Mukilteo loses longtime resident who served selflessly

Family, community mourn former Citizen of the Year Jeanie James
By Nicholas Johnson | May 03, 2017
Jeanie James

Longtime Mukilteo resident Jeanie James spent her life serving selflessly, giving generously and enjoying every moment.

“She was not only a pillar of this community, she was the strength of our family,” said Joy James, the oldest of Jeanie’s four stepchildren. “She held everything together.”

Due to complications of pneumonia, Jeanie passed April 26 after 75 years of life. An open house celebration of life is set for 4-7 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at the Chamber of Commerce offices at 902 76th St. SW in Mukilteo.

In a letter to her stepchildren, Jeanie asked that upon her death a big party be held with champagne, crappy snacks and Diet Coke, and absolutely no vegetables, all to the tune of music from the ’50s and ’60s.

“Those were her instructions to her kids,” said Lynette Gardiner, who first met Jeanie in 1981. “She was quite an artist, so we’ll be displaying some of her artwork at the party.”

Jeanie was a graphic artist, writer and publisher by trade, regularly donating her work to local nonprofits and community events despite operating her own business – Shorebird Creative – since 1985.

“She did so much for this community, and she wouldn’t allow people to give her money very often,” Gardiner said, recalling Jeanie’s work with the Mukilteo Community Garden and a group of women dubbed the Garden Girls. “Instead, we would end up buying her gift cards to QFC because she loved to cook.”

Jeanie volunteered with and donated her work to many organizations, including the Mukilteo Lighthouse Festival Association, Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, the Boys and Girls Club, the Mukilteo Schools Foundation, The Japanese Gulch Group, the Mukilteo Community Garden and the South Everett-Mukilteo Rotary Club, among others.

She was a founding member of the Mukilteo Business Association, which later became the Chamber of Commerce, and is credited with starting the Great Mukilteo Garage Sale.

As an officer of the Snohomish County Women’s Business Owners for a number of years, she also became involved with teaching low-income women how to establish and run their own businesses.

Debra Bordsen, deputy director of Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, said Jeanie began donating her graphic design skills to DVS in 2013.

“She donated all her time and made us look so much better,” Bordsen said.

“She was so easy to work with, and never once complained when I asked her to make a bunch of changes to something we were working on.

“She had this ability to take just a few thoughts or ideas and turn them into a work of art. She also never wanted any kind of recognition.”

Bordsen, 55, said she had known Jeanie since her childhood.

“I have known Jeanie since I was about 10 years old,” she said. “And, for as long as I have known her, she has always been involved in our community.”

In 1997, when Bordsen was in her late 20s, she nominated Jeanie for Citizen of the Year.

“I said that she always gave back to our community, and that she was a great mentor to me,” she said.

“She was a woman who owned her own business, raised four children and took care of them, her home and her husband, Chuck. She was always willing to help and listen to my questions, and gave great advice personally and professionally.”

Later that year, friends of Jeanie’s surprised her at Lincoln Avenue Courtyard with news that she had been selected Citizen of the Year.

One of some 11 nominators wrote that Jeanie “has always worked tirelessly and quietly behind the scenes to make Mukilteo an even better place to live and work,” according to an Aug. 13, 1997, story in the Mukilteo Beacon.

Despite not wanting it, Jeanie and her business received recognition from various community groups over the years. Her honors included the Deaconess Children’s Services Golden Hands Award, Rotarian of the Year, Paul Harris Fellow, the Indie Book Award, the Society of Marketing Professionals Award, and Snohomish Human Health and Services Small Business of the Year.

At Christmas time, Jeanie and Chuck would serve as Mrs. and Mr. Claus, with Lois Brown acting as an elf.

“It was quite the trio,” Gardiner said. “Those two were the best Santa and Mrs. Claus ever. He would start growing his beard in September and Jeanie would get all dressed up.”

For her family, Jeanie was always willing to drop everything.

“We knew she was a pillar in the community, but we didn’t know how much,” Joy said. “Whenever we were around, she stopped what she was doing. We were always the center of her attention, as was our father.”

Jeanie was born in south Philadelphia four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She attended Moore College of Art and Design, graduating in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in advertising and education.

Jeanie’s Italian ancestors emigrated to the U.S. through Staten Island, New York, from Sicily, Italy, in the late 1800s. Her only brother, Jack Giacobbo, lives in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In 1967, she met Charles “Chuck” James, who was in broadcasting, while working on a children’s television show.

“She was desperately in love with my father until her last moments,” Jeanie’s stepson Jesse James said, noting that Chuck is currently living with dementia in an adult family home in Mill Creek. “They were absolutely madly in love.”

Joy added, “They were mushy; they were so in love.”

They were married in Philadelphia in 1968 before the family moved to San Francisco for a year. The family then moved to New York City, where Jeanie worked as an art teacher and Chuck worked for a CBS affiliate.

In late 1970, the family moved in Mukilteo after Chuck got a job with Viacom starting a television channel out of Everett. Jeanie initially worked as a substitute teacher in the Mukilteo School District.

Joy said Jeanie loved to cook, teaching her and her sister Lauri James as children. Jesse said she even cooked for the family dog, a St. Bernard named Brutus.

“She would make Brutus a birthday cake made of dog food and ground beef, frosted with mashed potatoes and hot dog candles,” Jesse said.

Whenever the family got a new dog, they would nickname it Puppy. When Jeanie finally got a cat, she decided to continue the tradition by naming it Puppy. Beyond her children and grandchildren, Jeanie left behind her orange Tabby cat, which is now in need of a new home.

Jeanie leaves behind four stepchildren and nine grandchildren. They include Joy James and her sons Kirby Burleson Jr. and Justin Burleson; Chuck James Jr. and his daughters Ellie Reed and Christine James; Jesse James and his sons Kristopher James and Spencer James; and Lauri James and her sons Brandon James and Gerrad James, and her daughter Bobbie James.

She also leaves behind countless friends and neighbors in Mukilteo who knew her for her generosity and quick wit.

“I knew I could always count on Jeanie’s quick wit and valuable insight,” said Julie Martin, president of the Mukilteo Chamber of Commerce. “She was from Philly and had that great delivery of one-line zingers at exactly the right moment. I will miss her greatly; her passing is a huge loss for the Mukilteo community.”

Gardiner said she recalls a recent Christmas gathering of the Garden Girls at Kosta’s Mediterranean Cuisine in Mukilteo at which Jeanie presented everyone with a special calendar. She had been designing a calendar for the community garden for several years. This time around, she had asked her friends to pose for photos with a variety of vegetables.

“She got all these vegetables and asked us to pose for pictures that she then used to make a calendar,” Gardiner said. “She had such a quick wit, such a wonderful sense of humor. She would often show up in these strange outfits or just do something really quirky.”

Jeanie was also spiritual. She had been attending Mukilteo Presbyterian Church over the last few years, her stepchildren said, reiterating her selflessness.

“With her, there was always somebody else who came first,” Jesse said. “She would never put herself first.”

Joy added, “She was the most unselfish person I think I’ve ever known.”

Considering her distaste for flowers and the fact that she had survived breast cancer, her family is asking that anyone who wants to contribute in some way should make a donation in her honor to Cancer Care Partnership or Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County.

Bordsen, who was named Citizen of the Year in 2016, said Jeanie made a lasting impression on her and the entire community.

“I will miss her smile and great sense of humor,” she said. “I loved her very much.”

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