Opal Montague, as president of the Health Center, speaks during a meeting of the Group Health Board about its contract with the health center (Photo Courtesy Montague Family).

Opal Montague, as president of the Health Center, speaks during a meeting of the Group Health Board about its contract with the health center (Photo Courtesy Montague Family).

Opal Montague, Co-Founder of Vashon Health Center, Dies at 95

One fact about her life is clear: she changed the place she lived for the better.

Opal Montague, one of the founding mothers of the Vashon Health Center as well as Granny’s Attic Thrift Shop, died on April 9, at Kline Galland Home, a rehabilitation and hospice facility in Seattle. She was 95 years old.

In the days before her death, due to the lifting of some COVID restrictions and the fact that Opal was fully vaccinated against the virus, she received visits and calls by numerous friends and family members — an effort largely coordinated by her daughter-in-law, Linda Hutchins. And at the end, Hutchins and Opal’s son, John Montague, were at Opal’s bedside when she died.

Her death was caused by complications of congestive heart failure, said John.

Until just a few weeks before she died, Opal had resided in the home where she had lived for more than six decades and shared, more recently, with her son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Judi Montague, who assisted her.

That home is a modest farmhouse on 20 acres on Vashon’s west side, surrounded by towering firs, rolling pastures, and framed by the Olympic Mountains and a peekaboo view of Colvos Passage.

In that idyllic setting, Opal raised four children, gardened, tended sheep and horses, spun yarn, pressed cider, chopped wood and performed countless other farm tasks — all the while working in a determined way for decades to improve access to health care on Vashon.

“The health center was really her job,” said John. “It was central to her life.”

John, at a Zoom memorial service for Opal on Saturday, also quoted what he said was one of his mother’s favorite sayings: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Still, one fact about Opal’s life is completely clear, and it also makes for a good story: she changed the place she lived for the better.

Montague’s legacy to Vashon began in the late 1960s when she joined forces with another islander, Dorothy Johnson, to bring better health care to the island.

At the time, Vashon only had two doctors, and one announced he was leaving. Then, the remaining physician said he would leave as well, or he would be up all night, every night, tending to patients.

The situation seemed dire — so Opal and Dorothy went to work.

With support from the University of Washington, they organized a group of 150 islanders who went door to door, interviewing residents about their healthcare needs.

In 1971, with the results of that survey in hand, they got a grant from the UW to train three local women to be nurse-practitioners. Two years later, Opal and Dorothy hired them to work at Vashon’s first health center, which they established as a nonprofit in a small rented house in Burton. A part-time doctor filled out the staff.

A group of women — also recruited by Opal and Dorothy, of course — worked as Health Center volunteers, serving as receptionists and the clinic’s clean-up crew.

It was the birth of the Vashon Health Center, now Sea Mar on Vashon. Soon, the clinic moved into what is now the Fair Isle Animal Clinic, with more doctors hired. But when the clinic outgrew that space, Opal and Dorothy again took action.

Together, the duo performed what amounted to a Herculean task — securing a permanent home for the health center on the former Nike missile base on Sunrise Ridge. The government had never turned over a decommissioned military base to a private group before.

But in 1976, what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said Johnson and Montague’s nonprofit board could rent the 14-acre site for $1 a year for 31 years; after that, the site was deeded to the board.

In the early years of establishing the clinic, Montague was the primary driver of another miracle, convincing Group Health to allow its patients to go to the Vashon clinic. It was another first: Group Health had never before agreed to such an arrangement.

Eventually, Sunrise Ridge became the bustling home of the health center, Granny’s Attic, the Vashon Food Bank, Voice of Vashon’s original studio, and other nonprofits.

Granny’s Attic — now a 46-year institution on Vashon and the island’s defacto department store — was also part of Montague and Johnson’s vision. Proceeds from the store, originally run by the same volunteers who had served as receptionists at the Burton clinic, helped sustain the health center for decades. To this day, the shop provides funding to a range of healthcare-related initiatives on Vashon.

According to Opal’s son John, the store was also his mother’s first and only shopping stop for her own wardrobe.

“After Granny’s Attic came along, my mother didn’t buy anything from anywhere else,” he said, recalling her homespun sense of fashion.

Opal Montague, at a family celebration in 2006 (Katie Jervis Photo).

Opal Montague, at a family celebration in 2006 (Katie Jervis Photo).

At the Zoom memorial, Opal’s daughter Ruth noted that her mother wasn’t a “Leave It to Beaver” mom — referencing the character of June Cleaver, who wore high heels and pearls around her family home in that 1960s-era TV show.

“My mom wore blue jeans and brought lambs to my first-grade classroom,” Ruth said. “She wasn’t a cookies-and-milk-after-school kind of mom — but she gave us a lot of freedom and independence to do what we wanted. I remember very few times when she said I couldn’t do something — and she actually was good at making cookies.”

Opal Alice Swanson Montague was born in Valier, Montana, on April 1, 1926, to Carl and Martha Swanson, immigrants from Norway. Her family moved to Colfax, Washington, where Opal graduated from Colfax High.

Opal’s father did not believe that girls needed a college education and had no intention of paying for it — but Opal found a way. First, she won a full scholarship to Cottey College, at that time a two-year school affiliated with the women’s organization, P.E.O. The next hurdle — paying for the train fare to Cottey’s campus in Missouri — was solved when Opal arranged to escort a younger deaf student from her town who attended a boarding school in St. Louis.

After attending Cottey, Opal attended Washington State College (WSU), where she met her future husband at a dance. In 1948, Opal and Leo were married, and they moved to the Seattle area. John, their eldest child, was born a year later. Then came Jane, born in 1951, and Paul, born in 1952. In 1957, their youngest daughter Ruth was born.

Opal and Leo moved their brood to Vashon in 1959.

The farmhouse they purchased was a humble affair. Leo, who worked as an engineer at Boeing, gradually renovated the house on weekends, adding a second floor and bedrooms for all their kids. The adjoining farm came with six sheep — a small flock that grew over the years.

Opal embraced farm life, becoming an avid gardener known to boast that she could feed a family of six for $2 a day, with fruit, vegetables and meat that all came from her own land. In time, she proved herself to be an expert on the subject, becoming a Master Gardener through WSU’s Extension Master Gardener Program. She nurtured what became her daughters’ life-long fascination with horses, becoming active in Vashon’s Pony Club.

She also expressed herself creatively as a member and honored elder of the fiber arts community on Vashon. An exhibit in 2016, at Vashon Sheepdog Classic, spotlighted her contributions as an expert spinner, weaver and knitter of her sheep’s wool, and the way she had patiently taught her skills to others.

One of those who learned from was her neighbor of 30 years, Lynette Beles, who spoke with her over the years about many things, including how to wash and prepare fleece. But Beles said she learned other more fundamental things.

“What she actually taught me was how to be a good listener, a good friend and how to live a good life,” Beles said.

Opal’s friendships famously lasted for decades and included members of a women’s breakfast club that formed in the 1950s.

Another friend and neighbor who lived next door to Opal for 55 years, Kathy Olsen, described her during the Zoom memorial simply as “the best friend and the best neighbor anyone could ever have.”

More tributes came from her grandchildren, who spoke of her inspiring example.

“She never really did things halfway,” said Ashlee Montague, her granddaughter. “She was so wise.”

Opal’s husband, Leo, was also deeply involved in civic affairs. Many of his interests dovetailed with his wife’s — among other accomplishments, he was also co-founder of the Vashon Health Center and served on its board for more than 30 years. He also founded the Grandpa’s workshop at Granny’s attic, which repaired appliances and other items.

Leo died in 2012, one year after Opal had finally stepped down as a board member at Sunrise Ridge. By then, she had served close to 50 years in positions including president and grant writer for the health center and Granny’s Attic.

Her final act, as a healthcare advocate, was to support the successful 2019 campaign to form a public health care district on Vashon. Six months ago, Sea Mar took over the clinic and is now busy seeing patients and also inoculating community members against COVID-19.

“This island is a precious place, and the people who live here are fortunate to have a history of caring and providing not just for ourselves, but for the well-being of our friends, neighbors and guests,” Opal wrote in an April 2019 letter to The Beachcomber, supporting the health care district initiative. “Dorothy and I recognized the necessity of health care for our community over 50 years ago. This has not changed, nor has it disappeared.”

Opal is survived by a sister, Joanne, a brother, Al, and her four children, John (Linda Hutchins), Jane, Paul (Judi) and Ruth (Dave Alcorta), and her grandchildren, Eric and Ashlee. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, islanders consider a donation to Cottey College or Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust.

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