With remnant trepidation but always hopeful, my pod and I celebrated the new year by raising our glasses to making it through and, on the porch of a friend, we hurled obscenities at the dastardly and absurd year just past. Goodbye and good riddance 2020!

Now we need to get to work repairing our country’s reputation on the world stage, reversing the numerous hits to our environment, and — above all — welcoming in a new set of leaders to help us vanquish the pandemic. There’s a lot to do and we’ll need to figure out a way to come together to do it. Can we let bygones be bygones? Time will tell.

If anyone can provide a model for how to get along well with others, it’s certainly long-time local and Chinook Observer kingpin Marlene Quillin. Marlene has brought heart to her job at the front desk of the newspaper for the past 18 and a half years. She’s managed to navigate the sneaker waves and currents of small-town politics and still do her work to the Nth degree of excellence.

How does she do it? — by having learned over the years that the best policy is simply to value every single person who comes through the door. As she says, “No matter what I know or have read about someone, when they come into the office, I start with a blank slate.” That means that everyone gets the same attention from Marlene as everyone else, no matter what. If only we all had this same level of compassion, egalitarianism and patience for our fellow humans.

Jill of all trades

Let me attempt to describe what Marlene does at the newspaper, along with a few of the behind the scenes details: she summarizes, selects and writes all the dispatch reports, police blotter and jail bookings; she handles the community calendar, all the legal notices and court reports, both the service and the church directories, classifieds, circulation, obituaries, and — just by-the-by — she answers the phone all day long every weekday. And this, as it turns out, may be one of the most challenging parts of her job (though, I should let it be known, she is stellar at all of the above).

Marlene Quillin

Marlene Quillin, after 18 and a half years at the front desk of the Chinook Observer, is semi-retiring. We’ll all miss her smile and the caring attention she brings to whatever she does.

“Some people who call in to the newspaper think we’re the Shell Answer Man,” she says. [The Shell Answer Man, sponsored by Shell Oil, ran from the 1960s through the 1990s and answered questions from the public about driving, vehicle maintenance, repair, safety and home heating.] “People ask things like ‘What time does the library open?’ or ‘Do you know where I can get rutabagas?’”

“Rutabagas?” I ask incredulously. “Yes, so I try to help them the best I can.” Of course she does!

Most of us would be ghastly at this job. Probably, and quickly, I would simply refuse to answer the phone at all. But Marlene is brilliant at it. She shares with me that there are still people who’ve moved away from the Peninsula — some gone for decades! — who still call to hear her voice, tell her a story about their lives, or ask how she’s doing. As she reveals, “Matt [Winters, Chinook Observer editor and publisher] always says that I’m like a psychiatrist, people tell me a lot of stuff.”

“Don’t say this [I’m sorry Marlene, I couldn’t help it] — but I worked at a mental health center for a year.” Seems to me this may be perfect training for the job.

Police blotter, dispatches and obits

Now, regarding the police blotter and dispatch reports, which — as we all know — are what we read first. These feature a range of small-town occurrences bathetic, pathetic and hysterical: domestic violence, loose goat, person lying in a parking lot talking to himself, drug heist, stolen chicken, mysterious noises at midnight… etc. Marlene gets a printout of events from our county police and decides which ones to select and how to make them interesting at the same time she protects people’s privacy. It’s a balancing act she does exceptionally well and this is, we must admit, one of the most popular parts of the newspaper. “I try to make them a little bit fun without making fun of people,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed doing these.”

Then there are the obituaries. Marlene helps folks grieving a loved one find the right words to memorialize them. This is another tricky task and she admits she’s sometimes had people scream at her about mistakes. But even these, she enjoys; and she has her favorites.

One fave is the obit of Emmett Chase (AKA Terry Timmen) that ran in the paper Dec. 23, 2009. Emmett was a Renaissance man to be sure: he was a beekeeper, an actor, sculptor, carpenter, card shark, butcher, dance instructor, tympani repairmen, Basque cultural consultant, zydeco composer, special ed teacher, and autopsy expert; he had three college degrees and three patents (one for a Jell-O mold); spoke four languages; and was a member of the International Association of Turtles, Train Whistle League, and the American Whist Association. Marlene’s favorite line was the last one, “If you visit his grave [in the Ilwaco Cemetery], sing a song or recite a poem but, please, nothing by Emily Dickinson.” As a Dickinson fan, I’d be offended if I weren’t totally in awe of him (and the writer of this dandy piece of prose).

I think Emmett’s obit may help explain why Marlene loves her job so much. “I really really like people and everybody deserves to be treated with respect. I think that’s why I get along pretty easily with everyone. I try to listen. I don’t want to laugh at anybody’s tragedy — and there’s joy every day. That’s how I approach my work.” She loves the Peninsula and understands, profoundly, what a unique place we have here.

Ace employee

In every way, Marlene goes above and beyond for our community. Just one small example: not only does she help folks write their loved one’s obituary, but she makes sure they receive five extra copies of the page where it appears, or she sends a PDF because “lots of people live out of the area and don’t necessarily see the newspaper.” Her approach to work is supremely people-focused.

As Matt confirms, “Marlene is a star in every sense. She exemplifies community-minded customer service and has been the Chinook Observer’s ace employee from start to finish. Thankfully, her retirement is mostly from public roles and she’ll be continuing to do much vital work for us behind the scenes, but I’ll sure miss getting to see her as much as I do now.”

It’s true Marlene will be only semi-retired; she’s keeping some of the newspaper tasks that she can do from a distance. So we won’t be seeing her ever-cheery face behind the front desk any more because she and her husband intend to “get off the beaten path” in their “18-foot Jayco Baja trailer.”

I too will miss Marlene for her warmth, her friendship, and for all the myriad favors she did for me over the years. But I’m glad to know that she’ll be loose in the big world changing people’s lives for the better wherever she goes.

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