BY HARRY ANDERSON
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
January 20, 2016
Nancy Conard first came to Coupeville when she was a year and a half old; her dad was in the Navy. That was in 1953, and she proves it by showing a picture of herself as a tow-headed toddler playing on the beach at Ebey’s Landing. What’s remarkable is that, except for a brief stretch after high school, she’s never lived any place else.
“I feel so fortunate to live where I grew up,” she said “It’s comfortable to be around the memories of your whole life in a very nurturing environment. And being able to contribute some in public service is kind of my pay back.”
“Contribute some” is a modest understatement, a typical posture for Nancy Conard. She retired the first of this year after serving 20 years as mayor of Coupeville, with four years before that on the town council. In the past couple of months, she has received numerous tributes from Whidbey and the state for her achievements and her people-pleasing disposition.
As she talked about her life and public service, the memories began to pour out. Coupeville’s population was less than 400 when her family moved to town but, by 1960, it had almost doubled to 740, much of it due to growth at the Navy base in neighboring Oak Harbor. (The town population in 2014, per the latest Census Bureau estimate, was 1,860.)
“Coupeville was a small town but we had a lot of kids,” Conard said. “We lived right across the street from a playground where we all congregated, unsupervised by adults. We made up games and built play forts. There was a well house in one corner and one of the maintenance men attached his rock polisher to the pump and he let us go pull out agates while they were polishing. I’ve been fascinated by agates ever since.”
She and all the kids walked unescorted up the sometimes-muddy path along Main Street to Coupeville Elementary School. No need to wait for the famous Coupeville stoplight; it didn’t exist because Highway 20 wasn’t built until the 1960s.
The Conards lived next door to Polly Harpole’s Maternity Home on Haller Street, a local institution where many babies were born before Whidbey General Hospital opened in 1970. Conard and her sister Maureen, two years younger, were excited when Polly let them come over and see the babies through the window.
“It was the Baby Boom and there were lots of babies being born,” she said. “At Polly’s they used to make bracelets to identify the babies, with their names in little cube letters. Polly let my sister and me put the letters together.”
At Coupeville High School, Conard was a good student and a classic over-achiever. She was treasurer; class vice president and sergeant at arms; on the honor roll; editor of the Wolves Howl; a member of the drama, pep and girls clubs; a sports team manager and a performer in the school plays.
“I think there were 36 kids in my graduating class of 1970,” she said, “and at least 24 of us had been together since kindergarten.”
After high school, she headed off to America—actually, it was Shoreline Community College—where she studied to be a dental hygienist. “But we had a fairly dysfunctional family and, after a year, I ended up feeling like I needed to come home and help my mom with some stuff.”
That turn of events, which might have depressed a less positive person, actually proved to be a launching pad for Nancy Conard. Through an early 1970s job-training program, she landed a job at the Coupeville School District as a part-time office clerk and part-time lunchroom helper. “By then my mom had moved and I was a young adult living on my own, and the school cooks really nurtured and took care of me. I still have their recipe for hamburger gravy, and today it’s (her husband) Gordon’s absolute favorite meal.”
From there she gradually climbed the ladder at the school district, first as a secretary and then as assistant to the superintendent. Impressed by her business and people skills, the superintendent took a leap of faith in 1977 and promoted her to district business manager, responsible for such things as accounting, financial reporting and negotiating contracts. It was a job she held for 27 years, until she retired in 2004.
In that position, Conard won accolades and eventually became president of the Washington State Association of School Business Officials, the first representative of a small district to serve in the position. And it drew her notices at home, as well; friends urged to run for Coupeville Town Council when openings come up in 1992.
“I was blessed with a good work ethic and, maybe because the oldest child of alcoholic parents, I’m just naturally prone to be a workaholic and a people pleaser,” she said.
All her skills were put to the test almost from the minute she was elected. There was tension in the town over growth issues, with newcomers pitted against long-time residents. The election of 1992 was virtually a clean sweep, bringing in three new council members and a new mayor.
“I ran because I was so devoted to my hometown and I gravitated toward wanting to be a leader,” she recalled.
The leadership challenges were growing; the times were changing. The town population more than doubled between 1970 and 1990. Whidbey General Hospital was built. The new high school and middle school were constructed. The county jail and administration offices were expanded. Two mobile home parks were opened. The Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve was created. And—creating a fair portion of the tension between newcomers and long-timers—several apartment buildings and multi-family residences sprang up in a town that had rarely seen them before.
In addition, tourism was becoming a huge part of the local economy and that changed the town. “Tourism has been good for Coupeville because it has made it possible to make a decent living with a business in our historic buildings. Front Street today is geared for tourists, but when I grew up it was where you went for everything, including food, the Post Office and several gas stations.”
In 1995, the mayor’s position was open and Conard ran unopposed. “I saw some changes I wanted to make,” she said, in her understated manner. The first was to fire the police chief, with whom she had major disagreements. “I tried to work with him and we had a mediation, but it failed.”
It was a painful episode for a natural people-pleaser. “We had public meetings and a lot of people were upset with me,” she recalled. “An angry man at one of the meetings actually stood up and yelled at me to ‘get back in the kitchen,’ which was awkward and insulting.”
In response, her sister Maureen wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in which she said “[Nancy] doesn’t belong in the kitchen because she doesn’t cook that well” and “what she’s doing is what she does well.”
Twenty years later, the firing of the police chief and the aftermath still remains with her as the hardest thing she’s handled as mayor. But the next few years became a “golden time,” with the hiring of the new police chief, a clerk-treasurer and a town planner all about the same time. “We were all people who wanted to get things done,” she said. “We thought up things and we got them done. It was a fun, productive time.”
But in the early 2000s, things got difficult again. “We had a rather nasty time with more growth tension, especially over subdividing property. So the old tension with the status quo versus growth came back with a vengeance. I’ve lived through several cycles of it,” she added. When the economy nosedived in 2008, growth—and therefore the tension it brought—slowed dramatically.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 2009, the mayor’s personal life changed drastically. At a party, she met Gordon McMillan, a widower with a home on Snakelum Point just outside the town limits of Coupeville. A whirlwind courtship ensued and they married in July 2011; the two are currently raising Gordon’s granddaughter, Madison, at their home. “I had been thinking about retiring anyway when my term ended in 2015, but marriage and a granddaughter to help raise made the decision easier.”
As she looks back, she’s generally pleased at what she sees. “In the past 20 or 30 years, it has been really cool for me to see the diversity of people who have moved to Coupeville and what they’ve brought. It’s added so much more depth and richness to our community. And the nice part is that I think the community’s personality hasn’t been spoiled, or changed that much. People come because of what they see here, and they know it’s up to them to perpetuate that.”
But she’s also a frank realist. “Coupeville is not a place to be if you have a lot of problems or have very low income and are pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” she said. “We just don’t have a lot to offer. This is a community that supports our neighbors through thick and thin. But that’s not the case if you move here needing a lot.”
As the clock ticked down to her term’s end last month, she worried a bit about having “withdrawals” from a job that has required her full attention for a very long time. But she already has her eye on several projects in which she plans to get involved.
And, to ease her transition, Nancy, Gordon and Madison left just before Christmas on a cruise to Mexico. That was something Her Honor, the Mayor, never had time for.
Image at top: Mayor Conard at her desk, a week before she retired (photo by Harry Anderson)
Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey, where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.
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