Billie Mae Eder, the first woman to serve as a Kitsap County commissioner and a pioneering force for environmental and land use regulation, died Sunday from dementia, according to her family. She was 90 years old.
Few politicians have left a mark on the Kitsap peninsula like Eder, a Democrat whose political career started with a seat on the planning commission. The county's population grew by 100,000 people in the almost 60 years she lived here, and she spearheaded efforts to manage that growth.
"She took it upon herself to develop how we control our rural lands today," said Phil Best, who succeeded Eder as the commissioner representing Central Kitsap in 1995. "She worked to solve those problems."
Her touch will be felt by every Kitsap property taxpayer this month, when they receive tax statements inside the pink envelops she introduced as county treasurer in 1974.
"They were manila (envelopes) and we changed the design and made them larger," Eder was quoted as saying in a 2004 Sun article. "And I said, 'Gee, they are going out on Valentine's Day, why don't we make them pink?'"
She was instrumental in modernizing traffic flow in Silverdale as it burgeoned into Kitsap's retail hub; steered the acquisition of the Guillemot Cove property on Hood Canal that is now a county park; and helped create a Silverdale Community Center that would later bear her name (and has since been torn down).
She had to bide her time in breaking the glass ceiling of the county's highest office. A headline in the Bremerton Sun in 1969 asked if the county was "Ready for a Woman Commissioner." She'd later tell the Sun it wasn't. But in 1988, she won an appointment to the Central Kitsap seat after Ray Aardal resigned following allegations of child abuse.
Eder was born in Sitka, Alaska, where her father, William Haynes, was serving in the Navy. Her mother Mary named her for actress "Billie" Burke, who played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in "The Wizard of Oz." Through her life, she was quick to call out those who might try to end her name with a "y."
"She'd say, 'I'm a woman, it's 'i-e'" her daughter Darcie said.
Her father was transferred to a number of Navy postings but family ultimately led them to Seattle. Eder found a job doing data input at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, where she met her husband Dan, who also worked there. The couple married in 1954 and had two daughters, Darcie and Kathie. They were longtime members of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Bremerton.
Eder was galvanized to enter politics in the late 1960s, when a dense track of trailer residences was built near her family's home at Kitsap Lake. Soon after, sewage began to spew down streets around the neighborhood, as no plan had been drawn up preparing for such density.
Eder got all the neighbors together, "and so help me God, they marched on city hall," said Joyce Merkel, a longtime friend.
Gordon Walgren, a longtime friend, attorney and political figure, described her as "a little bit flamboyant," but always "direct and to the point."
She sought a job on the combined Kitsap and Bremerton planning commission, but a county commissioner told her they'd never appointed a woman to that body before. That only reloaded her resolve.
The Eders lost her daughter, Kathie, in a tragic accident in the surf at Ocean Shores in 1972. Soon after, she ran for county treasurer. She recalled to the Sun in a 1994 article that she'd advised Kathie, an aspiring cheerleader, to always try, even if that meant she would "fail with pride." But to forgo the chance to run would always mean regret. She served 10 years as treasurer.
Appointed a county commissioner in 1988, she was elected to a four-year term two years later, defeating Republican Carl Johnson with 59 percent of the vote. Known as a centrist Democrat, she garnered respect from both sides of the political aisle.
"I felt that she didn't play the game as a Democrat or Republican," said Matt Ryan, a Republican who served with Eder on the county commission and remained friends with her for the rest of her life. "She wanted to do what was best for the county."
Following the death of her husband in 2005, she moved to and lived the remainder of her life in Lone Tree, Colorado, to be with her daughter, Darcie, and her grandchildren.
No matter what stage of life, Eder was happy to engage in political conversation, her daughter said.
"She didn't have any problem sharing her political beliefs," her daughter said. "She made no bones about how she felt."
Eder will be buried with her husband at Forest Lawn Cemetery in West Bremerton. The family is still planning services.