After26 years, there’s a new horizon for Shirley

Published on Thu, Nov 18, 2004 by ack Kintner

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After 26 years, there’s a new horizon for Shirley

By Jack Kintner

Shirley Thorsteinson, a one-time Blaine bartender who rose through the ranks at city hall to become city clerk in 1992, is calling it quits after 26 years. She will be honored for her long tenure and steady, professional anchoring of the city hall staff on Monday at a reception in the city council chambers from 5 until 6:30 p.m.

“I just love this place!” Thorsteinson exclaimed in a recent interview, saying she felt that way driving into town for the first time in the summer of 1970 with her husband and three children. For her, it’s the people and what she calls “the ambience, the mountains, the water.”
Thorsteinson began tending bar at the old Home Café in 1973. “I was just a little church girl,” she laughed, “and we never ever touched liquor in our house, and then not only to be in a bar but working there, too! Oh, my!”

True to form, Thorsteinson evaluated the experience in terms of the people she met and knew then, “all the interesting people, the men who needed to talk and the stories everyone had. Everyone has a story,” she said, recalling the memories of Blaine she tells as her Blaine love stories. “I see a difference between what people are doing and the heart they carry inside,” she said.

Blaine was a little seedy, rough around the edges then, she said, with two XXX movie theaters and a number of massage parlors and escort services, “and there were so many funny things that happened, funny now, anyway.” She told of the “massage parlor girls” who came into the bar, “and were so nice. One night someone told me that we were going to get raided by the police, so I cut them off (from ordering more drinks) and told them they couldn’t come back. They were furious, and of course we were never raided. I was so naive.”

Thorsteinson spoke of how safe she felt in Blaine despite the tawdry atmosphere. “One night a man walked through the door and called me a really bad name,” she said, “and then another guy got up and decked him. Another time a woman came in and pulled out a cigarette but Vern, the bartender, told her not to smoke at the bar. She insisted, using a lot of nasty language, so he came around and tried to drag her out of the place. She hung on to a doorpost for a while but he eventually got her out. People in the café were just sitting there in mid-bite, staring. I’d just started there and didn’t know what to think.”

“I’d walk across the street to the bank, where Worldly Treasures is now, every night at two a.m., after we closed, with the money from the bar. One time there were two men walking down the street toward me and a border patrol agent stopped his car, got out and stood almost at attention between us as I carried the money to the bank. The cops were there every night, a policeman or a border agent, and I felt quite safe,” Thorsteinson said.

The vivacious, outgoing and youthful 65-year-old describes her tenure in Blaine almost exclusively in terms of people who she knew or what was happening to whom at one time or another. “I came to work for the city in 1978, just after two local policemen died in a plane crash,” Thorsteinson said, “and it was a tough time.”
“Dolph Hill made the Home Café into a steak house, and then I got laid off,” she continued, “but almost the same day Joni Pine, mayor (Amos) Pine’s wife, found me at the International and told me ‘they’re hiring at city hall, so get over there! Don’t take another drink of that coffee! Put down your cup and just get over there!’”

Thorsteinson was hired as the secretary for public works director Jerry Pressler in 1978. She moved on to become assistant to the first city manager in 1980 when Blaine adopted that form of government, working under Dale Ennor. In 1992 she became city clerk and has worked with all five city managers, rattling off their names as if they were close relatives: “Dale, then Eric Peterson, Pat Floyd, Tony Mortillaro and now Gary Tomsic. All of them have taken us a step closer to getting to what we are now, a great little town.”

She can still get dewey-eyed talking about her life as a single mom that began just three years after arriving. “I was single for nine years, then I met John Thorsteinson and got engaged. I’ll still never forget being stopped on the street and being told by someone I barely knew how happy they were for me…” Thorsteinson said, her voice trailing off in the emotion of the moment. “I can cry over this place real easily!” she laughed.

Thorsteinson said her hairdresser, a woman named Chris, “told me she knew a guy who would be just perfect for me,” Thorsteinson said, “and she would know…they’d been dating for a while,” she laughed. That was her “Point Roberts boy, a Blaine high school grad, 1949 or ’50, John Thorsteinson.” They were married for 20 years before he died in 2002, “and we had a wonderful time!” Her stepchildren from John are as important to her as her own kids, she said.

As far as Blaine’s “blue period” is concerned, when the downtown core was dominated by adult entertainment, Thorsteinson said “for years I said that as soon as we can get rid of that stuff downtown then Blaine will blossom.” A committed Christian since her youth in a Seattle Pentecostal church, she said “a lot of us have been praying about this for a long time, and when that bookstore finally went over the hill, so to speak, look at what has happened! People are coming here and saying what a nice little town!”

Thorsteinson said that Expo ’86 in Vancouver was a big turning point in city history, “with the people staying here and seeing Blaine for the first time.” When asked what she sees down the road for her favorite little town, she said “I see a busy, prospering town, the board walk, apartments with businesses on the street level, and hopefully a fish and chips place like Ivar’s only with better french fries,” she laughed. “It’s taken a team to get us this far, and right now we’ve got a really good one, but people should still get involved, come out to meetings, run for office,” she said.

Her future? “I want to go!” she laughed, “to travel. And yes, there is a man in my life, thank you very much,” she grinned, unwilling to elaborate.

On Thanksgiving day she’ll preside once again over a packed house, coordinating a sit-down dinner for an extended family of 25. She’ll tell the men to turn off the football game, light the candles and offer a prayer before asking everyone to help themselves. “Dinner’s at two,” she chirped, “and you’re more than welcome!”