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‘Nan fans’ celebrate Clark County’s First Citizen

Former Camas Mayor Henriksen led city's redevelopment, the effort to craft charter

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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Former Camas mayor and Board of Freeholders chair Nan Henriksen greets a friend with her trademark grin before before being honored as First Citizen on Tuesday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
Former Camas mayor and Board of Freeholders chair Nan Henriksen greets a friend with her trademark grin before before being honored as First Citizen on Tuesday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Some folks point out that women always have to work harder to get the same recognition.

Nan Henriksen, the first woman elected as mayor of Camas and the recognized trailblazer of that mill town’s startling redevelopment as a high-tech manufacturing hub, was long-since retired when Clark County politics seemed to explode in chaos and acrimony a few years ago.

It was Henriksen who was selected to lead the freeholders committee aimed at revising the structure of county government. It was Henriksen who came away from what could have been a snake pit of conflict with the renewed esteem of her colleagues. Even those few freeholders who ultimately voted against the new county charter wrote to congratulate Henriksen for her effective leadership. 

Henriksen was named Clark County’s First Citizen for 2015 at a ceremony at the Hilton Vancouver Washington on Tuesday afternoon. The room was ablaze with red “I’m a Nan fan” buttons and signs and rocking with musical offerings by the Camas High School Marching Band and its bass choir. 

Some pointed out that they felt this honor was long overdue for the native Papermaker and high school valedictorian — who was voted Most Likely To Succeed by her classmates.

Last 10 First Citizens

2014: Twyla Barnes, retired Educational Service District 112 superintendent.

2013: Robert Schaefer, former state legislator.

2012: Pat Jollota, local historian and former Vancouver city councilor.

2011: H.A. “Hal” Dengerink, former Washington State University Vancouver chancellor.

2010: Royce Pollard, former Vancouver mayor.

2009: Florence Wager, parks and recreation advocate.

2008: Mark Matthias, Beaches Restaurant and Bar co-founder.

2007: John “J.D.” White, land-use planner and consultant.

2006: Val Ogden, former state legislator. 

2005: Jan and Steve Oliva, Hi-School Pharmacy owners.

Among those classmates was retired Sheriff Garry Lucas, who told the audience that he’s known Henriksen for 64 years. He used to buy things for his parents at Henriksen’s father’s Camas pharmacy, he remembered. Henriksen added that she always idolized her father — who prized community service and set a strong example for his daughter.

Once she got into public life and started endlessly “crusading for a better Camas” while already a single mother, she said, her own daughter complained: “Why can’t you just be normal?”

The answer: “My community needed me and I needed my community.” She was a single mom whose very wrong marriage — which had required her to hide her innate leadership talent and be “just normal” — had nearly killed her, she said. 

She went on to be elected mayor, a post she held from 1983 to 1992. Then she served on the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board and mediated bitter land-use disputes. She stepped out of public life to endure surgery for her lifelong scoliosis problem. And then she ran for freeholder, and won — and was unanimously selected as chair of that fractious board.

Already in her 70s, “Nan re-engaged in the civic life of our community” when most people would be enjoying retirement, Camas businessman and philanthropist David Nierenberg wrote in her nomination.  “It is a shame that our local politics has become so nasty. But Nan did not stoop to conquer. She was selected by her peers to lead … in part because of her diplomatic skill.”

Former Clark County Commissioner Betty Sue Morris said she hadn’t known Henriksen well before serving as a freeholder. What she discovered, she said, is someone who is “bold but not reckless, confident but not arrogant, strong but not brittle, and tender but no pushover.”

Morris and Lucas concluded in their joint nomination letter: “Nan maintains a calm demeanor in the face of hostility and intense disagreement. …  She never fails to be a lady.”

Point taken. But on Tuesday, the ladylike Henriksen thanked her own daughter, Kris, for being her top cheerleader in slightly shocking terms.

“The more bold and badass I become, the happier and prouder she is,” Henriksen declared. 

But a bold and badass vision is no excuse for skipping the details, she added. Camas’ well-managed growth over the past decade is also thanks to many other hardworking people who “checked the feasibility” of everything that visionary policymakers came up with, she said. 

She gave this final advice for people who are trying to come together and make things happen: “Be honest. Be open-minded. And be kind to each other,” she said. 

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