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Activist Polek, 78, dies

By Rebecca Nappi
The Spokesman-Review
January 12, 2012

Jan Polek, of Spokane, a longtime activist for women’s rights, once said of society: “June Cleaver doesn’t live here anymore.”

Polek, 78, died Tuesday, after living a life nearly opposite of Cleaver, the 1950s television mom. She was outspoken about every issue she championed, including the right to die with dignity.

“If you wanted to know what an opinion was, she had it,” said close friend Sheri Barnard, the former Spokane mayor.

Polek, mentor to a generation of women who entered politics in the 1990s, never served in elective office herself. She ran twice for the Washington Legislature in the 6th District.

She lost both times, but the fact that she came so close in her first run in 1986 – 83 votes behind Republican John Moyer in the traditionally Republican district – helped encourage a young Eastern Washington University professor, Lisa Brown, to run for the state House of Representatives in 1992.

“She was a great promoter of women in politics,” said Brown, who won that 1992 race and subsequent races for the House and then the Senate, where she’s now the majority leader.

“She wanted (younger women) to understand that women didn’t always have the right to vote, let alone run for office.”

Through her work at the YWCA of Spokane and Community Colleges of Spokane, Polek pioneered services for battered women and women hoping to break out of traditional roles and support themselves financially.

Age and health problems didn’t slow her opinions. She wrote letters to the editor frequently. And in the mid-2000s, she wrote a regular column on aging issues for The Spokesman-Review.

After a heart attack in 2007, she wrote in her column: “I am not an invalid. It would be very easy for me to ‘fold my tent’ and let others care for me. But once you leave the race, it is very hard to get back in.”

Her daughter, Jenny Polek, said that “even in the hospital last week, people said, ‘I read your column all the time. I loved it.’ ”

In 2008, Polek actively campaigned for Washington’s proposed Death with Dignity Act, which eventually passed and allows people with terminal illnesses to take life-ending doses of prescription drugs.

In a 2008 interview she said: “I had a near-death experience. My daughter resuscitated me just as the paramedics arrived. That started me thinking about my own end. I realized I wanted power. Aging is full of indignities. One thing you can do is say, ‘This is my decision. This is what I want.’ It’s giving elderly people power and dignity.”

Polek didn’t need to make that decision in the end, after all. She died of pneumonia Tuesday night, surrounded by her family.

She also showed how a commitment to feminism wasn’t anti-family. She was married for 47 years to Fran Polek, a Gonzaga University English professor who died in 2002. Their year together in Romania in 1984 fueled the duo’s lasting commitment to Romanian immigrants in the United States.

Polek was proud of her work for Alcoholics Anonymous. Sober 45 years, she served on the national board and traveled to New York City for meetings.

“It was a huge part of her life that a lot of people didn’t know about,” said daughter Jenny. “It’s a spiritual program that provided her a way to serve others.”

Polek and her daughter were roommates and best friends for the past eight years. She was also devoted to her son, Frank Polek, an attorney in San Diego, and to his family.

Memorial services will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at CenterPointe, 1408 N. Washington St.