Former spy, nun to put Vancouver’s history in a word search book

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Puzzle maker Patricia Proctor has been working to solve the puzzle of her own life for as long as she can remember.

“I keep trying to fit all the pieces together,” she said — with some falling firmly into place even as new ones keep arriving to enlarge the picture.

The earlier pieces are her ups and downs as a Navy codebreaker, a Catholic nun, an addiction-rehabilitation graduate and an irrepressible, do-it-yourself promoter and publicist. The newest ones are falling in love, relocating to Hazel Dell and educating herself about this area’s personality and history over the past couple of years.

Proctor, 61, has assembled those latter pieces into a surprisingly detailed word-search puzzle book and published it through her own startup business, Hazel Dell Press. “Exploring Vancouver Washington” is a collection of 45 different word-search grids that aim to educate the ambitious word sleuth about local history, institutions and contemporary life here in Clark County.

To supply 45 puzzles with at least 22 words apiece, Proctor made a point of mining local minutia pretty deeply. Alongside the obvious stars of our local show — words such as “Old Apple Tree,” “Fruit Valley,” “Esther Short,” “Rosie the Riveter” and other key landmarks, characters and events — Proctor’s book includes far more challenging and obscure trivia.

For example, did you know that “cheechako” is Chinook jargon for “newcomer” and “skakwal” is the word for canoe? You’ll have to hunt down these words on the first puzzle page, which focuses on the earliest inhabitants here. Later puzzles range all the way from the names of historical inhabitants of Vancouver Barracks (“Benjamin Bonneville,” “Oliver O. Howard”) to current industries, retail businesses and even natural flora and fauna (“Great Western Malt,” “I Like Comics,” “Thirsty Sasquatch,” “American Wigeon”).

Even lifelong scholars of this area won’t be able to complete all these puzzles without learning a lot. “Every city has an unsung history,” Proctor said. “This is a fun, hands-on way to get acquainted with those things that make Vancouver a special place to live.”

Puzzling journey

Proctor grew up in family that never settled down; she moved 19 times by the time she was in third grade, she said. She now suspects her father was trying to outrun his traumatic World War II experiences, she said, but she had no such insight at the time. She just got used to living on the move.

From Newport (near Spokane), Proctor joined the Navy at age 18, and worked toward becoming “a spy,” she said — that is, what’s called a cryptologic technician (technical).

“It sounded exciting and fun, but it was a huge mistake,” she said. She found herself moldering in tiny rooms in Iceland and Germany, she said, surveilling total silence for hours at a time — all to intercept the occasional 2-second bleep of encoded data passing between the Soviet Union and its airplanes in flight.

“It was totally boring. I don’t like being bored,” Proctor said — and the boredom of that position drove her to drugs. She got kicked out of cryptology, endured a scandalously unprofessional and frankly traumatizing “rehabilitation” program, she said, and eventually left the military — with an honorable discharge, she said.

She returned to Washington state, but when her brother died, it sent her into such a tailspin that she decided to become a nun and enter the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Claire in Spokane. “I thought I wouldn’t stay there,” she said. “I thought I’d move on.”

Which she did — but only after living as Sister Patricia for 28 years. She struggled with demons aplenty during that time, she said, but it wasn’t addiction to substances — it was addiction to work and addiction to religion itself, she said.

Even while living a cloistered life, Proctor said, she was reliably rebellious and crazy-busy starting side businesses, launching a devotional radio show and writing books with titles like “101 Inspirational Stories of the Rosary” and “101 Inspirational Stories of the Power of Prayer” (which can still be found on Amazon).

Check out this goofy 2006 video of Sister Patricia “discussing” a new book with a cardboard cutout of Oprah Winfrey on a make-believe episode of Oprah’s Book Club.

“I have a personality that likes to promote,” she said. When the monastery sisters suggested that Sister Patricia was out of control and needed help, she agreed. She got counseling and realized she needed to escape Saint Claire. One life puzzle solved.

But faith will always be important to her, Proctor said. She still chants the Rosary. She was working as a church secretary in Oregon when she met a special guy online and relocated to his home in Hazel Dell.

Evangelist always

Proctor gained dispensation in 2011 to return to lay life, but she’s never stopped evangelizing, she said. These days, the subject of her evangelism is this community and all it has to offer. Since she’s a newcomer here, she’s been exploring and educating herself about what she’s publicizing.

“It’s been a fun way for me to explore Vancouver, and I hope it’s fun for others too,” she said.

At first, Proctor launched a puzzle-a-day website, featuring online jigsaw puzzles, at PatriciaProctor.com. But eventually she settled on word-search puzzles for tourism promotion, and launched a site called www.exploringvancouverusa.com.

Creating word-search puzzles isn’t as brain-straining as you might think; Proctor confessed that “anyone can do it” via various online puzzle makers. (Some are free but the best ones are programs you buy, Proctor said.) After researching the words she wants to use, she loads them into the software and then keeps clicking as different word-search grids are generated. She holds out for grids that are neither too tough nor too easy, she said, with a nice selection of up and down, forward and backward, straight and diagonal.

Her mother loved doing puzzles, she said, and Proctor inherited the passion. She does at least one every day, she said — usually as a way to wind down before sleep. Some people find puzzles stimulating, even exciting — and those are the customers she hopes to find — but Proctor herself finds them relaxing and comforting.

Her first word-search book is already available at Vintage Books in Vancouver Heights and at Patti’s Hallmark Shop in Hazel Dell; now she’s working on a follow-up that goes even deeper into local lore. It’ll focus on local historic sites.