Community activist, entrepreneur Sheila Walsh Guenther dies

She's remembered for furniture store ads, devotion to disadvantaged

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Sheila Walsh Guenther gladly sold furniture for less. But her commitment to justice for women and a quality community for everyone never got marked down.

Guenther, a Vancouver businesswoman, advertising executive and community booster, died on June 3 at age 81. She had suffered years of health problems and a recent series of strokes, according to her son Kurt, who had moved her to Seattle for closer family care — and then back to Vancouver so friends could visit her at the end, he said.

Guenther worked for 20 years, the 1970s through the 1990s, with Allan Weinstein at Vancouver Furniture Company, a local pioneer of name familiarity through big, infectious advertising campaigns. No matter where its storefront was, Vancouver Furniture was known as the homey hometown shop with a huge selection and good prices.

Guenther was the author of the store’s famous slogan: “We simply sell for less.” Those words were even spelled out in gargantuan letters on the side of the building at 1101 Broadway for years — until the city decided its hugeness violated city sign code. The store fought back, gently, by naming sale items after members of the city council.

Guenther worked with Weinstein to develop the store’s annual “crazy days” promotion, with random drawings sending customers on free trips to supposedly exotic locales — like Boring, Zigzag and Sublimity, Ore. And she deployed Bob and Jake, the two delivery guys who popped up on TV advertisements to cheerfully complain about the back-breaking loads the store’s success compelled them to hoist. They really were delivery guys — and they really were brothers, according to Columbian archives.

But Guenther’s talent for marketing didn’t just serve the furniture store she worked for and the advertising firms, Company Store and Walsh Guenther & Associates, that she went on to launch. She was also deeply concerned about Clark County and about justice and equal rights for women and the disadvantaged. She was a key figure at the YWCA Clark County and a co-founder, with Weinstein and others, of Southwest Washington Independent Forward Thrust, or SWIFT — an umbrella charity that was a precursor of today’s Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.

“She stood loudly and proudly for people who weren’t fancy,” her friend Jane Jacobsen remembered. “We need more like her.”

“She worked very, very hard to do the right thing for people she loved and those she never knew,” Kurt said on Facebook. “She was transformational.”

That work was serious but Guenther’s approach was always fun, Jacobson added. “We laughed so hard, we got into trouble,” Jacobsen said. “She had an uncanny dry sense of humor and fabulous wit.”

Her friend Ed Cote added in a Facebook post that Guenther loved politics. “We had lots of fun plotting and planning political races over the years. We used to have our own booth at Black Angus where we could do political gossip (she loved that most) and nobody would hear us,” he wrote.

Her friend Joyce Kilpatrick remembered her as pointedly partisan. “She was a Democrat. Deeply,” Kilpatrick said.

Guenther was named one of Clark County’s Women of Achievement in 1988. “Sheila was an unbelievably loyal community member,” Jacobsen said. “She liked this community — and she got frustrated many times because we were so disorganized.”

Guenther even ran for office herself, just once; it was for the position of freeholder, in 1982, when a combined city/county government was on the ballot. She won 1,508 votes, according to Columbian archives, but the whole charter question went down by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

She was a native of Hamilton, Mont., and graduated from Washington State College in 1955. She was divorced from Jim Guenther, who served as Clark County administrator. They had two sons and a daughter: Kurt, Kelly and Gayla.