John Penberth, who proudly courted controversy as mayor of Pe Ell, county coroner, candidate for county commissioner, local Democratic party leader and civic gadfly, has died. Four years after moving to Tucson, Arizona, he died Sept. 2 of complications from congestive heart failure at age 81.
Penberth was born in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, and grew up outside Pittsburgh. His father abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his mother destitute with six children. As a boy, Penberth would sometimes knock on neighboring doors, asking if anyone could spare a potato for his hungry family.
By 1957, at age 18, he had joined the U.S. Marine Corps. There he met a fellow Marine from Pe Ell who caught Penberth’s attention with his description of bountiful jobs in the mighty Northwest woods. Sight unseen, Penberth decided he would move west and become a lumberjack when his time in the service was up.
"I told my mom, 'I'm outta here, goin' west,'" he told The Chronicle in 2004.
He got his start setting chokers, eventually buying and operating the Pastime Tavern in Pe Ell. He continued sending money home for years, $25 a month to support his mother.
Penberth left the woods after nearly dying when a log broke loose and rolled over him, fracturing his pelvis and causing other serious injuries.
“He should have died,” said his daughter, Janice Penberth. “A couple guys called him ‘Dead Man’ for 25 years after that. It’s a miracle he didn’t die then.”
He was elected Lewis County coroner in the 1970s. At that time, the part-time county post had no office space, so Penberth kept the coroner’s materials in a filing cabinet in the family living room in Pe Ell. It was one of many emergency services jobs he worked over his lifetime.
It was as a volunteer firefighter in Pe Ell that he met his wife.
Penberth was helping flush the fire hydrants and wash the streets (as was the custom at that time) when young Donna Zock came around the corner on her motorcycle. She hit the wet pavement and slid.
“She wasn’t really hurt but she kind of crashed her motorcycle in front of him, and that’s how they met,” their daughter said.
The two were married for five decades.
Penberth worked his way up the ranks to eventually serve as the fire chief for the volunteer department. He also bought the west county fire district’s first ambulance after growing tired of waiting for ambulances to arrive from the Twin Cities.
In the late 1970s, Penberth went to work for the Chehalis Police Department, where he earned a reputation for showing respect both to crime victims and accused perpetrators, according to his longtime friend Bradd Reynolds, a Centralia Police Department officer who often collaborated with Penberth.
“John never hesitated to help people,” Reynolds said, “and I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have if I had to go through a door, which is an old cop saying. If you needed backup, Penberth was the one you’d want behind you.”
Janice Penberth said one of the only times she remembers her father emotionally devastated was after a fire in Chehalis during his time as a police officer.
“He went in and came out with a kid who died in his arms,” she remembers.
A dedicated Democrat from his youngest days, Penberth served as chair of the Lewis County Democratic Party in the first years of the 21st century. He harkened back to the party’s more moderate and conservative roots.
“Democrats do support property rights … in the same sentence, we also do care about the environment,” he said in 2004.
He ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner as a Democrat that same year. He tried again in 2008, but this time as a Republican for his second run. In recent years, he was an avid supporter of Donald Trump. Penberth’s daughter said her father saw something of himself in the outspoken Trump.
“I know my dad, in a way, kind of thought of himself like that, like ‘I say what people are thinking. I speak for the common man.’ I know he saw himself in that sort of a light,” she said.
In his later years he was a major advocate for reopening the Pearl Street Pool in downtown Centralia and was deeply frustrated that his work to bring in state grants didn’t end up leading to the pool’s revitalization as a place where children could again spend healthy time outdoors each summer.
“He loved kids,” Reynolds said.
Penberth had a lifetime interest in Native American history and culture. During expansion at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport many decades ago, he would go out to the newly disturbed land in the evenings and gather up arrowheads, which he later donated to the Chehalis Tribe.
They were dated at 9,000 years old, his daughter said, and were put on display at the Lucky Eagle Casino.
He also would volunteer his time on the reservation, lending his expertise as a woodcarver to help young tribal members as they built dugout canoes. On his own, Penberth carved three or four large totem poles.
One year Penberth took his two granddaughters eel fishing with Chehalis tribal members at Rainbow Falls State Park.
After his wife died in 2017, Penberth moved to Tucson, Arizona, sight unseen, to be near his daughter. He took to life down there, buying a house last year. He even fell in love again, with a 94-year-old woman named Lena.
“He got to spend that last year in the sun, in love,” said Janice Penberth.
John Penberth is survived by his daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren with — he learned shortly before his death — a third on the way.