Long-time South Snohomish County civic and business leader Leo Dean Echelbarger died on Aug. 14 at the age of 95.
Mr. Echelbarger was born on Dec. 6, 1922, in once rural Alderwood Manor, to Leo Franklin and Helen Chase Echelbarger.
According to an obituary provided by the Echelbarger family, Mr. Echelbarger’s father owned what became the Edmonds Auto Freight Company. The small family operation held the franchise for all freight hauling for the area between Seattle city limits (then at 85th Street) and Everett. At the age of 14, Mr. Echelbarger could be found at the wheel of a truck driving down Aurora to Seattle to deliver eggs. (At the time, Alderwood was the second largest producer of eggs in the U.S.). He told colorful stories of Seattle in the 1930s — meeting the boats from Alaska on “Alaska Day” each week and picking up produce from “Produce Row” down by the Public Market.
In May 1940, Mr. Echelbarger lied about his age to enlist with friends in the National Guard to earn some pocket money and have fun with his high school pals at Camp Murray, living in tents and shooting rifles. But after graduating from Edmonds High School in 1940, the friends’ lark turned serious when Franklin Roosevelt activated the National Guard in September 1940. Following Pearl Harbor, Mr. Echelbarger was sent to Kauai.
He was accepted in Office Candidate School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he graduated first in his class and was stationed at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, as a battle training officer. It was in Clarksville, Tenn., that he met the love of his life, Gladys Thomas. He made the 10-mile trek into Clarksville every evening that he could to visit her. They were married on May 12, 1944 — a union lasting 57 years, until her death in 2001.
Mr. Echelbarger’s 20th Armored Division arrived in France in early 1945 and headed to Munich. The 20th Armored was one of the units that liberated the prison camp at Dachau. He and Gladys visited Dachau in 1995 for the unveiling of a plaque honoring the division. For the rest of his life, Mr. Echelbarger never forgot the horrific scenes of Dachau’s emaciated survivors and the dead “stacked like cord wood.” He was 22 years old.
After the victory in Europe, his division was assigned to the invasion of Japan, which was scheduled to occur in 1946. But after Japan’s surrender, he was demobilized and headed home with his new family. He liked the Army experience and stayed on in the Reserves until 1963, when he retired as a major.
Joining his family business after the war, Mr. Echelbarger and his brothers and brother-in-law oversaw the transformation of the freight company into a fuel oil delivery service, becoming one of the largest fuel dealerships in the state. He was president of the Oil Heat Institute of Washington and on the board of the Pacific Coast Fuel Dealers Association. As the Lynnwood/Edmonds/Mill Creek area population grew in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mr. Echelbarger saw opportunities in the real estate development field. The fuel business was sold in 1968. He developed thousands of residential lots and built many retail and office buildings in the South Snohomish County region. Though it was one of his smaller projects, he was very proud to restore the historic Beeson Building in downtown Edmonds in 1967, his family said.
In recognition of his leadership abilities and his business acumen, Mr. Echelbarger was asked to serve on many boards and commissions, including Seattle-First National Bank Advisory Board (formerly First National Bank of Everett), Everett Abstract & Title, Commonwealth Title, Federal Capital Leasing and United Good Neighbors (United Way).
“While Dean had tremendous vision and influence in shaping Snohomish County and in particular, South Snohomish County. he was one of the nicest men I have ever known,” Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling said. “He was a thoughtful visionary who built long lasting relationships and was devoted to to his family and community.”
Mr. Echelbarger was a founder and president of the Edmonds Community College Foundation, president of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, chairman of the Paine Field/Snohomish County Airport Commission, chairman of the first Lynnwood Planning Commission (in 1959) and vice-chairman of Pioneer Bank. He also received the John Fluke Community Service Award. In 1986, the Snohomish County Executive instituted the Dean Echelbarger Community Service Award. The Herald newspaper in the 1980s wrote a series entitled “The Ten Most Powerful People in Snohomish County,” and Mr. Echelbarger was named the second most powerful in the county. While he was partly flattered, his main reaction was embarrassment — showing off was never his style. His friend Willis Tucker, the Snohomish County Executive, was named #1; they shared many jokes about that comparison. Mr. Echelbarger joined Willis Tucker and other business and political friends almost every morning for 40 years with the “Kaffee Klatsch,” discussing issues of the day.
He was predeceased by his parents Helen and Leo; his siblings Donald, Shirley (Keeler), Kent, Dale, Wylie, Stanley and Alan; and grandsons James Robert and Sean. He is survived by his sister Jeanne (Hensler).
Though his life was filled with business, civic and charitable activities, his first priority in life was his wife Gladys and children Michael (Kathy) of Edmonds, Patrick (Marilyn) of Mukilteo and Lindsey (Carolyn) of Woodway. He is also survived by grandchildren Stacie, Todd, Tyler, Matthew, Andrew and Nicholas as well as 17 great-grandchildren.
“Dad lived a wonderful and long life. He set a great example for his family and friends and he will be greatly missed,” his obituary states.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider a donation in Mr. Echelbarger’s memory to the Edmonds Community College Foundation, 20000 68th Avenue West, Lynnwood, WA 98036 or edcc.edu/foundation<http://edcc.edu/foundation.
Services are pending.