A quick math question for our readers.
If a train carrying a load of hogs and feed is leaving Buckley to the west at 30 miles per hour, and crashes into a train with a car full of wine coming into town from the east at 50 miles per hour, exactly how long did it take the townspeople to realize there was a party to be had?
If you want the answer, you’ll have to dig up a copy of the May 23, 1891 edition of The Buckley Banner. Or, you could just buy a copy of Dorothy Wilhelm’s new book, “True Tales of Puget Sound.”
The 85-year old DuPont author has collected 20 of her favorite stories from the hundred communities she visited during her television show host days, including four that feature Buckley, Enumclaw, Bonney Lake, and Orting.
“These are… the stories that spoke to my heart,” Wilhelm said in a recent interview, both explaining why she picked the stories she did for the book and why others — even ones that may have had a bigger impact on the area from where they came — were left out. “They are the ones that really resonate with me.”
It took a decade to collect these stories, but her own adventure started in 1981 when her husband, a military officer, died. At the time, she was a mother of six, with the youngest being 6 years old, and as she’s said many times, she had no marketable skills — she couldn’t even drive on the freeway.
“In those days, officers’ wives did not work, period. You could do volunteer work — I did a lot of volunteer work — but you didn’t work,” she said.
As a professional humorist, Wilhelm always finds the silver lining in any situation. But back then, all she could see was her life falling apart.
“I was really right on the verge of suicidal. I couldn’t work out how I was going to manage, how I was going to take care of [my kids], take care of myself. And, very frankly, if I wasn’t Mrs. Colonel Wilhelm, I had no idea who I was,” she said. “So my big task was to try and work out who I might be. And who I turned out to be was way different than who I expected.”
In the end, she continued, it was her children that gave her the strength to completely reinvent herself at 48 years old.
“I did a quick job skills analysis and realized I had exactly the same skills for being a radio talk show host as for working at McDonald’s, which is to say none whatever,” Wilhelm said, turning on a dime and bringing back her usual humor and wisdom. “And I decided — this is a thing I talk about all the time in my speeches — you’d just as well start at the top, because McDonald’s will always be there.”
So she called on KLAY in Lakewood (which she described as a radio station where “you didn’t have to be in the parking lot to get the signal, but it sure didn’t hurt”), noticed they had no female talk show hosts, and she began hosting her first-ever show. Of course, it was at four in the morning, and she doesn’t want to give the impression that she was ever paid for that work.
But from there, she went on to work at the KIRO radio station and television station before moving on to Comcast TV in 1991 to host three shows, including “My Home Town,” which would be the basis of this new book.
At first, she thought the show would be a terrible idea — she even didn’t want to tell people she was working on this show.
“But it was the best thing I ever did,” she later realized, adding that part of the magic of the show was that “it gave the people that lived in the town the chance to help put the show together. It was almost Judy Garland and Micky Rooney — I would get there four days before we shot the show… and I would say to the people, ‘What do you want people to know about your town?’”
All the stories were heartfelt and light, she continued; almost no one shared with her a story a “mean” story about their area.
“It was the most wonderful thing. I’m really sorry it’s gone, because I think we have a profound need for that kind of show,” Wilhelm said.
Of course, she visited the Plateau a number of times while the show was going, and has several fond memories of the area.
When asked to remember her favorite moments on in the area, she first recalled the Bonney Lake Senior Center.
“I think it was my first experience with a senior center that was not just for old people. The people were older, but they weren’t dragging around. It wasn’t the way you think senior centers are,” Wilhelm said. “The reason that’s important, I believe, is that that’s what Bonney Lake’s like. Bonney Lake is not the way you think it would be, or people would not keep moving there. And they do, you know.”
She’s also never forgotten Enumclaw’s Pie Goddess, nor the time she was filming in Buckley, trying to highlight new businesses in the area and watched a woman get a large tattoo on her stomach removed (this story didn’t make the book, but she recalled saying to the tattoo shop owner that perhaps a grown woman crying and calling for her mother “wasn’t really showing his business the way he might have liked”).
Although she’s no longer in the TV business, Wilhelm is now a popular professional speaker, humor columnist for The News Tribune and the Tacoma News Tribune, the author of several books, and hosts the “Swimming Upstream” podcast on the SOB (Spunky Old Broads) Network.
While she’s currently working on organizing book signing events that would bring her back to the Plateau, Wilhelm is hosting a book signing (and celebrating her 85th birthday) at Fort Nisqually in Point Defiance Park on Sunday, Jan. 20 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
During the signing, she will also be telling short family-friendly stories:
• 11:30 a.m. — There Goes The Neighborhood! Fort Nisqually comes to Oregon Territory.
• 12:30 p.m. – Was Sasquatch really born in Bonney Lake? And
The House That Nellie the Pig Built in Gig Harbor
•1:30 p.m. – The Mule that ran for Office – and won! – in Milton
• 2:30 p.m. – Dorothy’s birthday party celebration (with live music)
• 3:30 p.m. – The Heart Lady of Fox Island
More information about Wilhelm can be found at www.itsnevertoolate.com.
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly named the first radio station Dorothy Wilhelm worked at. The station was KLAY, not KLKY as originally reported. The article has been updated.