Longtime Port Angeles resident, ‘larger than life,’ dies at age 97

Louella N. Lawrence

Louella N. Lawrence

PORT ANGELES — Beyond a name, “Lou Lawrence” seems to carry a meaning all its own.

“She was kind of a presence on her own,” friend Edna Petersen said. “She was Lou Lawrence. There are men and women who come into your life, and you just know they’re a Lou Lawrence.”

Longtime Port Angeles resident Louella N. Lawrence, simply called “Lou” or sometimes mistakenly “Willi-Lou” for the name of her downtown stores, died of age-related causes on Nov. 5 in Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles. She was 97 years old.

Lou’s celebration of life will take place 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at Independent Bible Church, 116 E. Ahlvers Road.

Lou survived the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression and fulfilled her wedding vows to husband William (Bill) Lawrence, who was hospitalized 16 years until his death.

She raised a son and daughter; operated two downtown Willi-Lou stores for 43 years; served as the first woman on the board of First Federal Bank and participated in several Port Angeles service clubs and business organizations.

Words cannot justly depict 97 years of life.

“How do you describe 97 years — someone’s who life was this big?” George Lawrence said, extending his arms. “My mother was larger than life.”

And along the way, Lou made a larger-than-life mark on Port Angeles.

Her community and “customers” were always of paramount importance, daughter Jessie (Beth) Elizabeth Bekken said.

George, a chiropractor practicing in Port Angeles, said his mother demonstrated a generosity “beyond belief, really.”

Lou received the Good Samaritan Award from the American Red Cross in 2004 in recognition of her community service, along with a hero medallion and a plaque for the “Mother Teresa of Port Angeles.”

The making of ‘Mother Teresa’

Lou was born in a sod house in Havana, North Dakota to Nikolai and Jesse Nelson Aug. 19, 1920.

Recalling her youth in the Great Depression, Lou would say, “We didn’t have two pennies.” Still, she dreamt of running her own clothing store and often pretended to exchange currency with make-believe customers, George said.

She, along with her parents, brothers Norman and George and sister Gladys moved to Bremerton in 1936, escaping the Dust Bowl.

Lou graduated from Silverdale High School in 1938. She attended the University of Washington for one quarter, dropping out to earn money cleaning and performing clerical work.

Then, Lou and seven other women were hired as civilian office clerks in Fairbanks, Alaska during World War II.

The shortage of women in Alaska meant Lou’s dating life experienced no such scarcity. Sometimes, she went on three to four dates in one day, George said.

There, she met young Army officer Bill Lawrence whom she married September 1945 in Detroit.

Willi-Lou’s meets Port Angeles

The couple decided to move West, but did not ascertain anything beyond that until Lou struck up a conversation with a stranger on the train.

“You should start a toy store,” he advised. “There’s been no toys made during the war.”

So, Willi-Lou’s Circus came to fruition.

In 1946, William and Lou combined their names to form the toy store in downtown Port Angeles with borrowed money. In 1977, they opened a second store, “Willi-Lou’s Edition,” which catered to young women’s apparel. The store displayed clothing on a carousel, keeping with the circus theme.

Bill, who was ill, lived in a veteran’s hospital eight hours away for 16 years until his death.

Lou remained in Port Angeles to maintain the business and care for her children, mother and farm hands — “a responsibility she did not take lightly,” George said.

Her faith and strength carried her on.

“I think someone else would have wilted or been crushed by the pressure,” he said.

Lifelong ‘customers’

Willi-Lou’s consumed Lou’s Monday-Saturday routine, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In 43 years, she saw generations grow through the sizes and styles of clothing she stocked. After her retirement in 1988, Lou continued to refer to passersby as “customers,” George said.

Walking downtown, she greeted everyone regardless if she remembered their names.

“Who’s that, Mom?”

“Oh, they’re a customer,” she would say 20-something years after retiring. “I take care of my customers.”

“She extended herself to everybody,” George said.

Lou often invited people she met at Willi-Lou’s — traveling salesmen, tourists, transient people — to stay at her farmhouse on 140 acres near Freshwater Bay.

She told the hotel managers in town to call if they maxed out capacity, and she would take in guests.

“And they would call — at all hours of the night,” George said, laughing.

Whether George and Beth approved or not, the Lawrence’s doors were always open, he said.

“There aren’t a lot of people who can give love so freely,” Mary Hebert said of her friend.

Lou is survived by Jessie, George and wife Danielle Lawrence, grandchildren Lindsay and Blake Bekken, niece Suzanne Myer and nephews Monty, Brent and Travis Nelson, Rocco Carrubba and Duane and Dennis Norby.

________

Reporter Sarah Sharp can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at [email protected].

Louella “Lou” Lawrence poses with her grandchildren, Blake Bekken and Lindsay Bekken. (Lindsay Bekken)

Louella “Lou” Lawrence poses with her grandchildren, Blake Bekken and Lindsay Bekken. (Lindsay Bekken)

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