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Gone — but not forgotten
Odds are better than good that many will remember Jim Cahail as a man who refused to take the ups and downs of day-to-day life too seriously.
In fact, Cahail would cultivate a light-heartedness later in life that proved for many to be both infectious and inspiring.
“When things would get kind of stressful around here Jim would remind me that what we’re doing is supposed to be fun,” recalls Kevin Loftus, director of the San Juan Island Historical Museum, where Cahail became a fixture in recent years. “He was a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. No pretense. What you see is what you get. I’ll remember him as the ‘voice of reason’.”
But there was more than just an easy going nature. An engineer by profession and in heart, Cahail wielded a passion for fixing things and for making them better. And that’s what he strived to do in back-to-back four-year terms as mayor of Friday Harbor.
“Jim gave me a piece of paper with a list of 10 things to accomplish if I took the job,” recalls Friday Harbor Administrator King Fitch, hand-picked by Cahail to manage the town some 24 years ago. “He was very cognizant of the town limitations and knew our resources couldn’t match (the public’s) expectations. I remember him saying, ‘I know we can’t be everything to everyone but we sure as hell should try as hard as we can’.”
Born and raised on San Juan Island, Cahail, a third generation islander, died Dec. 23 at the age of 77. He spent his final days at Life Care Center in Friday Harbor before succumbing to an aggressive form of lung cancer.
Family and friends gathered in Friday Harbor Dec. 28 to remember and to pay tribute to a man who leaves behind a long list of achievements, and who placed a priority on maintaining a balance between his professional and public endeavors, and his personal life.
Cahail leaves behind three adult children, Doug, Peggy and David, and his wife of 55 years, Mary Jean, a former clerk of the court of San Juan County, an elected position.
A graduate of Friday Harbor High School, Class of ‘52, Cahail attended Washington State University, where he studied engineering and where would meet his future wife, Mary Jean Thomenson.
The Cahails moved to San Juan Island where Jim began a 12-year stint as a civil engineer working in San Juan County’s road department in 1956. He joined Orcas Power and Light Cooperative (OPALCO) in 1969, where he began as an engineer and retired 30 years later as assistant general manager.
Though he had little appetite for politics in general, Cahail did have an affection for public service.He was first elected to the Friday Harbor town council in 1963 and was later elected mayor, serving two four-year terms beginning in 1985.
Cahail proved a popular elected official and family members recall that he was often greeted as “Mr. Mayor” long after his retirement from public office. His successor, former mayor Bill LaPorte, said during his 1993 campaign for office, “I feel if Jim Cahail ran for mayor again he would be reelected.”
But he chose not to, citing “burn out” from the task of overseeing the town for eight consecutive years as the primary reason for not seeking reelection. Perhaps an engineer, more than most, knows when it’s time to move on.
“Jim was a peaceful man and not at all confrontational,” Fitch said. “He would always say that ‘you got to pick your battles’. He was very astute about that.”