Independent and Determined to Stay that Way
By Teri Baker
As a young girl Phyllis Royce made up her mind to become independent. And she did just that. “I didn’t think I couldn’t do things so I just went ahead and did them,” she says. “I like women who get out and do things.”
Phyllis, 74, of Marysville explains, “My mother never did anything but take a ride on a Sunday afternoon. She couldn’t drive, and everything had to go through my dad.” Phyllis had no patience with what she called her mother’s “just be helpless and pretty and whine for what you want” attitude. The girl was more like her father, a man who worked hard as a grocer and later as a delivery driver, tended the garden at home, and kept himself informed via the newspaper and radio. My brother was the good child,” she says with a laugh. “I was always in trouble, always building stuff, always in motion, roller skating, riding bikes, playing at the park. I was also curious and read six books a week.”
Phyllis lived in Bellingham until eighth grade, when the family moved to Blanchard. She worked part time in a mercantile store washing windows and wrapping cookies. “It was the third year into the war,” she says. “There were things you couldn’t get and other things that were rationed. Everybody just dealt with it.”
She married at 16 and went to Nebraska with her new husband, who had joined a major league baseball farm team. “He was on the road all the time. and I was stuck in a tiny, one-room apartment with nothing to do,” she recalls. “I said ‘forget that!’ and I moved back to Blanchard.”
Barely 17, she rented an old railroad depot, complete with outhouse, (she bathed next door at her parents’ house) for $11 a month. Single-handedly, she turned the two rooms into three by putting up a wall and making an archway. She acquired an ancient wood stove for cooking and central heating, turned discarded planks into cupboards complete with doors, and scrounged up some cast off furniture. Located at the base of Chuckanut Drive, the depot is now Blanchard Community Center.
Her husband returned after the baseball season and went to work in a mill. The couple lived at the depot for a year and a half, but with a child on the way, had to move to larger quarters. They bought a house in Bellingham for $2,000. Phyllis did the lion’s share of the home improvements herself. The sale of the house netted them enough to buy a new one for $4,000 two years later. Eventually, buying and selling houses would become a way of life for Phyllis.
The couple had a daughter, then a son, but little else in common. Phyllis divorced her husband after six years of marriage and moved with the children to Everett to start over. “I got a hundred dollars a month in support money,” she says. “We lived frugally, but we managed just fine. I had no employable skills. They didn’t want women who could build things, even though I could even use an electric saw, so I worked in restaurants on weekends.”
In 1955 she met Bob Royce, a Navy chief stationed at Whidbey Island, who was soon transferred to California. The two corresponded and married three years later. Phyllis stayed in the states when Bob was sent to Japan and other foreign places, but the two still managed to do some traveling together. On one trip they had been to England, Belgium and Germany when Bob’s leave ran out, so he left Phyllis in Munich and flew home. For five weeks she traveled by train all over Italy, Switzerland and Greece, staying at out of the way places, hopping a plane to check out a Mediterranean island, and soaking up sun, art and history to her heart’s content.
During the 14 years before Bob retired, Phyllis says her independent spirit rose up to help her hold her ground when her husband, used to giving orders, would “come back home and try to take over as if I hadn’t been doing just fine for months.” She adds with a smile, “He’s still a Navy chief at heart, but we’ve managed to stay married for 42 years.” After Bob’s retirement, the couple returned to Everett, and Phyllis, then 38, who had never graduated from high school, enrolled in a class at Everett Community College.
“Over the years I took art history, photography, design, things that were enriching my life,” she says. “I never thought I would do anything with it. I just started one class at a time for my own education and enjoyment and the next thing I knew I had an Associate of Arts degree.”
She entered the Central Washington College extension program, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in law and justice, graduating at the age of 50 with a 3.8 grade point average. “If you want to go to school, no matter what age you are, do it!” Phyllis advises. “I just had a ball. It was so much fun going to school with police officers, jailers and so forth. They were just a kick. Wise guys, almost all of them, but I gave as good as I got. We were pals.”
Part of her class work involved the Volunteer for Credit program, which gave her on-the-job training in the parole office. “The first thing I learned was that probation and parole was a high stress occupation,” she says. “Caseloads were large and the paperwork was staggering. Arrest reports in some cases, especially crimes against children, were very graphic, sometimes more than I could handle. As interesting as it was, it didn’t take long to decide I would not want to choose that as a career.”
Still, during her junior year, Phyllis returned to the parole office as a volunteer coordinator in the Pre-sentence Investigation Division. Much of her work involved searching through prosecutors’ files. Her research skills have made her a valuable asset in her current volunteer work with Snohomish County Women’s Legacy Project, which she helped start and for which she has put together a remarkable file of information at the Everett Library Northwest Room.
After graduation, Phyllis was hired by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department as a correctional officer in the Work Release Program in the county jail. She came to believe the supposedly first-time offenders convicted of non-violent crimes in her charge posed a danger to the community. One turned out to be the infamous Everett Rapist.
Phyllis was sent to the Correctional Officers Academy in Seattle, where she graduated third in a class of 36. Not bad for probably the oldest person in the class. Less than two years into her career as a corrections officer her father died. She quit so she could go to Bellingham to help her mother who was still so dependent she did not even know how to write a check.
Although Phyllis did not return to work in the justice system, she was not idle. She and Bob continued to invest in real estate. She says, “We bought cheap, fixed up and sold for a modest profit.” Today, they own two older houses in Everett that have been turned into apartments. Phyllis still does tile work, repairs cabinets, and can tear out a wall if she needs to. Her husband, who handles the plumbing chores, says Phyllis knows more about carpentry than most men do.
“I like to keep busy,” she remarks. “I don’t like power saws; just give me a hand saw any day. I don’t mind hard work. I’m physically able to do a lot and I always got tired of waiting for the guys to do things.” Part of her hard work went into building the Royce’s home, where they did pretty much everything but the frame and the roof themselves.
Phyllis also volunteers. She has contributed well-researched articles to Riverside Remembers, a history of part of early Everett, and to Voices of Everett’s First Century. “I didn’t know if I could do it, so I just did,” she says. “I liked it. I enjoy talking to old people and get really interested in what they have to say.” She has interviewed more than 100 people and is still at it with the legacy project.
Her interest is obvious as she talks about her collections of obituaries and other articles culled from local newspapers over the years and her work with Snohomish County Museum, where she was president for 11 years. Because she owns property in Everett, she was asked to be on the city’s historical commission, where she also served as president.
To learn more about antiques, Phyllis also volunteers at major regional antique shows. And somehow, Phyllis still manages to find time to read. “There are a jillion books at my house,” she says. “I never go anywhere without a book.” She also cares for five cats of her own, plus six adult cats and seven kittens that were dumped on the dead-end road near her house to be eaten by coyotes or to slowly starve to death. “They’re expensive to feed and care for,” she says, “but I can’t see a cat starve.”
A hard worker with the energy level of people 20 years her junior, Phyllis is in pretty good shape, although she has had her share of physical challenges. She has battled cancer three times, the first beginning with a wart in her nose. Two years later she developed throat cancer and underwent radiation that left her throat so scarred she has difficulty eating. Five years ago, the cancer returned to her nose and skin had to be grafted from her shoulder to cover the removal of the tumor. “It doesn’t show much because I just use makeup,” she says, adding that she got through the ordeal because she was “working with the museum at the time and didn’t have time to worry.”
There is little that stops Phyllis. She still travels when she can, alone or with her husband, and speaks fondly of past trips to Mexico, Spain, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador and Egypt, the place she always dreamed of going. “I found out Egypt was a magical place, but hotter than heck,” she says. “I think I’ll try some cooler places.” She plans to continue traveling, working on houses and volunteering. She is a “woman who does things.”
It would never occur to her to be otherwise.
Source: Interview with Phyllis Royce
© 2003 Theresa (Teri) A. Baker 2003 All Rights Reserved ; WLP Story Number 5