Betty Lou Deebach Fessner Gaeng
Longtime local historian Betty Lou Gaeng died Monday, April 17 at age 96 in Anchorage, Alaska.
Until very recently, Gaeng was writing “Looking Back” columns for the My Neighborhood News Network family of publications — My Edmonds News, MLTnews and Lynnwood Today. The column focused both on Gaeng’s memories and her meticulously researched history of Southwest Snohomish County, which she called home for most of her life.
“I start with my own memories,” Gaeng explained during a 2019 presentation she gave in honor of Lynnwood’s 60th anniversary. “Then I go to all the different research places I can until I can’t find anymore.”
I first met Betty 10 years ago, but it feels like she has been part of the My Neighborhood News Network since the beginning. The energy, intelligence, wit and commitment to accuracy she displayed in her 80s and 90s made an impact on me, and I frequently told people that “I want to be Betty when I grow up.”
Betty moved to Anchorage in 2019 to live with her son and daughter-in-law, but she continued to stay in touch via email and phone, and she kept writing her “Looking Back” articles.
In a contributor closeup column she wrote for us in October 2020, Betty began the story of her life this way:
My birth name was Betty Lou Deebach. I was born in Yakima, Washington in January of 1927, the daughter of Walt and Marie Deebach, longtime residents of Edmonds. My parents’ last Edmonds’ home was at 610 Glen Street, and was one of the several Sears Craftsman houses built in Edmonds. In 1991, with some tears in my eyes, I stood and watched as our old family home was ripped apart to make way for more condos.
In the spring of 1933, we moved from a nice house in Seattle to what was the outlying area of Puget Mills’ Alderwood Manor. As a 6-year-old, with my parents and two older brothers, I found what it was like to live in a run-down house on a 10-acre chicken farm, surrounded by the ugly stumps and snags, left over from years of logging the land.
In the fall of 1933, I entered first grade at the red-brick Alderwood Manor Grade School on North Trunk Road West, now 196th Street.
Soon after she finished fourth grade, in late spring 1937, the Deebach family moved to what is now called the Edmonds Bowl. Betty entered the fifth grade at Edmonds Grade School, when Frances Anderson was the principal. (The former grade school, next to the Edmonds Library, is used for City of Edmonds recreational programs and is called the Frances Anderson Center.)
After graduating from Edmonds High School, she lived at home in Edmonds with her parents and worked in Seattle for several years. She married, became a housewife and then a single mom in 1963, raising and supporting four children. She began work as a legal secretary for a prominent downtown Seattle law firm, advancing to legal assistant (in today’s world, a paralegal).
In her contributor closeup for us, Betty noted that in 1973, at the age of 46, “I married again — a man from Alderwood Manor (Lynnwood) — and my life completely changed. My second husband, Fred Gaeng, was a boilermaker/boat builder. We built two fishing boats for ourselves, and for several years, commercially fished in Southeast Alaskan waters, trolling for salmon. I learned to run a boat, to navigate, and in case of an emergency, to handle everything on my own. As a child I loved to read, especially adventure stories. For eight years, while at sea in the rough waters of Southeastern Alaska, I was able to experience some adventures of my own.”
Fred Gaeng died at age 77. “By then, in my 70s, having raised four children and buried two husbands, I looked for something to do with whatever time was left for me,” Betty recalled. “So, here I am, over 20 years later, still working at what I chose to do with the rest of my life. I became involved in volunteer activities, where my knowledge of the history of the people, events and places of Snohomish County were helpful.
“I really don’t know what I am – a writer, a historian or a genealogist. I work at each and usually combine them,” Betty continued in her 2020 column for us. “Seven years ago, Teresa Wippel asked for the name of someone who could write coherently and also knew about local history, my name came up, and here I am.”
Betty played a key role in preserving Lynnwood’s history through her work with the Lynnwood-Alderwood Manor Heritage Association, the Edmonds Cemetery Board, the Edmonds Historical Museum and the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society. She was often recognized for her extensive knowledge of Lynnwood’s history, and was honored by the Lynnwood City Council in November 2018 as Lynnwood’s historian.
In 2019, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling recognized Betty for her service on the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery Board and also her efforts to relocate the Edmonds School District Veteran’s Memorial to the cemetery in 2018. She continued to serve as a honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board until her death.
Betty recalled that even before she started first grade, “I became a voracious reader and, in some way, or another, I have always done a lot of writing, even if it was just keeping the log books for our Alaska fishing years. Maybe because both my grandfathers were newspaper men, writing is in my genes. As to history, I had a wonderful and inspirational history teacher in high school by the name of George Hatch — I have always remembered what I learned about history in his classroom.
“To end this story of my life, I just have to mention my favorite Edmonds High School history teacher once more,” she wrote in her 202o column. “In my 1945 EHS year book, George Hatch wrote “To Betty, a quiet and observant girl, don’t ever change.” I could never figure out if Mr. Hatch meant for me to always remain quiet, or observant, or maybe some of both. Also, I can’t help but wonder what he would think of me as a historian.”
Journalism has often be described as providing a first draft of history. All of us at the My Neighborhood News Network who worked with Betty over the years will miss her deeply, and her impact on documenting our area’s history will never be forgotten.
— By Teresa Wippel, Publisher