With the passing of former Monroe Mayor Donnetta Walser, the community is mourning the loss of an icon. During her time as an educator and elected official, Walser took risks, celebrated victories and weathered storms with grace. She was a mother, wife, role model and a tireless public servant.
She had a mischievous side — she loved a good April Fools’ Day prank. Nobody enjoyed a successfully executed trick more than Donnetta, said her husband of 45 years, Fred Walser. She would sometimes spend the entire year planning her next clever ruse, never failing to catch her husband off guard. It got so that Fred faced the start of April with trepidation, as he could never be sure what was to come. The couple’s sons, Matt and Scott, were not exempt from her exploits.
“She would work all year coming up with some kind of April Fools’ trick to pull on my sons or me,” Fred said. “I mean, they were real whiz-bangers — and every time it would be a ‘gotcha.’”
During years when she didn’t plan an elaborate prank, the joke was still on him, as the lack of a joke became the joke.
Sitting quietly late Christmas night, Fred reminisced about his wife.
He will miss everything about her, he said.
“I can’t think of anything negative about my wife that she did professionally or personally,” Fred said. “I thought we always had a great relationship.”
Donnetta Walser, 73, passed away on Thursday, Dec. 22, after a battle with cancer. Fred held her hand as she passed, at her side as she took her last breath. The days preceding her death were marked with visits from friends and family, he said, for which he is grateful. Fred said his wife did not want a funeral, instead asking him to organize a celebration of life ceremony on a day she very much enjoyed. That’s why Donnetta’s celebration of life will take place Saturday, April 1, at the Rock Church in Monroe.
For Fred, it is impossible to sum up what 45 years of marriage with Donnetta has been like. The time sped by way too fast, he said; that’s for sure.
“I don’t know where it went but it was the greatest time of my life,” Fred said. “I wouldn’t trade a day.”
The two met in Monroe in 1970, not too far from their current home. Fred was a trooper with the Washington State Patrol at the time, and Donnetta had moved to Monroe to begin her teaching career. Neighbors initially, they lived in a fourplex on Tester Road.
Fred said they hit it off from the very beginning.
“The day I met her, I knew I was going to marry her,” he said. “That’s a true story.”
Donnetta served as the mayor of Monroe from 2002-09, but her initial foray into politics took place when she first served on the Monroe City Council from 1976-83. She was a full-time teacher, a full-time wife and a full-time mom to their two boys, Fred said, somehow managing to balance it all with ease. Back then, a council meeting could last until 2 a.m., he recalled. He would wait up for Donnetta, who would come home, settle herself at the kitchen table and start to grade papers.
“I always marveled at her. She’d do it, and at 6 a.m. she’d be up getting the kids up and ready for school,” Fred said. “That’s just the way she was; when she had something to do she did it. She was a great, great role model for anybody that knew her.”
As a teacher with the Monroe School District for nearly 30 years, Donnetta made a lasting impression on her students, teaching things like English, speech, drama and business.
Perhaps the most meaningful time of her teaching career was just before her retirement, when she was hired to oversee a grant-funded program at Monroe Middle School specifically tailored for at-risk youth. The students were funneled into the program based on failing grades, poor attendance and other academic issues. Some had drug-addicted parents, some didn’t have enough food and some had unaddressed medical problems.
She had 15 students. Some called them troubled, but Donnetta called them gifted.
Fred had the opportunity to engage with her students in his professional capacity as a police officer. He spent 29 years with the Washington State Patrol and another 12 as the Sultan police chief, so when Donnetta needed a law enforcement professional to visit her class to satisfy the grant criteria, she asked her husband. His first visit was pretty brutal, he recalled, but Donnetta encouraged him to run to the store during a break and get donuts for the class.
“I hate donuts, but I said ‘OK,’ ” Fred said. “The kids came in from their break, and she set the donuts up right in the middle of the room. The kids looked at those donuts, and looked at me, and I said ‘Have one. You know cops and donuts.’ ”
It was an ice-breaking strategy that worked. The kids were engaged after that, asking thoughtful questions and listening to his answers.
One of her students was a 14-year-old pregnant girl named Holly.
“This young girl was failing everything, and Donnetta set her up with a mentor,” Fred said. “She could read kids; she could read their potential.”
Donnetta reached out to friend Martha Dankers, who was the community relations director at what was then Valley General Hospital, and asked her if she’d be willing to serve as the girl’s mentor. She told Dankers that Holly was exceptionally bright, talented in both reading and math, but needed guidance to help navigate teen pregnancy and the challenges associated with her troubled home life.
“I jumped at the chance and started a Friday morning breakfast meeting, in which Holly and I would meet together for about an hour,” Dankers said. “I too saw great potential in Holly, and it was one of the most satisfying experiences I have had — I learned as much from Holly as she did from me.”
There is no doubt in Dankers’ mind that Donnetta’s influence resulted in a positive outcome.
“Without Donnetta’s compassion and encouragement, Holly’s life would have turned out quite differently,” she said.
The experience was equally rewarding for Dankers.
“What Donnetta may not have realized is that she not only made a difference for Holly, but also enriched my life through this experience,” Dankers said. “Donnetta’s ability to recognize the talents and potential in students that may be buried deep within them is truly the sign of a gifted teacher.”
Holly graduated from high school and moved on to Everett Community College where she studied nursing, Fred said, eventually becoming a registered nurse. Donnetta loved getting updates from Holly and other students who stayed in touch with her over the years. Holly was just one of numerous remarkable success stories, Fred said.
“Those kinds of success stories are a testimony to her,” he said. “Donnetta had an impact on a lot of people’s lives in a lot of positive ways.”
After her retirement from the school district in 2001, she dove into politics, serving another stint on the city council before becoming mayor in 2002. She treated her position as a full-time job, tackling many contentious and challenging issues over the years. She prevailed in an outright tussle with the Washington State Department of Corrections in 2007, over a $220,000 water bill the DOC initially refused to pay.
Sen. Kirk Pearson was her ally during that ordeal, Fred said, and she persevered and triumphed.
Fred said Pearson is a remarkable man and friend. Donnetta was in hospice care for about a week prior to her death, and Pearson visited and prayed with her. He spent time with Fred on Christmas Eve, grieving with him.
“There is a tremendous friend,” Fred said.
Donnetta used her position as mayor to push for traffic safety improvements. She advocated for the installation of c-curbing down the center of U.S. 2 between S.R. 522 and Chain Lake Road, which had earned the dubious distinction of having the highest number of collisions in the state for a two-year period, Fred said. She successfully lobbied for funding from the Washington State Department of Transportation to accomplish the work.
The businesses raised concerns at first, Fred said, but the installation of that barrier reduced the collision rate dramatically. Transportation improvements were a passion of Donnetta’s, who served at her husband’s side as the vice chair of the U.S. 2 Safety Coalition. Donnetta’s other service included 15 years on Monroe’s Civil Service Commission, time as president of the League of Women Voters and service on the Senior Services of Snohomish County board of directors.
On a personal level, Donnetta was infinitely proud of her sons, said Fred Walser. They were blessed with two great sons who married two great women, he said, and her grandchildren were the apples of her eye. As a couple, the two traveled extensively, including on seven cruises. They ventured to Sweden in 2012, after Donnetta discovered she had a cousin there.
“We spent two weeks over there and met some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life and saw the whole country,” Fred said. “Before she was diagnosed we were making plans to go back.”
She was a truly remarkable woman, he said, who was good at everything she did.
“Including taking care of me,” Fred said. “I’m going to miss her.”