Appreciating Joan Bailey Mraz: ‘Turning a creative idea into reality’

In the video above, Joan Bailey Mraz reminisces on her youth and adulthood in West Seattle and her thoughts on art, heritage and family. The video was edited by Brad Chrisman from a 2005 interview by Clay Eals, both of our historical society, for which Joan served as co-founder and volunteered on the board as president, treasurer and in many other roles.


Co-founder Joan Bailey Mraz dies at 78, leaving graceful legacy of
art instruction, heritage leadership and ‘getting better organized’


The co-founder of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society has passed away.

Joan Bailey Mraz – the ultimate volunteer, who bolstered the beginning of our organization in 1984 and served in all roles on our board, including six years as president – died Feb. 24, 2014, at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle. She was 78.

The embodiment of unyielding grace, calm and optimism, Joan was the catalyst for founder Elliott Couden’s vision when we got our start 30 years ago, based at South Seattle Community College (13 years before we opened the Log House Museum).

Marcy Johnsen, board president, notes that Joan consistently “reminded us all in voice and action that we ‘just keep getting better organized.’ … Her smile, her wit, her diplomacy and her many heartfelt gifts of mentoring, time, energy and fiscal support will long be remembered.”

The memorial service for Joan was held at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014, at St. Paul’s of Shorewood Lutheran Church, 11620 21st Ave. S.W., the church she regularly attended not far from her most recent home.

Joan (pronounced Jo-ann), who spent most of her life on the Duwamish peninsula, applied an early interest and talent in art to a 20-year career teaching the subject at South Seattle Community College. There she chaired an advisory board funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Seeking a local historian or historical group to join the board, Joan contacted Dottie Harper, arts activist from Burien, who led her to Elliott Couden, who was trying to start a historical society. Joan introduced Elliott to Jerry Brockey, then president of the college, who gave our then-fledgling organization its first home.

“It shows from what small, little beginnings great things can grow,” Joan reflected in a 2005 interview. “Part of my staying with it is a feeling of commitment. You start a project, or you help with the initial starting of a project, and have sort of a vested personal interest in seeing to its success.

“It’s like the art projects that my students would start. There would be a creative idea that they would turn into reality, and it would become something they would be committed to, just like your children, and that you keep with and nurture it and bring it up to its adulthood. You want to see this through till it gets on its feet.”

Much of Joan’s impact on the success of the historical society was behind the scenes and unsung to the public. In her roles on the board – especially as president from 2000 to 2005, not long after the opening of our Log House Museum in 1997 – she was a gentle leader and event planner who brought integrity and follow-through to the proceedings.

“I think that after acquiring the log house and turning it into a museum and having the structure there, then it was a point of getting organized, and we’ve been in that process,” she said in 2005. “When you’re a nonprofit volunteer group, getting organized takes a lot longer than it does if you’re a business (with many resources).”

She also was founding co-chair in 2004 of the Seattle Heritage Coalition, an association of 80 history organizations in Seattle that sought for the city to place operating support for these groups in its annual budget.

Joan’s commitment to heritage preservation in her later years mirrored her devotion to art in her youth.

She grew up as the identical twin of sister Diane (Tice) in the Gatewood neighborhood of West Seattle. Fond childhood memories included exploring the Pelly Place ravine, digging clams at Lowman Beach, bicycling in Lincoln Park, swimming in its then-new Colman Pool, enjoying her father’s Sunday drives to see sunsets at Alki Beach, swimming at Alki Natatorium, shopping at Morgan Junction and riding the streetcar (an uncle was a conductor) to Endolyne or downtown to the Bon Marche and Pike Place Market.

Art was the shared passion and pastime for both sisters, who as teens won citywide and regional prizes for drawings, watercolors, ceramics, textiles, hooked rugs, fashion designs and silk screens. (Typical of the time, a 1954 Seattle Times story labeled the two “pretty blondes.”)

“I often found that I was drawn to painting structures and their surroundings,” Joan said in 2005. “I think maybe the contrast of the geometrical organization of a structure, a dwelling, within the surrounding nature, makes a contrast and sort of evokes a feeling of community – a dwelling within an area.”

A glimmer of glamour came in her graduating year of 1954 at West Seattle High School, when she represented the Olympic Heights Improvement Club in the Miss Hi-Yu contest and rode in the West Seattle Grand Parade. Her classmate Diane Friesen (later film actress Dyan Cannon) won the crown. “She was a person with a lot of personality and kind of a vivacity that would catch people’s interest,” Joan said, “I think that helped her in her movie career.”

Joan’s aptitude tests at West Seattle High, however, rated her highest in both art and math. “Nowadays, it would be a natural fit to study architecture or something like that,” she said, “but, of course, in those days, women didn’t really go into architecture, so I took education.”

Through the Federated Women’s Club of West Seattle, Joan received a scholarship to Seattle University. Teaching degree in hand, she soon married and turned her attention to being a mother and homemaker.

In 1972, three-year-old South Seattle Community College came calling. The president, Jerry Brockey, a former teacher at Chief Sealth High School, contacted Joan via her sister, Diane, who taught art at Sealth, saying that the college needed an art teacher. Soon, Joan took up that role, part-time at first, when her children were younger, then full-time.

Joan found the pursuits of art and heritage as important as work that some might consider more practical.

“As human beings, we’re a physical entity that has its needs to keep going, but we also have our spiritual side … your personality, that intangible part of you,” she said in 2005. “Of course, a dwelling and a home and the practical things of life take care of your physical needs: warmth and comfort and food and sustenance. But that other part of you, that mental part, that spiritual part, carries all your past with you and dreams of the future all at once, and it’s completely separate from your physical body.

“You have memories and desires for the future, and that’s a part that needs consideration, too, that we’re not just one or the other. You can’t look at it just one way, at the physical. You also have to look at the mental, where we carry the memories and the traditions, even if they no longer exist. Of course, they can be captured in photograph and film and paintings or drawings and maps and books, but you still can carry them in your mind.”

Given her accomplishments and her ever-present smile, it was easy for others to forget that a hereditary kidney disease called Alport’s syndrome beset Joan, as it did two of her sons. All three underwent dialysis and kidney transplants.

Joan received her kidney – “a perfect match, sort of like winning the lottery” – on Christmas Day 1989, about a year after her own kidneys failed, she told the Seattle Times in a 1992 mini-profile. “We’ve all been through a lot,” she said in typically self-effacing manner, “but if you talk to most families, they’ve been through some kind of trauma in some way. This has just been ours. It’s nice our problem had a solution.”

In her final years and as her health declined, Joan devoted herself to her family, including six grandchildren. “Grandchildren are wonderful, new little beings coming up that are so open and receptive to ‘Gramma’ doing things with them. They look at me sometimes as a playmate, not a grown-up. (They ask me) ‘What are you going to do when you grow up, Gramma?’ ”

For Joan, a key part of fostering a family feeling was heritage.

“I think every family feels a sense of history and knowing where they came from and having an interest, especially in America, of where did your ancestors come from and the stories of immigration and travels and successes of building the country,” she said.

“When the children come to our museum, and we try and tell them how the native people lived there, how it was before all the houses and the streets and the traffic, when it was more natural, that they can see that there’s a way to live with nature and in nature, where the two work together to support each other, that gives them a sense of what it was like before all this was built up.”

Upon learning of Joan’s death, Jerry Vandenberg, a member of our Advisory Council who grew up in the Riverside neighborhood of West Seattle, wrote:

“The Southwest Seattle Historical Society has lost a powerful voice for its mission. We have the responsibility to continue what she helped begin. Let her spirit be our compass.”

– Clay Eals, executive director

Please note:

The formal obituary for Joan, prepared by her family, is below. Her family says that remembrances may be made to Northwest Kidney Centers (PO Box 3035, Seattle, WA 98114) or the Southwest Seattle Historical Society (Log House Museum, 3003 61st Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116).

Text of family’s obituary for Joan Bailey Mraz

Joan Bailey Mraz, beloved mother, grandmother, sister and lifelong West Seattle resident, passed away peacefully on Feb. 24, 2014, at Providence Mount St Vincent. She was the firstborn twin of Ruth and Glen Bailey on July 29, 1935.

She was senior-class president and graduated in the class of 1953 from West Seattle High School. Joan won an art scholarship to Seattle University, from which she graduated with a bachelor of arts. She went on to teach art and art history at South Seattle Community College and was co-founder and former president of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.

Joan was a fighter. She received a kidney transplant in 1989, which lasted the rest of her life.

She was preceded in death by her loving husband Elemer Mraz in 1996 and son Steven Roger Mraz in 2008. She is survived by her twin sister Diane Tice of Seattle, daughter Kristina (Graham) van Etten of Sydney, Australia, son Oscar (Nicole Devine) Mraz of Seattle and Mark (Bridget) Mraz of Edmonds. Joan was a proud grandmother to Lauren, Jordan and Nathan van Etten of Sydney, Australia, Marguerite Devine-Mraz of Seattle and Lukas and Kellen Mraz of Edmonds. She will always be remembered for her smile, caring attitude, love and deep affection for others.

The family says that remembrances may be made to Northwest Kidney Centers (PO Box 3035, Seattle, WA 98114) or Southwest Seattle Historical Society (Log House Museum, 3003 61st Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116).

A celebration of Joan’s life will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014, at St Paul’s of Shorewood Lutheran Church, 11620 21st Ave S.W., Seattle, WA, 98146. Please sign Joan’s online guestbook at www.becksfuneralhome.com.



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