Family, friends celebrate life of Valree Joshua

African-American educator, organizer, volunteer died Dec. 3 at 92

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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"Sweet baby, we all have it within us to stand up and make the world a better place."

That's the essence of the life of leading African-American citizen Valree Joshua, according to her grandchildren: a positive, can-do spirit and sweet-as-sugar love for her family and friends. Joshua died on Dec. 3 at age 92.

"She was my hero and my inspiration, my entire life," said granddaughter Tera Joshua, who recalled during a memorial gathering on Friday morning at the First Church of God in Hazel Dell the way grandma Valree combined personal sweetness with an unflagging commitment to a better future.

Val Joshua never stopped smiling, never stopped singing,

never stopped reading the gospels, never stopped working for racial justice — and never stopped putting sugar on her hamburgers.

She liked sugar on everything, her friend Michelle Bradford said. "That's why she was so sweet," Bradford said.

Hundreds of family members, friends and admirers chuckled at such personal remembrances — but mostly, they were moved by the story of Joshua's long, committed, faithful life.

Spirit and song

She was born in Gilmer, Texas, on Aug. 23, 1920. She was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated from all-black Bishop College, where she excelled in her studies as well as basketball and track.

Joshua and husband Joseph came to Vancouver in 1944 and lived in McLoughlin Heights "war housing" that had been built for shipyard workers. The community wasn't as race-blind as it likes to think it was, Joshua told a Columbian reporter in 2009, but the new arrivals helped found the local chapter of the NAACP to start setting that right. Joshua was president of the organization for 29 years, and a loyal volunteer for more than 60.

She also worked with the League of Women Voters, the YWCA Clark County and countless church groups. She started a YWCA effort called WORTH, which visited the Clark County jail weekly to teach inmates life skills — so they'd never be back behind bars again. She even organized a subgroup of her beloved Vancouver USA Singers to sing Christmas carols at the jail every holiday season.

Music was constantly pouring out of her. "She'd break out in song anytime," said grandson Joseph Joshua IV. Usually it was gospel music and hymns, but at one boisterous family Thanksgiving he recalled Joshua busting into the Janis Joplin soul singalong "(O Lord Won't You Buy Me A) Mercedes-Benz" — arguably a spiritual of a certain secular sort.

Joshua had six children, nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. She earned a master's degree in education from Lewis & Clark College, and taught for 22 years at the Washington State School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

Despite her endless good cheer, the Rev. Bruce Hazel said, it wasn't an easy life. She was preceded in death by her husband and two of her sons. "She could have been bitter and withdrawn," he said. "But her smile and her words were medicine to those she ministered to."

In recent weeks, Hazel said, Joshua asked him to pray with her for her own release from this world. She was ready, she told him. Hazel said he drew great joy from imagining the meeting of saints that would take place when Joshua had ascended. "What a meeting that would be," he said.

'Get an education'

The longtime educator had serious advice for her children and grandchildren: "You get an education. It's yours to keep and nobody can take it away from you," Joshua instructed granddaughter Sorrell Joshua.

Grandson Damond confessed before the crowd that he's lived a pretty troubled life, with time spent in prison. When he was between prison terms and had no work, he said, he worked on his grandmother's garden. One day, he said, she approached him with a glass of lemonade and a kindly talking-to that went straight to his soul.

"You need to stay out of jail," she told him.

"I needed to hear this from her," Damond told the crowd. Now, he said, he's earned his high school equivalency diploma and 24 college credits for a 4.0 grade average. He was never so proud, he said, as when he showed Joshua that G.E.D. degree last March.

"I did the work, but my grandma gave me the strength to move forward," he said. "After all those years … one talk in the backyard struck me so deep."

"I love thinking of my grandma's life as God's masterpiece," said grandson Michael Joshua II. "She lived such a beautiful life."


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.