Charlotte Valbert, the woman who wrested Blueberry Park from decades of blackberries, has died.
Valbert, 82, led her East Side and South End communities by tireless example and with undaunted humor and confidence. She served on community councils, in the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party. She and her family gave refuge to people in distress.
She stood and spoke for the people.
But Blueberry Park is her legacy, as a park and as a way of taking responsibility for our quality of life.
When the 40 overgrown acres at East D and 74th Streets were threatened with development, she led the fight to free the former blueberry farm from the brambles. She mustered volunteers, grant money and agencies to open the land as an urban refuge, and a source of free blueberries.
With that park saved, she showed neighborhoods how to reclaim their own lost treasures. At the time of her death, she was advising the team reclaiming the once-stately McKinley Park.
We will have Valbert’s obituary in Wednesday’s paper. On Saturday, I will write about her in my column.
Please add your thoughts on this legendary Tacoman in the comments below.
I also am posting e-mailed comments here:
“I first met Charlotte during her time on the South End Neighborhood council. At that time, I knew nothing of her involvement of Blueberry Park. As I became a regular at the meetings and more involved, I could see her passion for that park. I write this smiling, but she managed to get that park into every conversation, whether it was on the agenda or not :).. I wondered sometimes how someone could focus so hard on one issue.
Some nights, around 10:00 at night, Charlotte would stop by my house to discuss the park, neighborhood issues and she would always urge me to run for a SENCO seat or city council. Even at that time of night, her energy was amazing!! She never announced that she was coming, but there she was!! As you know Kathleen, I love to talk, but I always found myself listening to her – she had so much to share. After those conversations, I was convinced that her “tunnel vision” was exactly what that park needed. I also realized that she cared a great deal about a great many issues in our community.
I hope as I grow older, I can still have Charlotte’s energy, passion and focus. She never hesitated to speak her mind about a subject, but I never came away offended. She spoke from her heart and I could never get mad at that.”
– Pat McGregor
“I first met Charlotte when I was the south end Patrol Captain for the police department. She was at a community meeting and I was introduced to her. This was during the time that Kathy McAlpine was the Sector 4 Lieutenant and I know Kathy thought highly of Charlotte. My first impression was that she was grumpy, but I soon learned that she was serious and determined rather than grumpy. I found her to be someone who could only take no as an answer if the naysayer could back it up with sound facts. To her a “no” simply meant that she needed to try a different tactic. She was a nice lady who was dedicated to the betterment of her neighborhood.”
– Michael R. “Mike” Miller
MWSO Executive Field Director
“I met Charlotte when I became involved with the Greater Metro Parks Foundation about 20 years ago. At that time the foundation was thinking about transitioning from just supporting the recreation dept. to supporting the district as a whole. Charlotte was delighted that the park district was going to have a non-profit to assist those who were a “Friends of Parks” group. She had several ideas of organizations to approach for funding to help her reclaim the park from it’s neglect, but needed to have a non-profit as a fiduciary on her application.
Over the years, she would write a grant, give me (as the President) a copy after the fact saying “I meant to ask you if this was OK to apply for”. A couple of times we had to call the funder she applied with and say “no, the other application signed by our President is the request we are presenting” as they would only consider one request. She was one of those people who charged ahead and asked for forgiveness after.
When Charlotte heard that I was stepping down as President (after more years than I like to admit) last year, she sent me a happy retirement card wishing me best of luck with my free time. I called her saying I wasn’t retiring, just gradually learning how to not do it all. She told me that it was not going to be easy, she had been trying to do that for years and if I were like her, there never is free time. It just gets filled with another park’s project as they are the best group of people to be associated with.
She showed up to park district meetings to give me moral support from the crowd when I had to do presentations to the Commissioners after I told her I didn’t like public speaking. (Many times I have no idea how she found out I was on the agenda.)
I know I will miss her wonderful smile and don’t take no for an answer attitude.”
– Andrea Smith
“Charlotte and women like her are the reason I treasure my time in the League of Women Voters. She is continually organizing some new project and Heaven will welcome her with open arms. Her latest effort was to conduct a study of the Neighborhood Councils in Tacoma and try to spread them throughout the county. We will continue this work in her memory. ”
– Terri Baker, President, League of Women Voters.
“I thought I would share a few words about what a wonderful person Charlotte was. Before I began my current position I worked at REI part time. As part of REI orientation the new employees went to Blueberry Park to give a day back to the community by helping restore this unique park. The 10 of us were greeted by Charlotte dressed in all shades of purple from her socks to shirt, she was so enthusiastic about the project and so happy to have us there. A few months later after moving into my current position Charlotte served on my steering committee for the Green Tacoma Partnership. She was extremely valuable to the partnership she had wisdom, creativity and an action driven mind set. The first year in my new position was very difficult, but after each steering committee meeting she would walk over to me and ask “so how are you doing?” I would reply with some form of “I’m hanging in there” and each and every time she would leave me with “just keep doing what you’re doing”. I feel that’s how she led her life, just kept doing. She never stopped and never took no for an answer if the answer was no you’re asking the question wrong. Charlotte will be extremely missed by the community and especially by me.”
Green Tacoma Partnership Project Manager
“My first memory of Charlotte was a sweet faced tigress fighting for money from the South End Neighborhood Council to fund a mural on a concrete wall near her beloved Blueberry Park. She got the funds, of course, and we became friendly enough to go to several arts events around Tacoma. Not only will she be sorely missed, but also her little car with all the peace and earth loving stickers, running about town attending whichever meeting she felt most important on that day. I am recommending that all go to the park this Saturday which is the normal volunteer day out there and do some work to honor her and that the name be changed to “Charlotte’s Blueberry Park”.
I shall miss my friend.
– Gia Casto
Pacific Avenue Business District.
“I met Charlotte 7 years ago. She gave off such an air of involvement and passion for the open spaces around us. She invited me to help out in blueberry park, something I have done for the past 7 years. I learned from her an appreciation for community involvement, hard work, and lots of laughs. I enjoy the blueberries from the park but I have enjoyed our friendship even more. She will be greatly missed.”
“We at the Conservation District are very sad to see Charlotte pass,
however it was a joy to know her and to be able to share her passion for
Blueberry Park. She was an untiring advocate, and brought the community
around her real blessings from her efforts. Blueberry Park and the
neighborhood around it are enriched by her presence, and we will always
remember her when we visit.”
Monty Mahan, Director
Pierce Conservation District
“I never had the honor of meeting Charlotte but I may have seen her there at some point.
I have picked the blueberries at the property every summer since 1984 when a dear co-worker shared with me, and many others, this glorious place. In the mid 80’s we had to manage through a jungle of overgrown blueberry tress and thickets of blackberries to pick the lovely gems. Some brought short step stools and we often came armed with short sticks to allow us to push away branches.
A grandfather of a friend from Morton with many years of NW berry experience, told me these were some of the best blueberries ever. I met with friends to pick and I tell everyone of the treasures at the park. Before my wedding in 1993, I brought family Minnesota to pick and I made jam for the ladies that attended my bachelorette dinner. I made jam and gave berries over the years to many friends and family. I even found an old recipe for a Swedish dish, Chilled Blueberry Soup, that I carefully canned for several years. When I did have a Swedish friend visit to pick she told me that in Sweden, to pick blueberries you spend the entire day bring lunch and bring everyone. Each year I await the harvest time. When I was eight plus months pregnant with my daughter in August of 1998, I game to pick. When she was about five years old I recall one evening when she was in tears and all she wanted to do was go pick berries there.
After Charlotte and the other volunteers started to clear put around the trees and trim them it was easier to pick and made the area an official Metro Parks Tacoma Park, it only enhanced the participation and wonder of the area. I have always found peace and joy here at Blueberry Park. I was just there last Saturday morning before it got too hot, with my daughter and a friend. The starting of the picking, to hear the first ‘plunk plunk plunks’ of the berries as you drop them into your container and the various families chatting in many different languages is so lovely.
This place is about community and care. As I read of Charlotte’s passing I say thank you to her and all who have contributed along with her.”
Janet Jansen Knoblach
“Charlotte was a true community advocate who embodied the spirit of optimism that makes Tacoma great. She did not know the meaning of no and is an inspiration to us all.”
“Charlotte lived to be connected to everyone and everything and she was. She was brave and spoke her mind in any venue and was confident in her truth. I had the pleasure of working with her with the League of Women Voters, the Tacoma Neighborhood Councils and Blueberry Park. She truly served our community and will be greatly missed. We will see that the goats continue to take care of her park.”
MetroParks Governmental Relations Officer and Eastside Neighbor
” I can’t believe what a huge impact Charlotte had on our community out here in the Fern Hill area. She did a great job as a board member with the neighborhood council.
Just one of many really cool and thoughtful things she did was: The Fern Hill Business District planted trees along Park Avenue and was having a tough time keeping up with watering them. Well, one day I was out there watering and along comes Charlotte in her little truck with a tube sticking out the back watering the trees with a WATERBED MATTRESS FILLED UP IN THE BACK. She was awesome!!”
Tom Ehnat, Business owner in the Fern Hill Business District
“Charlotte was a great leader for the Blueberry Park Safe Streets group. She was an early leader in reclaiming the park for the enjoyment of the community. Charlotte was tough minded when it came to community –she was not afraid of “telling the truth” about conflict and she could mobilize neighbors to put some sweat equity into beautification of the park so that people could feel a great sense of pride and connectedness. We will miss Charlotte’s leadership and her wry sense of humor. A real community builder!”
Priscilla A. Lisicich
Safe Streets Campaign
“I had the pleasure of knowing Char for more than 20 years. While we met and knew each other through her work with the League of Women Voters and the Neighborhood Councils, our real friendship began when Blueberry Park earned the City of Destiny Award. I’d long admired and enjoyed working with Charlotte, so I was honored to tell the story of her successes as the final feature story I produced before retiring from TV Tacoma.
When I arrived to begin taping at the park, Charlotte quickly ushered me in to introduce me to each of the folks who “do the real work” when I tried to focus the camera on her. She lovingly told me how Mel, Terry and (the woman whose name I always butchered) Alona (?) cared for the park, mowing, weeding, clipping, cleaning on a near daily basis. It was extremely important to Charlotte that, while she was known as the park’s champion, that I needed to know who her personal heroes were. She continued to take me through the park introducing each of the groups and individuals who were volunteering (my recollection was that it was United Way’s Day of Caring, but the event was in April, and I know that is coming up on Sept 17, so my memory may be wrong about that)
She then took me to the back of the park and introduced me to an 84-year-old (I’m pretty sure her name was Mary) who was seated on her rump under a blueberry bush cutting away the blackberry invaders. The two of them explained that the “youngsters” just don’t understand that you have to get right down to the root, or cutting them back doesn’t do any good. Then they started chatted about Charlotte needing to corner that young man (who I later came to realize was Jack Wilson) about the idea and asking him to commit to giving them a try when he stopped by. About 30 minutes later Jack (who I had not known at that point) arrived with Commissioner Woodards who came to thank all the volunteers for their support. As the group gathered and Jack thanked them, I could see the special connection he felt to Charlotte. He concluded his comments by saying, “this woman is one of our very favorite people”…and that’s when Charlotte hit him up with the idea of goats helping to restore the park. You have to realize this was long before Pemco had any glimmer of an idea that a goat herder would become a theme for their “you’re a little different and a lot like us” ads. To my knowledge, it was the first use of them in the Puget Sound region for a public land restoration effort, certainly the first time for Pierce County. Jack told her to send him some info about it and a few months later, I turned on the evening news and saw hundreds of them pouring out of the back of a trailer.
The following summer, when I had moved from TV Tacoma to Metro Parks, I had gone to take photos of folks harvesting berries. One woman who lived on the Eastside became almost tearful when I asked if she would mind if I captured some photos of her to use in park promotions. No, she didn’t mind at all. She couldn’t believe what a wonderful asset this community had. I told her the story of how the park came to be and she said that when her boyfriend had told her about it, she couldn’t believe a place existed like that. She had been coming to the park for two years to harvest fruit for her family and told me “I can’t afford much fruit for my kids – certainly not blueberries. I come here in the summer and we clean and freeze some of them as a treat to enjoy both now and in the winter. Please tell that wonderful woman that my family appreciates all she has done for us.”
I remember how Charlotte smiled when I showed her the pictures and told her the story. With a twinkle in her eye she simply replied “my park is a very special place”.
I have countless memories of personal times spent in deep philosophical discussions over dinner and laughs shared at events or the hugs I looked forward to each time she came to a board meeting. Her passing has left a hole in my heart that brought about my first really long-hard cry since my mom’s passing in 2006. It’s unlikely that I’ll cross paths with anyone that will replace the friendship I had with her, Charlotte was truly one of a kind.”
Metro Parks Communications and Public Relations Manager