Tim’s View: She was just a cute soda clerk

Blanche Whittaker

When Blanche Patterson was a teen girl in Seattle, in the 40’s and she saw something she liked, she put her passion and personality into achieving it. Her first job was cleaning holly leaves for a lady in Seattle who made Christmas wreaths. At 19, her next job was serving customers at the soda fountain at Paradise Lodge in Mt. Rainier National Park.

In the halcyon days of the early 50’s our prideful nation was growing. The war was over; the world looked to America for leadership in all things.

Two young men had begun leading climbers up and down Mt. Rainier. Those two were the Whittaker twins of West Seattle. The twins frequented the lodge in their off hours. Jim and Lou Whittaker, tall and handsome, were well known and respected at the park. Lou, married and Jim, single, may have found the large stone fireplace inside the lodge to be a comfort but it was likely the thick vanilla milkshakes served to Jim by Blanche that kept him coming back. Blanche had learned one secret to getting Jim’s attention – he liked vanilla milkshakes as thick as the snow on Mt.Rainier. It helped that she was tall and pretty.

It seemed to have an impact as Jim and Blanche were married a year or so later. Jim was building a reputation as a mountaineer while Blanche was raising their three children on Capitol Hill. Jim continued to lead climbers at the mountain. Blanche climbed too, reaching the summit of Rainier and was very fond of hiking and rock climbing in those years.

Autographed photo of Robert Kennedy

Jack Kennedy was elected President in November of 1959. Jim (30) was helping run REI, the now famous mountain sports co-op. Blanche was twenty-six. They lived on the shores of Lake Sammamish. Jim’s interests went well beyond running REI. Jim and Lou were still guiding trips up Mt. Rainier when they were asked to join a team to be the first American(s) to summit Mt. Everest in Nepal. Lou dropped out but Jim accepted the challenge. In May of 1963, Jim and a team of Sherpa aides and American climbers summited the highest point on earth, becoming instant celebrities. President Kennedy presented Jim, with his wife Blanche at his side, and the Everest expedition climbers, the Hubbard Medal for distinction and discovery. She toured the White House, the Rose Garden and met with Jackie Kennedy. For Blanche, this meeting was the beginning of a budding friendship with Jackie and later with Ethel Kennedy.

Blanche remembers Jack Kennedy with reddish brown hair and always thought he’d be taller but as is often the case with idols, they appear to be on pedestals.

When Jack was killed in Dallas a few months later, Jim and Blanche offered condolences to the family. A year passed. Some officials in Canada, to honor President Kennedy, selected a peak in the Canadian Rockies and named it Mt. Kennedy. It was December of 1964 when the Acting Attorney General and the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, made a phone call to the Whittaker’s Lake Sammamish home. ” The Canadians have named a mountain peak after Jack,” Robert explained as the purpose of the call. “I want to climb it and I need you to take me up,” Robert added. Robert Kennedy said that President Kennedy had admired Jim’s efforts at summiting Mt. Everest so Robert felt it was appropriate to ask Jim.

Blanche met Ethel Kennedy three weeks later in their trip out to Seattle for some preliminary work before the actual climb by Robert and Jim. Jim and Robert and a team summited Mt. Kennedy in March of 1965, cementing a friendship that would include political campaigning for Robert’s presidential run in 1968.

In the 1968 campaign, Jim worked the soap box in Seattle and the state while Blanche traveled with the “Mother Ship” on flights around the country. By the summer of 1968, Blanche was with Ethel at the Ambassador Hotel for the California primary. Later that evening, after Robert’s victory speech, security had plans to exit the ballroom through the kitchen. Blanche was holding the elevator door for the troupe of dignitaries to assemble for the trip down to waiting limo rides to the airport. The sound of gunfire and pandemonium ensued with Blanche still holding the elevator doors open. Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was on the kitchen floor with a mortal wound.

Security, including Olympian Rafer Johnson and NFL player Roosevelt Grier, helped get Bobby onto a stretcher and into the elevator. Ethel and Blanche, terrified at the glaring lights and screaming voices, huddled in the the elevator. A highly agitated man was screaming inside the elevator as it descended, adding further panic to an already panicky, stuffy elevator. Bobby sat up momentarily, tried to speak before falling back. Blanche noticed Ethel was in shock and agitated by the screaming man. Blanche reacted with a slap to his cheek, though she remembers it as more of a “pat”. It worked as the elevator ride ended more calmly. Security began loading Bobby into the ambulance. Blanche and Ethel followed behind to the hospital. Jim was notified and arrived early the next morning. He, Ethel and Blanche were at Bobby’s bedside that evening when doctors advised that life support should be disconnected. “Robert’s skin faded when the oxygen was removed,” Blanche noted. He was gone.

For Ethel (pregnant) it was a return to her 10 children in Massachusetts. For Blanche it was the continuance of a bond created by Robert’s run for the presidency. Ethel and Blanche remain friends today.

For Blanche and Jim the world had changed. A divorce in the early 70’s was devastating to Blanche. She moved to Hawaii. She remarried and lost a fine man who passed away too young. She married again, this time to an inveterate golfer with a vacation home in Palm Desert. He passed away too. At 60 she had taken up golf. She approached the game with that same passion that has served her well. She won a tournament. She played often. She was also away from her family. Her son Bob, namesake of Robert Kennedy, encouraged her to return to the mainland.

She came home and found peace and quiet in the town of Republic, north of Spokane, up near the Canadian border.

Her farm and acreage on the Kettle River was pretty distant for convenient trips by relatives. Blanche opted to move to Chewelah, just north of Spokane but two separate kitchen fire incidents prompted son Bob to assist her in a recent move back to the Seattle area. Bob and Blanche found the senior apartments at Village Concepts/El Dorado in Burien to be a nice spot. She’s made many friends in the few short months there but regularly drives to also visit friends in West Seattle. Staff at El Dorado say Blanche lights up the room with her personality. Blanche says that’s the way she is but she misses being on the golf course.

When the shoulders and the knees let her know it was time to give up her passion for the game, she did so reluctantly but keeps a set of golf clubs at her apartment just in case she feels good and wants to get around the course again. Not bad for a cute soda jerk.

Ethel Kennedy with her 7 children visiting with Blanche and Jim and their children at Seattle Tennis Club in 1965

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