PENINSULA PROFILE: Not a crabby bone in her body

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — For her extended family reunion, Mickie Vail likes a big tent.

Which is what she will have this coming weekend.

Vail is the woman behind the scenes of the 12th annual Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival. Her favorite moment is about to arrive: the raising of Crab Central, the 9,000-square-foot big top on City Pier.

Seeing Vail in her office, marshaling phone calls, emails and visitors, you wouldn’t know that she once had plans to retire. But she is of the age when people do that, and Port Angeles was supposed to be the place.

Retirement wouldn’t be her style, not yet. Now in her ninth year working Clallam County’s biggest gatherings — Crab Fest as well as the Sequim Lavender Farm Faire in July — Vail is ready for action.

Back when Scott Nagel, who ran Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival for 16 years, began developing his event business on the Peninsula, he had trouble finding an assistant with the right level of experience.

Then Vail walked into his office. She told him she had been an emergency manager for the American Red Cross and had worked disasters all over the country.

“I could hardly contain my joy as she said, ‘I can handle any disaster,’” recalled Nagel, executive director of the Crab Fest and the Lavender Farm Faire.

“A festival is basically a disaster situation,” he said. “The moment you open, problems occur. The goal is to fix the problem so that the visitors to the event have no idea there was ever a problem.

“We take great pride in running our events so that the public thinks it is no big deal, just a great party. Mickie understood this immediately and began to take over and organize.”

Helping run festivals is career No. 3 for Vail.

“I call this ‘repurposing,’” she quipped one recent afternoon.

Her first line of work was mainframe computer programming, which she developed as her husband Bob Vail, a Coast Guard captain, was transferred around the country.

Next came the Red Cross, another post that kept her moving.

Vail still has the accent indicating her birthplace of Hudson, Mass. But she is a steadfast West Coaster now, devoted to Clallam County. For her, a festival is about reinforcing a sense of community.

“I’ve been to all 50 states and two territories,” Vail said, “and there is no place I would rather be than right here.”

Both the Crab Fest and the July Lavender Weekend activities are a way to bring neighbors together. These neighbors are defined as local artists and musicians, nonprofit groups, the members of local tribes — everybody who shares this Peninsula.

Vail feels strongly about the way people and businesses here support one another: raising money for causes, volunteering, awarding scholarships.

Crab Fest is a glittering example. The list of sponsors is long, as is the volunteer roster. The men’s basketball team from Peninsula College volunteers to clean the crab the day it’s brought in, Vail noted; then the college’s soccer team arrives to clean the tents each night.

Amid it all, Vail calls herself “a juggler and a fireman.” Small blazes do kick up during the Crab Fest; Nagel noted that she extinguishes them without noise.

Then there’s the multitude of logistics. T-shirt sales, trash disposal and portable toilets are a few of the things “in my repertoire,” Vail said.

As for the volunteers, she thinks of them as her extended family.

“She is the best organizer I have ever known,” said Charle Crocker-Gehrts, a Crab Fest worker and a neighbor of Vail’s on South Bagley Creek Road.

The two women met back in 1996: Crocker-Gehrts was in the middle of moving into the neighborhood, and Vail brought over a pot of chili, bowls and silverware.

Since then, a “gang” has formed, Vail said with a smile: the South Bagley Creek gang.

“When she needs my help,” said Crocker-Gehrts, “my whole family jumps in.”

In recent years, her kin’s involvement in Crab Fest has snowballed. Her husband Larry Gehrts, her brother Kevin Collins, son Brian Collins and daughter Nicole Phillips are all on the festival crew.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Vail added, “and it takes a hell of a crew to do a festival.”

Vail has an extraordinary way with people, added Karen Powell, a friend and the president of Olympic Peninsula Celebrations’ board of directors.

“At her birthday party at Wine on the Waterfront,” Powell said, “you couldn’t move.”

In other words, people adore Vail, and the reason is simple.

“There is not a phony bone in her body,” Powell said.

Whether the person she’s with is a neighbor, festival vendor or celebrity chef, Vail doesn’t skimp with her time and attention.

But she’s no pushover. Vail is as smart as she is gutsy, Powell said.

Vail lost her husband suddenly in October 2005; he developed a viral infection and died at age 55.

Vail took time to grieve, ­Powell recalled. Then, “I watched her find her center, in a way that is different from who she was with Bob in her life.”

Vail has chosen to follow her passion, said Powell: co-creating a community celebration.

Of course, a sense of humor serves her well. Graham Kerr, aka television’s Galloping Gourmet, came to the North Olympic Peninsula for a culinary tour two Octobers ago, and met Vail at the Crab Fest.

The Coast Guard was soon to conduct a water-rescue demonstration, so she jokingly asked Kerr if he’d be the guy who jumps into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to be fished out.

Kerr is coming back to the Crab Fest this year, to take part in Saturday morning’s welcome ceremony. That afternoon at 2:30, he’ll do a crab-cake demonstration, give a talk about food and life and sign copies of his books.

And Sunday, Kerr will serve as judge for Crab Fest’s new event, The Captain Joseph House Chowder Cook-off from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

With pleasure, Vail notes that the Crab Fest has attracted crowds from Victoria to Port Angeles’ waterfront.

The MV Coho brought some 900 passengers over from Canada on last year’s festival Saturday, said Black Ball Ferry Line district manager Rian Anderson. The ferry’s capacity is 1,000 passengers.

For the third consecutive year, Sunday morning will bring the Crab Revival, a non-denominational, music-filled service under The Gateway pavilion at Front and Lincoln streets. This event has turned into what Vail and Nagel hoped for: a way to bring people out for the last day of the festival.

The Crab Fest is designed to include local nonprofit groups, Vail emphasized. The Sierra Club, the Olympic Coast Discovery Center and other organizations do not pay the $175 booth fee. This is “to give them a voice” at the gathering, she said.

When Vail and the Crab Fest’s small staff — Nagel, volunteer coordinator Kelly Hill, office assistant Charlotte Sellin — wrap up a successful weekend, they’re able to make donations to local nonprofits such as the Feiro Marine Life Center.

This conversation, however, is not complete until Vail slips in a pitch for something else. She’s a member of the League of Women Voters and wants to see people at two “Celebrate Democracy Days” in Forks today and Port Angeles next Sunday.

In this new format, the men and women running for offices in the two communities will be on hand to talk one on one with citizens; people will be able to sit at a candidate’s table, discuss an issue and then visit another table.

Her comments on this gathering are classic Mickie Vail.

“I really appreciate people who run for elected office. They have to have the patience to listen to everyone,” she said.

“They put themselves out there. Republican, Democrat, independent, whatever they are, they deserve respect.”

Last modified: October 05. 2013 7:12PM
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