A champion for higher ed

Rep. Helen Sommers (1932-2017) protected funding and expanded opportunities.

Higher education in the state of Washington never had a better friend than Helen Sommers. During her 36 years as a state representative in the Washington Legislature, she was a fierce protector of funding for higher education, and that’s why her death March 7 in Florida at the age of 84 sent a wave of sadness throughout the Evergreen State.

Sommers, ’69, ’70, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the UW, played an integral part in the creation of UW campuses in Tacoma and Bothell. She also helped stabilize the state’s pension fund during her long tenure in Olympia.

“She’d grab hold of something, and once she determined this was important, she really spent a lot of time and political capital backing that,” says Jeanne Kohl-Welles, King County councilmember and former seatmate of Sommers in the 36th legislative district.

Though a petite woman, Sommers intimidated many of her colleagues. “She was very respected and liked, but kind of feared in the Legislature,” says Rep. Eileen Cody. “What was intimating about her was her knowledge base.”

After graduating high school in New Jersey, Sommers worked as a bookkeeper and typist for the Mobil Oil Company. While working there, she seized an opportunity to work abroad in Venezuela—turning a two-year agreement into a 14-year adventure.

During her time living in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, Sommers began correspondence courses at the University of Washington. She eventually moved to Seattle in 1968 to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics.

“The University of Washington made a huge difference in her life,” said Yona Makowski, ’84, an Evans School graduate and former House Democratic Caucus staffer who worked closely with Sommers. “The fact that she was able to get a degree and an education really opened a lot of opportunities for her that I think wouldn’t have had happened otherwise.”

During her first campaign in 1972, Sommers climbed the steep hills of Queen Anne and Magnolia, doorbelling a precinct each day. “I didn’t have much money to finance my race, so I made up for it with hard work,” Sommers said during an oral history interview in 2009.

Earning 52 percent of the vote, she beat the Republican incumbent, Rep. Gladys Kirk. In the Legislature, Sommers chaired five committees including the Higher Education Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, which left her in a very powerful position—writing the state’s budget. She became a guardian of funding for higher education during each budget cycle.

While serving on the Higher Education Committee, Sommers worked with the house speaker at the time, Wayne Ehlers, to expand access to higher education in rural areas—establishing five campuses for the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Upon her retirement in 2008, the UW bestowed Sommers with the first, and so far only, Regents Medal for her steadfast support of higher education and the University. “She felt very fortunate to get a college education,” says her sister, Joan Coach, “and she wanted to do as much as she could to assist young people who couldn’t afford to go but were capable if given the opportunity.”