Remembering Virginia Westberg, STSCA pioneer
Virginia Braley Westberg
June 25, 1919 – March 19, 2013
STSCA has lost a devoted friend and leader, Virginia Westberg, who served ten years as a co-chair of the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association and was active with STSCA for 20 years. Her long-time friend and co-chair of STSCA, Rosanne Royer, has written this history of the feisty born-and-bred-in-Seattle peace activist, who modeled the power of people-to-people relations.
The spark that sets off firecrackers!
That’s Virginia Westberg!
And if you just met her, you’re already one of her best friends. She walks into a room, and all of a sudden, everybody is introduced to everybody else and told they should all get acquainted and work together on something.
“Virginia was community glue,” says long-time friend and associate Fred Noland.
“There are people at the top with power and others who don’t care. In the middle are the ones like Virginia, who pick up the slack, organize the volunteers, raise the money and push those at the top to serve the ones who are voiceless. That was Virginia–behind the scenes, cheerleading like mad. She was an extraordinary connector of people across generations.”
Virginia has been “getting things going,” since her childhood as the eldest of three children of Edward R. Braley and Gladys Norton Braley. Born in Seattle, Virginia grew up a dedicated Camp Fire Girl a few blocks from Green Lake and, as she puts it, “Just over the hill were all the Scandinavians, and I married two of them!” She made close friendships with the Japanese families whose truck gardens extended out from near her family home and up Aurora Avenue.
Virginia’s father owned four outlets of Braley’s Drug Stores: one in Seattle, in the Olympic Hotel; the others in Tacoma, Vancouver and Portland. Prior to opening up his drug stores, he sold cigars on the trains running through Montana, Washington and Oregon.
“He was a Republican populist,” says Virginia. “One day when I was a kid, he introduced me to Joshua Green, the famous banker, and then to Dick, the cop on a horse, directing traffic. He said I had just met two great men and neither one is better than the other one.”
“During the war there were business people who tried to force him to fire a Japanese-American he had hired as a pharmacist. But he refused to do it.”
Virginia’s historian cousin Scott McArthur of Oregon has traced their genealogy on Virginia’s mother’s side from Washington State to Iowa, to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and then New England. Two ancestors were in the U.S. forces in the American Revolution, and their direct ancestor is William Bradford of the Mayflower, and prior to that to King Edward I of England. Scott has even traced one line back to Italy in AD 60. On her father’s side they were French Huguenots. According to Virginia, “In the 1600’s they were kicked out of France by Queen Katherine, and they went to South Carolina, then Missouri, then Washington State.”
When her first marriage ended, Virginia began work as a single mother and a life-long advocate of equal rights for women and minorities. In the College of Education Placement Office at the University of Washington, she matched college grads with jobs in the schools. She was the Seattle Project Director for Women in Community Service, Inc, a program funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity to recruit young women for the Women’s Job Corps. In 1980 she worked alongside former County Councilwoman Bernice Stern, as the two widows utilized King County and Federal HUD funds to establish the King County Senior Housing Counseling Service. They enlisted 16 volunteers to run the program.
Impassioned Advocate for the Voiceless
As a volunteer, Virginia launched “Call for Action” at KING Television. For five years she supervised volunteers for the popular consumer protection show, conducting preliminary research on community complaints before turning the leads over to investigative reporter Don McGaffin. In the meantime, she developed a close and enduring friendship with station owner Dorothy Bullitt and her extended family.
“She was all over the newsroom, every day, all day,” remembers Charles Royer, former Seattle mayor and former KING-TV commentator.
Virginia’s interest in the news began at Lincoln High School where she wrote a column for the school paper.
Virginia also served as chair of the Mount Baker unit of the League of Women Voters of Seattle. The Virginia Westberg Papers 1955-1966 are housed in Special Collections at the University of Washington and document her work with League of Women Voters and the Women’s Job Corps.
The multi-ethnic neighborhood Virginia grew up in stayed in her blood through her university studies, her community activities and extensive travels. She majored in history and international affairs at the University of Washington. When she was a sophomore her father wouldn’t let her go to Europe with the American Friends Service—because there was going to be a war, he said. So she quit school secretly and took a job at Rhodes Ten Cent Store to save money for a trip.
Her “love for the Balkans” expanded into a fascination with Russia. After the death of her second husband, Al Westberg, revered Seattle civil rights attorney, Virginia left for Moscow to spend six months with the family of Lynn Jones, ABC news correspondent and formerly with KING Television. Almost immediately she found ways to make herself useful to the press corps in their daily challenges of living among the Soviets. Mingling with the diplomatic corps came naturally.
“The first night I was in Moscow,” Virginia recalls, “the journalists had a big party and I’m sitting there with Newsweek and Time and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, I’m going to get everything first hand—the scoop!’”
After Moscow, Virginia went full throttle for 20 years on things Soviet and became probably the oldest “soccer mom” in history. She served as co-chair with Rosanne Royer of the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association, the first US/USSR Sister City Affiliation, established under former Mayor Wes Uhlman. The affiliation survived the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets and the U.S. ban on the Moscow Olympics.
Then, as soon as the USSR began to thaw under Gorbachev in the mid-80s, the Seattle-Tashkent Committee was invited by the Soviet government to serve as the flagship affiliation and launch numerous professional and cultural exchanges. Among them was the Amputee Soccer Exchange in which U.S. amputees, including war veterans, linked with amputee veterans of the Soviet-Afghanistan war. Virginia was their liaison, accompanied them on trips, and in general made things happen for them.
“Rosanne and I were at this exchange business 24 hours a day,” Virginia says. “It was one of the most extraordinary international opportunities we had ever seen laid before Americans.”
Politics, News, and other Passions
“VW,” as Virginia was known to family and friends was passionate about many things, but it was the news and politics that got her going every morning.
“FDR was our greatest president,” she often said. “It was Roosevelt who acted when the chips were down . . . when people needed jobs–and what is more important than that?”
She said it was Roosevelt who made her a Democrat, though her own father was a Republican. Her first political activity was during college, registering fellow dime store workers for membership in the union.
She was a great cook and gardener. She loved growing strawberries and flowers in her gardens at two different homes overlooking Lake Washington and one in the San Juan Islands. She was known for organizing great parties at her home on Randolph Street to celebrate Seafair, the arrival of the Christmas ships, and many more events associated with her volunteer work.
VW also thrived on new experiences and adventure. She traveled widely overseas with her sister Gloria who preceded her in death, and took numerous trips to the Soviet Union in connection with exchange programs she helped manage. Her family will especially remember her love of the song, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and “Stan Freberg Presents the History of the United States,” which was listened to after Thanksgiving dinner.
Most of all she loved the long walks in the “deep, dark woods” with her only grandchild, Mark. Next came her 1964 Buick Skylark, named “Big Red.”
And the animals. There was Trudy Westberg the longhaired Dachshund and Koshka, the “communist calico cat,” that was adopted in Moscow and later shipped to Seattle, all preceding her in death. Ella and Otis, her two black cats, remained faithfully by her side day and night during her illness.
In retirement Virginia made a full circle back to her “old neighborhood,” residing at Ida Culver House the last five years of her life.
The Good Life
Friends frequently heard VW describe her life in glowing terms of gratitude.
“The older I get the more I know I had just a really great life.” And then she always ended her proclamations with: “Have you got the picture?”
Long-time friend and associate Rosanne Royer said there were three things you could count on completely in Virginia. She was on time, every time–never late to anything. The second is that she never lost track of you, no matter where you lived. She’d pick up the phone and call often: “Where are you, I’ve missed you. I have so much to tell you.” And every Christmas she’d send you a Pike Place Market calendar.
Virginia has two sons: Russell, who lives with his wife Joanna Jie Cui in San Mateo. Her son Roger lives in Seattle with wife B.J. Stokey and also spends part of the year in Santa Fe where their son, Virginia’s grandson and pride and joy, Mark, is attending Santa Fe University of Art and Design,
Virginia’s brother Russell (Bud) Braley, a journalist, was an officer in WWII and remained in Europe to live and work after the war. Her sister Gloria Heinz spent most of her life in San Luis Obispo and has a daughter, Connie Moxness, a beloved niece of Virginia.
A memorial gathering to honor Virginia will be announced in the near future. Donations in Virginia’s memory can be made to Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association, P.O.Box 25364, Seattle, WA. 98165-2264.