Citizen of the Year: Dorothy Lawson, long-time president of the Friday Harbor Food Bank

Dorothy Lawson, retired long-time president of the Friday Harbor Food Bank, is The Journal
Dorothy Lawson, retired long-time president of the Friday Harbor Food Bank, is The Journal's Citizen of the Year.
— image credit: Page designed by Richard Walker

In a perfect world, there would be no need for a food bank.

No one would go hungry for want of a job or for lack of money. Those down on their luck wouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

But the world is far from perfect, and San Juan Island — its scenic beauty notwithstanding — is no exception. Perhaps no one knows that better than Dorothy Lawson, who stepped down as president of the Friday Harbor Food Bank late last year after nearly three decades of managing what has evolved into one of the island’s most widely-supported, and important, institutions.

The San Juan County Association of Realtors, for example, makes a sizable yearly donation as part of its annual food drive. Cans of food are regularly collected at various school activities and athletic events, and at student-led food drives as well. A $2,500 grant from the San Juan Island Community Foundation allowed the Food Bank to replace the sagging shelves in its storage room a year ago, ramping up its efficiency as a result.

Local businesses provide steady support to the Food Bank as well. Valmark, Inc., parent company of King’s Market and MarketPlace, took its regular contributions one step further this holiday season by donating 180 frozen hams for the Food Bank to distribute.

With the economy sputtering, and many islanders struggling to make ends meet, support for the Food Bank couldn’t be more timely. The need has never been greater.

In fact, the Food Bank recently witnessed a new high. It helped 171 people — 84 on Saturday and 87 the following Wednesday — put food on the table the week before Christmas.

“That’s the most we’ve seen in 2010 or ever,” said Joyce Sobel of the Family Resource Center, who joined the Food Bank’s board of directors two years ago.

It’s also a far cry from the 20 or so people that would pass through the Food Bank’s doors on a typical week in the early 1980s. At that time, the Food Bank operated out of the old log cabin at the county fairgrounds and, as Donna Galt recalls, it was not uncommon to see a mouse scurry across the cabin’s floor.

“I was there when Dorothy became president 25 years ago or so,” Galt said. “Natalie Kniepp was president before Dorothy, but she had to quit because of health reasons. Dorothy said to me, ‘I’ll take over as president if you help me out as vice president,’ and that’s how it started. We were handing out very little food back then, of course. It’s grown into what it is today.”

The Food Bank, without question, is a more sophisticated operation than it was when Lawson first took over the helm. It serves three to four times as many people, its doors are now open twice a week and its hours of operation have doubled to help better meet that growing demand.

Her unflinching dedication in helping to keep the island’s safety net intact has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, Lawson was honored as a “Real Hero” by the regional chapter of the American Red Cross for her efforts on behalf of the Food Bank. More recently, Mayor Carrie Lacher signed a proclamation declaring Dec. 17, 2010 “Dorothy Lawson Day” in the Town of Friday Harbor, upon Lawson’s retirement.

It’s because of her tireless devotion in helping to make the Food Bank what it is today that The Journal of the San Juan Islands is proud to name Dorothy Lawson as its 2010 Citizen of the Year.

Born in 1918, Dorothy May Dougherty was one of five children raised by Edward and Esther Dougherty of San Juan Island. Dorothy’s future husband, John Lawson, was born and raised on San Juan Island as well. The Lawsons had two daughters, Kathy and Jo Anne.

Kathy Ferguson recalls that the early years were lean and the family struggled to make ends meet.

“Things were tough in those days,” she said. “She was a hard worker, let’s put it that way, and just a real good mother to have.”

Ferguson said her mother became worried about the fate of the Food Bank not long after joining the senior center’s advisory board. She joined the Food Bank and was in charge a short time later.

“She was concerned about the management of it, of keeping enough funds available and of getting enough donations,” she said.

For 27 years, that’s exactly what she did.

Galt believes Lawson, who experienced the Great Depression, developed a strong sense of thrift that turned out to be a benefit for the Food Bank, particularly in the early years. By pinching pennies and living within its means, she said the Food Bank was able to overcome minimal support and early setbacks.

“Back then we never handed out too much, only what we could afford,” Galt said. “Dorothy’s thing was that you don’t buy Campbell’s when you can buy Western Family. Frugal? I think if she read that about herself she’d be proud.”

Three times the Food Bank was forced to move during its tenure at the fairgrounds. From there, it relocated to a building on land owned by the Town of Friday Harbor, only to be forced from that site in order to make room for expansion of the town’s wastewater treatment plant.

Town Administrator King Fitch recalls going “nose-to-nose” with Lawson more than once over the pending eviction — and admired her for how she handled those negotiations.

“She was always very above board and forthright,” Fitch said. “Her heart was always in the right place and she was always very professional with me. She’s been relentless in her tenacity to make that charity work. She had a vision years ago that I don’t think many of us bought into at the time.”

Times have changed. And so has the Friday Harbor Food Bank. While Lawson has retired, she long will be remembered as a cornerstone.

“She’s one of those women from that generation where they just go and get it done, and they don’t make a big stink about it,” Lacher said. “I think it’s a very caring thing she did for this community.”

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