Philanthropist and adventurer Lucy Harrell leaves lasting legacy


September 12, 2019

Lucy Harrell

Lucy Harrell died peacefully at Haines Assisted Living Saturday evening Sept. 7 following a brief illness. She was 95.

"I believe that Lucy was the most generous person this community has ever seen. Nobody else has come close," HAL board member and friend Dick Flegel said. He declined to name an exact figure, but estimated that she gave "in excess" of $3 million to Haines Assisted Living and the adjacent Soboleff McRae Veterans Village and Wellness Center. Her latest donation to HAL, a Mercedes van with wheel chair lift, should arrive any day now.

Friend Jim Studley said that after Haines Assisted Living was established, Harrell donated more money publicly and privately. Recipients of Harrell's gifts (many valued in the tens of thousands of dollars each) include but are not limited to, public radio station KHNS, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Haines Arts Council, Venture Scouts, American Legion, Haines Dolphins Swim Team, Haines Animal Rescue Kennel, Becky's Place, Hospice of Haines, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (she was a devout Mormon), the Haines Sheldon Museum, The American Bald Eagle Foundation, the Chilkat Valley Preschool, and the Salvation Army. She gave to organizations around Alaska and in the Lower 48 as well, including a gift of hundreds of acres for an Oregon forest preserve.

Harrell told an interviewer in 2015 that her wealth "wasn't brilliance on my part but the economic conditions of my time. I got lucky, basically."

Harrell called herself a "tight wad," and lived humbly, even frugally. She drove an old truck, lived in a modest log cabin prior to HAL, and patched coats rather than replace them. A life-long boater, she preferred sneakers to rubber boots, and named her 32' Nordic Tug Whisker III after her first childhood sailboat. On sea and on land, Harrell always dressed for comfort, in sweatshirts and overalls or Carhartts. For years she cut her own hair and her own firewood.

At Tuesday's Haines Borough Assembly meeting Mayor Jan Hill lamented Harrell's passing, noting that she contributed her time as well as her money, by serving on the assembly for five years. "We had a lot of laughs together," Hill said. "With Lucy you always had a good time." Harrell was also a former president of Haines Woman's Club.

She was born on Aug. 1, 1924 in Altadena, California to yachtsman and engineer Robert Wells, who built the Olympia Steel Works foundry and Muriel Seeley Wells. She was named after her mother's best friend, Lucy Cabot. Her "Aunt Lucy" was from the same Cabot family of the rhyme about Boston, "the land of beans and cod, where the Lowells speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God." Harrell's maternal grandfather owned a chateau in France where she spent time as a child. Her parents employed a French cook, in part to make sure their daughters were fluent speakers, and had homes in Connecticut and California. As a teenager Harrell captained her father's 60' motor sailor Lone Wolf through the Panama Canal, and later embarked on other voyages in the Atlantic and Pacific with him. She stood watch, navigated by the stars, and cooked dinner for the crew. After boarding school, Harrell graduated from Smith College in 1946 where she studied medieval history, French, and astronomy. Months after the end of World War II, she volunteered to help war orphans in Normandy recover from the trauma at a make shift summer camp for 200, where she dug latrines and made meals from whatever she could find in the fields nearby. She and the other volunteers did their best to cheer the children up and help them regain their strength. That experience prompted her to earn a teaching certificate upon returning to California. She taught junior high in Vallejo. After a friend took her up in his plane, she was smitten with flying and soon earned a pilot's license. She owned and flew her own planes for the next 25 years.

Harrell left teaching for a ranch in Grass Valley near Sacramento where she raised cattle and logged sugar pine before falling in love with Bob Harrell, a radio man and antenna manufacturer. In 1957, they eloped to Las Vegas in her plane and were married in a wedding chapel on the strip. "Bob was the love her life," friend Mary Cochran said. "Lucy was not an emotional person. Except when it came to Bob." They had a daughter Barbara and moved to Ashland, Oregon and purchased Buckhorn Springs, a former sanitarium and operated it as a ranch and later a lodge. After her husband died in 1969. Harrell and her daughter took motor home adventures as far north as Alaska. In 1985 with her daughter now grown, Harrell was looking for a new start. She settled in Haines because she could keep a boat in the harbor, land was affordable, and there were "activities to keep the mind from going stale."

From Haines she embarked on what she called "ancient mariner" cruises in the company of elderly women friends aboard Whisker III. Harrell and her friends traveled up and down the Inside Passage to Tenakee where she had a cabin, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Vancouver, the San Juan Islands, Bremerton, and as far south as San Diego, playing as Harrell said, "mad games of cribbage" and eating gourmet meals seasoned with herbs grown in pots on the deck. Those trips lasted until Harrell was about 90.

As to the secret of a life well lived, Harrell said volunteering for causes you care about helps. "You don't have to be rich to make a difference," she said. "If there's a positive change we can make and improve our quality of life, we should do that."

Harrell leaves her daughter Barbara Warner. Her dog Lily has been adopted a by a friend. A celebration of her life will be held at a date to be determined.


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