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Former 3rd District Rep. Jolene Unsoeld dies at age 89

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
3 Photos
Jolene Unsoeld talks to a supporter at Clark College on the night before the general election, Nov. 8, 1988.
Jolene Unsoeld talks to a supporter at Clark College on the night before the general election, Nov. 8, 1988. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Former U.S. Rep. Jolene Bishoprick Unsoeld died Sunday at her home in Olympia at the age of 89, just a few days before her birthday.

She is survived by three of her four children, Regon, Krag and Terres, as well as many grandchildren and extended family members.

Unsoeld challenged people to get mad in the face of injustice and do something to make the world a better place, according to her family.

A Democrat, Unsoeld represented the 3rd District in Congress from 1989 to 1995, where she furthered environmental legislation. She was the third woman to represent Washington in Congress and was one of 30 women serving in the House of Representatives at the time. While in Congress, Unsoeld worked on three committees: merchant marine and fisheries, education and labor, and the select committee on aging.

While on the merchant marine and fisheries committee, Unsoeld strove toward supporting environmental legislation, as well as preserving fishing and logging industries in the district. Her dedication to her convictions won admiration from both her supporters and those who opposed her.

“My mother was such a dynamo,” Krag said. “Mom was really pushing frontiers and limits. We have better lives because of it.”

Unsoeld lost her seat to Republican Linda Smith after a tough reelection battle in 1994 but continued her public service and advocacy for environmental reform and government transparency. Specifically, she served on the Washington State Fish and Wildlife commission in 1995 for two years before retiring entirely.

Unsoeld also briefly taught at Harvard as a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1995 before returning to Washington.

She was born in Corvallis, Ore., on Dec. 3, 1931. Unsoeld and her family moved to Vancouver when she was a teenager, where she developed an interest in liberal politics — going against her parents’ Republican values.

Krag Onsoeld said his mom was head strong and firm in her beliefs at a young age. The Daughters of the American Revolution extended an award to Jolene Onsoeld when she was in high school, which she refused because the organization didn’t let Marian Anderson, a Black singer, perform at Constitution Hall in 1939.

She was co-valedictorian of her Vancouver High School senior class, and then moved back to her hometown to attend Oregon State University.

While in college, Unsoeld joined a mountaineering club where she met fellow climber and environmental advocate Bill Unsoeld, whom she married on the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver in 1951. They had four children together.

Bill and Jolene Unsoeld traveled to Nepal together in 1962 to work with the Peace Corps and an English-language institute for five years. After returning to the U.S., the family settled in Olympia in 1970, which is when Jolene Unsoeld became a self-described “citizen meddler” — soon leading her toward a political career where she specialized in environmental issues.

Unsoeld received various awards for her decades long commitment to advance open government, such as the James Madison Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Her family will always remember her as a dedicated, strong “hopeless meddler.”

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