomber, urging islanders to vote for the bond. “It is our job, as community members, to back the school board and see that we stay on top of things, just as we do in our own homes.”

Barbara — who by this time was a well-traveled retiree and devoted grandmother and great-grandmother, but still a mover and shaker on Vashon, celebrated the opening of the new track in high style — attending the first meet there wearing the same cheerleader’s sweater that she had worn in high school in 1947.

“It fit her like a glove,” said Pearson, at Barbara’s funeral. “She always looked beautiful and well put-together, but she looked especially beautiful that day.”

Barbara Steen is survived by daughter Marsha Berry (Alan), grandchildren Christopher Steen, Justin Berry and Kayla Berry, and great-great-grandchildren Joseph, Abigail and Fjord Berry, and Lillian and Allena Steen. She was preceded in death by her husband Max, and son, Gordon.

Memorials may be made in her name to Vashon Heritage Museum or Vashon United Methodist Church.