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Tools and Woods with Bob Smalser

  To Succeed...  

December, 20-2003

Drove the household over the mountain today eight miles to Belfair Valley to join other family, friends and neighbors in saying farewell to a dear family friend.

Toni died unexpectedly, prematurely, and instantly of a heart attack after her daily morning walk early last week. She was 57… a single lady with no family other than her mother in distant Spokane. A life-long teacher and mentor of young people, she taught English and French at the local rural high school for over 3 decades. She was my teacher-sister-in-law’s best friend, had taught my wife 11th Grade English, and was an adopted member of our extended family. Toni attended at every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My family provided her building lot, and helped build her house. Toni was our older sister.

Belfair is a blue-collar community on the southern tip of Hood Canal. A third of its residents head north every morning to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, a fourth head south to Shelton’s Simpson Lumber Mill, and a fourth head in all directions on both Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas as loggers. The others are nurserymen; farmers; quarrymen; brush pickers and evergreen packers; tree farmers and merchants.

The largest church in the community was overflowing today with people from far and wide and all walks of life…their common theme being the impact Toni had on their lives. The attendance at that church today was expected to exceed the population of its town. Even I was surprised at the number of families with two generations of Toni’s students present…and at the number of young people present.

Toni’s loves were literature, theater, Scrabble and sports…especially local college football and High School sports…in that order. She had an unusual combination of formidable intellect and the ability to make intellectual pursuits joyful and fun. The tributes today in song and word from family, friends, local officials and students reflected her joy and warmth. But to me, the most moving was one from a logger’s kid, now a graduate student. His tribute was that of all his teachers through college and beyond, there were really only two that had a profound, direct impact on his life. One teacher told him he could become anyone or anything he wanted to become…the other teacher told him he could not…

…and it was Toni who told him he could achieve anything he wanted in life.

The final tribute was from a lumberman’s kid, now a successful airline pilot of early middle age, president of the local school board, and now the executor of Toni’s estate. His parting tribute was to announce that a community theater for the performing arts would be constructed in Toni’s memory.

And his tribute is no idle dream…I understand he’s raised a million already with two more expected…and the school district will match donations in kind with land, construction and contracting support.

All this in a community where you’ll almost never even see a Lexus, BMW, Mercedes or Jaguar, but older four-wheel-drive rigs in their stead. Because although the distant urban areas far outdistance communities like Belfair in per capita income, they don’t come close in matching per capita wealth, as rural communities contain the bulk of the state’s small and medium land and timber owners…who are also not folks given to idle talk. Belfair will build this theater…and the next generation of blue-collar kids will enjoy plays from Shakespeare to contemporary in Toni’s name and spiritual presence.

God’s speed to Toni and her kind everywhere.


To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent persons
And the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest
Citizens and endure the betrayal
Of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one's self;
To leave the world a bit better,

Whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch, or a redeemed
Social condition;

To have played and laughed with enthusiasm
And sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed Easier because you have lived –
This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882

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