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Pat Jollota, Vancouver and Clark County legend

History On Tap highlights author responsible for immense contributions to Clark County history

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
15 Photos
Pat Jollota leads the city waste management drill team (Roxie Olson, Lorelei Schooler, Dan Schooler, Linda Jones, Ginger May, Rob Guttridge and Shamika Walker) in an Uptown Street Festival parade in August 2005.
Pat Jollota leads the city waste management drill team (Roxie Olson, Lorelei Schooler, Dan Schooler, Linda Jones, Ginger May, Rob Guttridge and Shamika Walker) in an Uptown Street Festival parade in August 2005. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When Pat Jollota first saw downtown Vancouver in the mid-1970s, it had almost everything it needed, she said.

“Everywhere I looked were wonderful brick buildings and friendly people who smiled at you on the street,” Jollota said.

The longtime Vancouver councilwoman and ongoing local historian, 85, will be the toast of the town Thursday at Kiggins Theater, where the educational and libational History On Tap program returns with “Pat Jollota: A Retrospective.”

The smiling strangers she encountered when she first moved here were a far cry from what she saw in her native Los Angeles, Jollota said. Picturesque buildings made of bricks from the Hidden family’s business were an emblem of rich local history spanning the whole length of America’s story. That intrigued the lifelong history lover.

But when Jollota took off her history-tinted glasses, she saw how much work lay ahead for downtown Vancouver.

Books by Pat Jollota

“Naming Clark County” (1993, updated 2002)

“Darkness Next Door” (2002)

“Images of America series: Downtown Vancouver” (2004)

“Images of America series: Camas” (2006)

“Legendary Locals series: Legendary Locals of Vancouver” (2011)

“Images of America series: Vanishing Vancouver” (2013)

“The Murder of Joanne Dewey in Vancouver, Washington” (2018)

“Haunted America series: Haunted Vancouver, Washington” (2020)

IF YOU GO

What: History On Tap presents Pat Jollota: A Retrospective

When: Doors open at 6 p.m., program at 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Tickets: $15 in advance, $18 at the door.

On the web: kigginstheatre.com

“Downtown was grim,” she said. “It was all there, but it was rundown. It was shabby. What I saw was the bones of a beautiful downtown.”

Jollota and her husband moved to Vancouver in retirement. In the years since, she devoted what amounts to a whole second lifetime to her chosen home through activism, policymaking and, most famously, researching and writing eight books about its multifaceted history. A ninth is on the way now.

“What’s so intriguing to me is how many things of importance happened right here,” Jollota said. Those events range from first encounters between cultures all the way to massive wartime industries relying upon progressive experiments in public housing.

“This place is awash in history like no other place I know,” she said.

Thursday’s History On Tap session will review the beloved author and personality’s immense contributions to local history in the wake of unfortunate health news. During an interview this month at her home in west Vancouver, Jollota said she has been diagnosed with a serious form of lung cancer.

Jollota underwent surgery in February and spent a month recuperating with her son’s family in Oregon, she said. Her original prognosis has actually improved, she said, from little time at all to perhaps five years left.

Jollota blames it on smoking, a habit she quit years ago but not soon enough, she said. She vowed to keep busy for as long as she possibly can, despite her health problems.

Late last year, just a few weeks after her initial diagnosis, Jollota broke two bones after slipping on ice.

“Lung cancer, broken leg — all that’s left is a plague of locusts and a rain of frogs,” she said.

Jollota’s History On Tap showcase will be a historic event in its own right, predicted host Brad Richardson, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum.

“To see Pat get celebrated and walk through her whole career, inside this historic Vancouver building, triggers this ‘spidey sense’ of history I have,” Richardson said. “This is going to be a really important moment, and not to be missed.”

One inch

Jollota grew up in Los Angeles under family circumstances she doesn’t like to talk about, she said.

School was her sanctuary. Jollota’s signature mile-wide smile broke out as she recalled her favorite English teacher, the memorably named Eurania M. Garner.

“She read my essays and said, ‘You can write!’” Jollota said. “And I fell in love.”

Jollota studied both journalism and business at Woodbury College (now a university). But she found her real calling, she said, in law enforcement.

Why such a sharp turn? Jollota cited a number of influences, from TV’s “Dragnet” to a certain local police officer she knew who had a wicked sense of humor.

“All the women loved him and all the men wanted to be him,” she said.

Jollota aspired to become a police officer. At just shy of 5 feet, 2 inches tall, she was too short to meet the physical standard by an inch. She found a career with the police anyway, providing support and radio communications for cops on the beat for 22 years.

One of those officers, who worked in the same building, eventually became Jollota’s husband. The couple raised four children among fellow law-enforcement families in Simi Valley, she said.

“I think it takes me a long time to learn to trust people, but I trusted Jake right away,” Jollota said. “I knew he had my back, and I had his back. He was a good guy.”

‘I was everywhere’

Across 22 years of police work, Jollota said, she endured 27 police officer deaths.

“More than one per year,” she said. “LA is a violent place. It was a great job and it was a heartbreaking job.”

Also heartbreaking, Jollota said, was watching her hometown sacrifice its historical identity.

“I watched LA destroying its past,” she said.

Bulldozers flattened everything from classic neighborhoods to orange groves. Jollota studied historic preservation at Harbor College and realized that she’d need to find a satisfying sense of history elsewhere.

Jollota and her husband methodically started planning their retirement getaway. Jake started a spreadsheet and the couple ranked their priorities: a medium-sized city near a larger city; opera and live jazz; decent weather and low crime; and, crucially, history worthy exploring and preserving.

After forays to possibilities like Austin, Texas, the couple settled on Vancouver.

First they bought rural real estate at Fargher Lake in 1981 with the dream of starting a bed-and-breakfast. But a yearlong sojourn running a hotel in England cured them of that, Jollota said. It was just like the British hotel sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” she said, complete with a hired hand named Manuel.

The Jollotas settled in Vancouver in 1982 and Pat dove into volunteering at what was then the Grant House Museum on Officers Row. Within months she’d been hired on as curator. Within a few years she was curator of the Clark County Historical Museum too.

Every day, she said, she would pull files and records off shelves and read up on one whole year of local history.

When the U.S. Army decided to sell off the line of leftover military-era mansions known as Officers Row, Jollota snapped into action and helped to organize the effort to save them. Her lobbying efforts with such officials as Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who became her good friend, paid off as Officers Row became city property.

But subsequent decisions about Officers Row buildings, especially the transformation of her beloved Grant House Museum into a restaurant, infuriated Jollota and, eventually, “turned me into a politician,” she said.

She ran for Vancouver City Council and lost against an incumbent, then won an open seat.

“I had to doorbell the hell out of this city,” she said. “I was everywhere.”

The gregarious Jollota loved chatting with folks all over town, she said. She spent 20 years on the Vancouver City Council, from 1990 to 2010.

After her husband died in 1992, Jollota responded by getting extra-busy. She served on 15 different committees, she said, and made appointments with herself on weekends to grieve.

Jake prepared her for single life during their sojourn in England, she said, by encouraging her to shop and explore on her own. After his death, she got away from nostalgia and sorrow on anniversaries by going on trips and having new experiences, she said.

“I knew I could do it because I went to Belgium all by myself,” she said. “Jake gave me that gift.”

Huge leaps

Jollota worked as curator of the Clark County Historical Museum from the late 1980s through 2003. In the early 1990s, an exhibit she worked on about quirky historical place names became so popular, it sparked the idea for her book “Naming Clark County.”

Jollota’s love of writing kicked into high gear. In addition to writing and then updating “Naming Clark County,” Jollota has authored several books about historical happenings and personalities in downtown Vancouver and Camas, two compendiums of local ghost stories and one deeply researched dive into a remarkable true crime story, “The Murder of JoAnn Dewey in Vancouver, Washington.”

Today, Jollota is relieved to be back in the archives after two years of pandemic boredom, she said. She’s researching a new book about Clark County’s crime-ridden Prohibition era, a natural topic of interest for a lifelong law-enforcement champion.

Jollota is proud of the ambitious goals Vancouver achieved while she was on the Vancouver City Council: the redevelopment of Esther Short Park and downtown, the creation of a new pedestrian waterfront trail, the annexation of Cascade Park. And she’s supportive of ongoing, evolving plans to preserve and repurpose old Army buildings near Officers Row, she said.

“All the preservation we’ve done is a huge leap for a city this size,” she said.

But what she’s proudest of, Jollota said, is helping to establish Clark County’s innovative Arthur D. Curtis Children’s Justice Center, a place where young crime victims are nurtured and supported while investigators pursue justice.

“It was the first of its kind in the state and now there are over 40 of them,” Jollota said. “If anything I did in this city amounts to anything, it’s the Children’s Justice Center.”

The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington named Jollota Clark County’s First Citizen in 2012.

Clark County Historical Museum executive director Brad Richardson recalled that Jollota’s name was legend long before he met her. When that finally happened, he was a little awestruck. Since then, he said, she’s been a generous, invaluable mentor and example.

“We are incredibly lucky here in Clark County to have had this one person write so many books and create so many narratives,” he said. “She has rescued so many stories from the trash bin of history. She made sure we didn’t lose those stories.

“She’s done more than any one human being possibly could,” Richardson said. “It seems like she never wasted a moment.”

When Pat Jollota first arrived in Vancouver, it had almost everything. In the years since, we learned what it still needed: Pat Jollota.

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