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Fern Halgren
1912 - 2003

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Fern Halgren, 91, Social Advocate
By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

She was the type of person for whom a list of accomplishments merely scratched the surface: the first female employee of a health department; part of a group that raised $1.3 million for an endowed university chair; the mother of six children who had 12 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

For Fern Zimmer Halgren, those accomplishments reflected broad interests, deeply held values on social justice, and passion and commitment to living those values.

Mrs. Halgren died Friday (June 6) at the Norse Home in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood. She was 91. Born in North Dakota to Clara and William Zimmer, Mrs. Halgren moved to Portland to pursue a nursing degree. There, she met her husband of 53 years, Sven Halgren, a logger who later became a longshoreman. Mr. Halgren died in 1985.

They moved to Seattle in 1946. Mrs. Halgren took in boarders, mainly the elderly and young mothers in need of housing. She always showed an interest in people. "She found people much more interesting than cleaning house," said Mrs. Halgren's daughter-in-law, Carina Halgren. In fact, she said, Mrs. Halgren had a sign she liked to hang in her home, which was always open to friends and family: "Dull women have immaculate homes."

"She would rather enjoy her friends, enjoy the roses," Carina Halgren said. In her 50s, Mrs. Halgren completed a master's degree in social work at the University of Washington. She became the first female employee hired by Group Health Cooperative's mental-health department, where she worked until retirement in 1976.

Mary Gruenewald, who is retired from Group Health, first met Mrs. Halgren when both were nurses in the 1970s.
A warm and vibrant presence at meetings, Mrs. Halgren "had a way when she was leading groups of being very inclusive," Gruenewald said. "She would look around to see if there was some timid person and she would call on this person to give them an opening so they could make a contribution to the group."

Being an advocate for those in various walks of life was a central value for Mrs. Halgren. She volunteered and was a member of groups ranging from the Swedish Club to the Order of the Eastern Star. She was also active in the labor movement and in the women's auxiliary of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

After the death of ILWU founder and leader Harry Bridges in 1990, a group of local longshoremen, retired longshoremen, pensioners, widows and relatives — including Mrs. Halgren — raised $1.3 million to form the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair in Labor Studies at the University of Washington.
"Fern Halgren was so dedicated to the good deeds that unions do," said David Olson, professor of political science at the UW and Harry Bridges Endowed Chair Emeritus.

Mrs. Halgren's vision, Olson said, was for those at the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies to be "forceful and critical students of the labor movement" and to look at the movement's connections to historical events, broader progressive politics, and the way working people generally conduct their lives.

She was also committed to making sure the center nurtured female scholars and activists. As a voice of the women's auxiliary of the ILWU, Mrs. Halgren "represented that constituency in quite an important way," said Margaret Levi, former Harry Bridges Chair and current professor of political science and international studies at the UW.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Halgren remained young at heart. Her son, Jon Halgren, said that several years ago, she told him she'd like to find some growth stocks to invest in. "I said: 'Growth is for young people who can takes risks,' "Jon Halgren said. "She said: 'Well, that's what I am."

In addition to Jon Halgren, Mrs. Halgren is survived by her children Sven William Halgren, Carl Halgren, Maryann Schur, Susan Lewicki and Kathy Clake; 12 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held today at 2 p.m. at Norse Home, 5311 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle. A potluck picnic is to follow.


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