Hope Elder, volunteer and early leader of Federal Way, dies at 85

‘Federal Way has lost a true hero.’

Former deputy mayor and longtime public servant Hope Elder died May 30 from complications due to a stroke. She was 85.

A leader of Federal Way, especially in the city’s fledgling years, Elder was a fixture of city service over the past three decades. Over time, her focus shifted to volunteering, through which she led efforts to feed the hungry, enrich children’s lives and find ways to lighten people’s loads.

Elder was a dedicated volunteer, a vibrant mother with a zest for life, and a spontaneous character who believed that having fun “wasn’t optional,” her daughter Ruth Elder said in an interview.

“(Hope) called herself the original party girl,” Ruth Elder said. “I (told her) that other people are supposed to give you names, not yourself. She said: ‘Well, no one who heard it ever disagreed.’”

Hope Elder was born Oct. 19, 1937, in Negaunee, Michigan, to a family of mixed Finnish, British and Scottish origins. The family picked up their belongings during World War II and headed west for better economic fortunes in Arizona, Ruth Elder said.

But they ran out of supplies halfway through in Nebraska. Tires and gasoline were rationed and unavailable, so the family decided they’d be Nebraskans instead, settling in Grand Island.

That’s where Hope met her husband Samuel Elder, whom she married Nov. 5, 1965, Ruth said. The family moved to Federal Way in 1979, about a decade before the city was incorporated.

Her parents were opinionated, vivacious and got a lot of satisfaction from helping others, Ruth Elder said.

“They really were fun loving, and … that’s how they roped people into all these good causes,” Elder said. “If there was a worthy cause in the Federal Way area, chances are better than not that my mother and father … were involved.”

Those many causes included Hope and Samuel’s spearheading of fundraising efforts to send local baseball players to an all-star tournament in Federal Way’s sister city Hachinohe, Japan, and a campaign to put in the big toy at Steel Lake Park.

Everyone helped out, Ruth said, even if they hadn’t planned to: “If you’re a part of my parents’ family, you got volun-told.”

As a couple, Hope and Samuel didn’t always agree politically, and verbal sparring was a natural part of their relationship, Ruth said.

“They weren’t afraid to disagree,” she recalled. “They were both very well read. … They watched the news religiously … and often had some pretty spirited debates.”

Samuel Elder, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, died March 23, 2007. Hope’s ashes will join him at the Tahoma National Cemetery, where Samuel is buried.

Hope Elder worked in the medical field for 60 years as a medical assistant and administrator, most recently at South Auburn Medical Clinic. She worked about 23 years and made some of her dearest friends there, Ruth Elder said. Hope was also the first person certified to electronically bill Medicare in the state of Washington, her daughter said.

Hope Elder served on the Federal Way community council and city council, spending two years as deputy mayor to former mayor Skip Priest. She was appointed to eight terms on the planning commission, starting in 1998. Elder also served on the city logo committee and the city planning and senior commissions.

On the volunteer side, Hope served on the advisory council for FUSION, and the boards of the Federal Way Soroptimists and the Federal Way Community Caregiving Network. She also coordinated weekly meals for years at the Steel Lake Presbyterian Church.

The Mirror honored her as citizen of the month in March 2015, noting her efforts to help make nearly 800 Easter baskets for families in the community. Last winter, the mayor and city council honored her with a key to the city.

“Hope was amazing,” Deputy Mayor Susan Honda said. “She devoted her life to serving others. She could be found cooking dinner for whoever needed it on a regular basis. … Federal Way has lost a true hero.”

“Hope was a good person who volunteered many years to help feed the homeless,” Council President Linda Kochmar said. “We were fortunate to have her in our community.”

“Hope Elder was a tremendous person who served her community with distinction and honor on our City Council,” Mayor Jim Ferrell said in an email. “She was a tireless advocate for those in need in our community. She will be missed.”

“She was a very special lady,” fellow Soroptimist Linda Persha said. “(Elder) always (had) a positive attitude and a smile on her face, even after having as many as seven strokes. … We all loved her. It’s been a tough time for all of us who were close to her.”

Federal Way Farmers Market director Rose Ehl recalled Elder getting produce for her weekly meals to the homeless from the farmers market.

“She was just a great, outstanding person,” Ehl said. “She was really quite a lady, and she loved helping.”

In an interview, current city council member and former mayor Jack Dovey, who served with Elder early in the city’s history, called her one of the early leaders of Federal Way.

“She was the quiet person behind everything that just got things done,” he said.

Elder was a driving force behind feeding people and running a laundry program at the Community Caregiving Network, developing human services at the city and other programs for the public good, Dovey said.

“She always worked well with everybody,” Dovey said. “She was collaborative. She wasn’t an ideologue; she just wanted to get things done for the betterment of people in Federal Way. … She and I may not have agreed all the time, but we could always sit down and talk.”

Dovey recalled the time Elder made one of the toughest votes of her city council career: Approving the construction of Celebration Park.

The city purchased the property in 1991, asking voters in 1995 to approve a utility tax measure funding the $7.5 million park construction. Voters rejected the proposal.

“It was probably the biggest project ever in Federal Way (at the time),” Dovey said. “People were afraid to spend.”

At a council meeting the following year, the council vote “was basically a 3-3 tie” on an effort to raise utility taxes to pay for the park, recalled Dovey, who also supported building the park. Elder was the key fourth vote to build the park.

Construction began in March 1998, and the park welcomed its first visitors about a year later.

Elder had said, according to previous reporting by The Mirror, that she felt her vote for the park cost her re-election to the council.

But the park proved to be “the cornerstone of our city, if you think about it, for recreation,” Dovey said. “It took foresight. It took guts.”

Elder’s vote signaled she was willing to make the call she felt was right, even if it wasn’t politically expedient, Dovey said. And Elder’s daughter said she didn’t regret that choice.

“(She) said, ‘I never lost any sleep over that vote, because I knew it was the right thing to do, and I’d do it again,’” Ruth Elder recalled. “That was probably her proudest accomplishment on the city council.”

Hope Elder didn’t allow herself to consider if her efforts might fail, Ruth said: “Not every single thing she did was successful, but most of them were.”

That determination probably helped her adjust to the inevitabilities of aging, Ruth Elder said. Hope never planned to retire, and worked in healthcare throughout the pandemic despite repeated exposures to COVID-19.

It wasn’t until she began having strokes in September 2021 that she was forced, “reluctantly,” to retire, her daughter said. Up until then, Hope had always had a “If I work at it enough, it’ll come,” attitude, Ruth Elder said.

Elder was still living alone before the last stroke, and retained a zest for life until the end — so it was still a kind of shock when Hope passed, Ruth Elder said.

“But she had been very clear,” Ruth Elder said: After 85 years and eight strokes, “she was at peace. She was tired. It was time.”

“Even at the end, when she was in the process of dying, she looked at me quite seriously and said: ‘What am I going to do with all this spare time until I die?’” Ruth Elder said. “Only she would think about that, (concerned) that she should be more productive and serving others while dying.”

Hope Elder. (Image provided by Ruth Elder)

Hope Elder. (Image provided by Ruth Elder)