In the early summer of 1987, I was working at Unocal 76 in Seattle, living at home with my parents, and going to Shoreline Community College. After being out of high school for five years, I was finally getting an idea of what I wanted from life. One morning at the breakfast table my Dad shared some news.
“I’ve accepted a senior pastor position at a church in Illinois.”
Wait What?? With that, the detailed plan I had to get a college degree and a better job just got tougher. My parents’ destination: the north end of Chicago, at an urban church that had been without a pastor for two years. They would be moving in September. Their decision did not come easily, because their family was in the Seattle area and I was still living at home.
Embarrassingly I blurted out, “But what about me?”
I quickly followed that up with, “Wait…that was dumb. I’m 23 and should probably be living on my own already.” My parents said I would be more than welcome to move with them and go to college in Chicago, which was very nice and so like them, but at that point I felt that it was time for me to move on. I had no idea what to do, or even how to find a place to live on what I made.
About a month later the call came.
“My neighbor Carol is going on a rafting trip to South America,” my sister Jan explained, “and needs someone to watch her place while she’s gone.”
I quickly accepted the “job” of watching her neighbor’s home in Bothell for $200 a month through January 1988. That would give me some breathing room to figure out a place to live. By move-in day I had gotten a job at Al’s Auto Supply in Everett. My commute got longer, but the pay was better and my job was now more secure. It also gave me some schedule flexibility for school.
Built in 1912, the cute 800 sq ft house was more like a cabin. Already 70+ years old when I moved in, it was a very cozy study in what a person needs versus what a person wants. No room for want when you only have 800 square feet. The cabin was surrounded by much newer homes; I would imagine it was built when there was nothing else nearby, and when I lived there the street was still in unincorporated Snohomish County.
I lived with Carol’s cat – Angel – one of the sweetest and softest kitties I’ve ever met. But she did love to meow. She was the reason I was not able to bring my cat Byl to the cabin, because there was no guarantee they would get along. While it is sad that Byl died that summer, his passing did clear a hurdle because my parents and I did not know what to do with him.
The brown shingle siding on the cabin was straight out of The Waltons. The cabin had electric baseboard heating, which was expensive to use and not nearly as efficient as the potbelly wood stove in the living room. There was no shower, only an antique tub. The rear of the house had been added some time after the place was built; a window over the tub opened to the back room, clearly left over from when that wall was the rear of the house. In order to spread the heat, I would stoke the potbelly stove with wood, open the bathroom window, and then put a four-bladed fan pointed towards the backside of the stove to push the heat.
Within minutes the place would be at 80+ degrees.
Angel would lie in front of the stove with her belly up purring. Eventually I would shut off the fan and go to bed. By the time I got up in the morning, the cabin temperature was in the low 60s and I would stoke again. Carol left plenty of wood for me to split and stack.
She also scheduled one visit from a Chimney Sweep during her trip, and he came wearing a tall stovepipe hat and singing traditional British songs from the 1800s. He was prepared not only to clean the chimney but to entertain. Quite a spectacle.
In January I determined that I could no longer afford school on what I was making at Al’s. So my education was put on hold, with the intention of getting some student loans and going back either in Summer or Fall `88. I also needed to find another place to live, because Carol would be coming home soon. A basement apartment at my friend Gary’s house was available, so I packed and headed back to Shoreline. This was the same friend Gary who worked at The Fish Bowl.
Today Carol and the Cabin are still there. The structure is nearly 100 years old and has been upgraded with newer windows. My sister and her husband still own the house next door; now all other sides of the Cabin are surrounded by homes built around 1988. The outside of the house still looks the same, almost like a time capsule. I love seeing it every time we are out visiting Jan and the family, because it reminds me of starting over, and starting on my own.
In 1985 I had to visit the Public Defender’s office in Seattle’s Smith Tower (a story for another time). As I walked through the lobby, a TV reporter and her cameraman were waiting patiently for something. The reporter was chewing gum, blowing bubbles, and tapping her high heels on the ground in a marching pattern while she held a mic.
That reporter was Kathi Goertzen of KOMO TV News.
I pretended not to notice someone famous was in the building. I mean, come on…it was THE Kathi Goertzen! I was nervous. When confronted by an intersection in life that includes famous people, I usually embarrass myself somehow unless I go underground. Even if I didn’t have the guts to talk with her, I simply couldn’t get over that visual of a toe-tapping reporter blowing bubbles.
At the time I was working overnight at Shoreline Family Shell in Shoreline. It was a job worthy of a thousand goofy stories; I worked with a crew surrounded by subplots. Even though it was right on State Route 99, the station was also very boring overnight, save for the occasional tweaker or coke head gassing up while yelling at some presumed threat. Those were the ones who paid me in – for real – wads of crumpled money, silver certificates, or bags of wheatback pennies.
This job also came at a very low time in my life.
Things weren’t going right. I had worked just about every job, and lost my fair share of them too. The future just wasn’t clicking, and I seemed to be floating on open water without a port in site. Any sort of future seemed shackled to jobs where the manager scheduled me for just enough hours to not give me benefits like health insurance. In short: my life was stagnated.
One night in the gas kiosk I started thinking again about that chance meeting at Smith Tower with Kathi, and somehow the notion of writing her a letter seemed like the right idea. Maybe I just needed something to lift my spirits and help me forget that my career was stalled. But I couldn’t just write something like, “Hi…how’s it goin’? I really like you on the news and stuff…” No, I needed a hook, something that would convince her to read a letter written by a pump jockey from Shoreline. Something fun to write. Something – more importantly – fun to read. So Kathi Goertzen of KOMO TV4 received an award so wonderful, so prestigious, and so legendary that no one outside of my circle of friends had ever heard of it:
The Cutest Woman in TV News Award
In the hand-written letter I first described how we had crossed paths at Smith Tower, and then the fictional account of how she had won the award at random. Names of female newscasters of the era were written on pieces of paper: Kathi, KING TV’s Jean Enerson, and KIRO TV’s Susan Hutchison. In a big bowl, Byl the Cat stirred them around with his paw before a name was chosen. My friends and I then pledged loyalty to the winner and watched the news together while eating pizza. Of course it was all hooey, and probably not believable; I just wanted to write her a letter.
I also wanted to deliver it by hand. My friend Jamie tagged along, and we headed downtown on a Monday afternoon. I knew we probably wouldn’t be allowed to give it straight to Kathi, but it would be worth a shot.
“I have a letter here for Kathi Goertzen,” I said holding it in front of me. The person at the front desk gracefully took the letter and thanked us. Knowing that crazies probably walk in off the street all the time, we dutifully announced that we weren’t crazies.
“That’s alright,” she said. “We have a dog that sniffs all her mail.”
By the end of the week she replied to the letter. It is probably buried in my archives somewhere (aka “plastic bin in garage”), but I recall most of the correspondance. She thanked me for the honor of being chosen. “Words can’t begin to describe my surprise and gratitude.” She also sent her regards to Byl the Cat for being so instrumental in her “achieving such a great honor.” What a ham.
“It is true,” she wrote, “that I chew gum while on assignment, much to my producer’s dismay.”
She went on to say that she hoped we would continue watching her and drinking beer, even though beer was never mentioned in my letter. “I hope to be here for a long time, unless my ratings plummet.” Thankfully her ratings never did.
Her letter was like a single-page double-spaced Helvetica-typed piece of happiness.
I always hoped to get a letter in reply, but didn’t expect that it would raise my spirits so much. I felt that I had a knack at something, and that there might be a future yet for a guy who to that point had just been floundering. As might be expected, things did get better.
But the story doesn’t end there…
After 9/11, I felt tremendous thankfulness for the people who had helped me through my earlier life, especially the times when I was either broke or floundering. I thought it would be a great idea to write some letters. For example one went to the high school teacher who introduced me to so many great films like Bullitt and Citizen Kane. Another went a friend’s parents who treated me like their own son. It seemed important to let these folks know that the things they did in the past were still appreciated, and that I was thankful for even the small acts of kindness they had shared.
And once again, I got to thinking about Kathi Goertzen.
I remembered 1985, when my stalled life was tied to that brief and goofy correspondence with someone famous – the one shining beacon of normalcy for the whole year. Should I write to her? Kathi’s email address at KOMO was on the station’s website. But what would I say? I didn’t know right off, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“I don’t expect you to remember,” my 2004 email to Kathi began. I went on to explain the embarrassing tale of how I had concocted a story in 1985 about Byl the Cat choosing her as The Cutest Woman in TV News with his paw. But I also wrote how the brief correspondence we had really brightened my day and helped my future look reasonable and positive. In the final paragraphs the described how I had finally turned my life around for the better, and eventually got a degree from WSU – willingly tying that letter from her to a turnaround that got me on the right track in life.
A couple days later I got a gracious reply, thanking me for the email and commenting on the humor behind the “award” she received. “You really give me too much credit,” she wrote, “for what you had inside all along.” Always a class act, that one.
On August 12, 2012 we lost Kathi to brain tumors which she had been battling for 14 years.
Throughout her fight she remained as positive as she was back in the day, even as the tumors kept coming back and taking more away. Her words of encouragement to me and others in the past turned back on her, as thousands of well-wishers and fans like me continued to support her as a long-time local favorite personality. I chuckle a bit when I think back to the mid 1980s, and the whole idea of sending off a letter to Kathi. As much as I groan and shake my head about the contents of that letter now, I’m glad I did it. What it has shown me is even the small intersections in life can be important, and influential later on. You may never know how much impact your words will have on someone, so make them good words. And you may never know when an award might come your way.
Rest In Peace Kathi; you still win.
Note: I originally wrote this story in 2010. In 2011 I shared it on Kathi’s Facebook page, and got a comment back from her. “This is so touching!” she wrote. “I’m going to share your story with my daughters.” It makes me happy that she was able to read it before she passed away.