Remembering Wilma O’Nan

We lost a dear friend and beloved community member when Wilma O’Nan passed away on February 4 at the age of 82. Today, we’re reflecting on her life of compassion and service, and on the vital role she played in the early days of Chinook.

Wilma moved from California to Whidbey Island in 1978 to get involved with the Chinook Learning Community—now the Whidbey Institute. Chinook Co-Founder Vivienne Hull remembers Wilma’s arrival with vivid clarity and humor.

“Back at the very beginning, when we didn’t have a clue about what we were doing at all, I got a letter from this woman who wanted to know what she could do to help. I didn’t even know how to answer it, so I didn’t. It was one of the only letters to which I didn’t even write back,” Vivienne said. “Just a few weeks later, this VW bug drove down the road. It was Wilma. She said, ‘you didn’t answer when I wrote, so I figured you needed secretarial help.’” Wilma worked for Chinook as an employee in varied capacities, including secretarial, for the next six years. At Wilma’s memorial service, Co-Founder Fritz Hull wondered aloud how life would have been different if he and Vivienne had answered her letter. . . “well, we’re new and probably don’t need any help just now.”

The Appletree Garden was Wilma’s special project, and Vivienne remembers how much Wilma helped out on the land as well as in the office. “When she arrived,” Vivienne said, “I had just plowed up the field. It was the first time I did any gardening, and I had planted seven long rows of radishes all at once. She realized we needed help.”

Wilma cared for the Appletree Garden for many, many years as a devoted volunteer, and in 1984 she and her daughter Cathi created Growing Concern, a gardening business. They remained partners in that business until Wilma’s passing.

Cathi remembers her mom’s close connection not only to the Chinook land and gardens but also to the animals which came here with her in the early days. These included Clover, a goat whom she transported from California via VW bug after the previous resident goats passed away, as well as AC and DC, two ducks who would visit during Wilma’s Appletree Garden stewardship to do slug patrol while she worked.

“[Mom] had a story she made up about how her goat Clover came from the planet Clovernia,” Cathi said. “Whenever she turned her head over and looked at us upside down—which she did a lot—that was her trying to fly again, perhaps to return to the home planet!”

Wilma is remembered for her caring nature and her deep love of community and family. “Although the stroke she experienced in 2007 changed her in many ways,” Cathi wrote, “she liked to say that suffering in this world helps to develop compassion in ourselves.” As Wilma’s longtime friends and colleagues in the work of building a better future, we can attest to her great strength of compassion. She will be fondly remembered and deeply missed.

The family suggests that remembrances may be made to the Whidbey Institute’s Appletree Garden which Wilma loved so much, to the Langley United Methodist Church, or to Senior Services of Island County.