Pritchard Olson’s strength and courage recalled at memorial service

When Peggy Pritchard Olson was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on her 58th birthday last year, she responded the way she did to every challenge in her life: moving forward, with no complaints.

Peggy Pritchard Olson
Peggy Pritchard Olson

Ms. Pritchard Olson’s bravery in the face of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, was a common theme during a memorial service that drew several hundred people to the Edmonds Center for the Arts Wednesday to remember the Edmonds City Councilmember, who died Nov. 9.

Her stepdaughter, Denise Cohnheim, recalled how much Ms. Pritchard Olson enjoyed spending time with granddaughter Madison during her illness, including frequent trips to the beach. “You only hope, watching everything she went through, that you yourself would have the same strength and courage,” Cohnheim said.

Chris Weinlein, who attended college with Ms. Pritchard Olson at the University of Puget Sound, noted that her close friend and sorority sister “was born into politics, ringing doorbells at an early age for her father, the late U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard. “When Ms. Pritchard Olson told her father that people who answered the door were sometimes mean, “he said that it was good for her and no one wanted to hear any complaining,” Weinlein recalled.

In college, Ms. Pritchard Olson “always had the ability to walk in the other person’s shoes,” Weinlein said, noting that her Phi Beta Phi sorority sisters — many of whom attended the memorial service — “didn’t always appreciate her conciliatory approach.

“In all places and situations she touched, she brought people together,” Weinlein said.

Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson talked about Ms. Pritchard Olson’s many accomplishments as an Edmonds citizen and city councilmember, including fighting to prevent King County’s Brightwater sewage plant from locating in Edmonds, working with the Friends of the Edmonds Library and serving on the board of the Mainstream Republicans. She was named Edmonds Citizen of the Year in 2008 and was honored with a Washington State Senate Resolution.

While she was proud to be a Republican, “she brought people of different views together for the good of the majority,” Haakenson said.

Ms. Pritchard Olson’s reaction to her ALS diagnosis “was that of a very brave woman,” Haakenson said. “I never heard her say,’Why me?’ when all of us were thinking, Why her?”

Haakenson recalled asking her how she could be so straightforward about her illness. Her response? “This is how I was raised. I can’t change it. I have to accept it and get on with my life.”

Typical of Ms. Pritchard Olson, instead of worrying about herself, she focused on how she could help others, Haakenson said. She formed an ALS support group at Stevens Hospital, and it is now the largest group of its kind in the state.

She continued to attend Council meetings, even as her health declined and speaking became difficult. “She loved the work and she loved the city,” Haakenson said. As the disease progressed, she required constant oxygen but refused to be seen at council meetings with an oxygen tank, so she had to lay down for two to three hours prior to the meeting and be pumped with oxygen so she could make it through the meeting.

“It was hard to watch her body fail her, but her mind was sharp as a tack,” Haakenson said. Her last vote, on Nov. 2, was to approve an agreement with Snohomish County Fire District 1 to provide fire service in Edmonds. In addition to casting a vote, she insisted that a statement of support be read on her behalf.

Ms. Pritchard Olson’s brother, Frank Pritchard, attributed his sister’s strength in the face of ALS to the influence of their very strong-willed paternal grandmother, Nana Pritchard. Recalling a time when he asked his sister how she stayed so upbeat in the face of her illness, her answer was simple: “Nana said no one likes a complainer.”

Donations in memory of Peggy Pritchard Olson may be made to ALS Research, c/o Virginia Mason Foundation, Mail Stop D1-MF, PO Box 1930, Seattle, WA 98111 or to the Peggy Pritchard Olson Scholarship Fund, c/o the University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner, Tacoma, WA 98416.

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