Housing advocates, friends and Seattle City Council members used the same words to describe Neil Powers.
Kind. Gentle. Dedicated.
But there was more. Powers was quietly but fiercely committed to helping the less fortunate. “He was Peter’s pit bull with a ponytail,” said Stephanie Pure, who worked alongside Powers in former councilmember Peter Steinbrueck’s office.
Powers could be “stubborn as hell” about his beliefs, said Steinbrueck at an Oct. 6 memorial service for his aide and friend who died after a brief illness in Toronto on Sept. 11.
But others, including hard-edged journalists, said they never heard Powers insult or vilify those on the opposing side of his efforts.
It’s a trait seemingly scarce these days. Powers wasn’t just decent in resisting attacks on people. He was strategic, Pure said. “He realized the long game. We’re not going to get rid of poverty and inequality tomorrow.”
He was radical, but believed in coalitions, said historian Trevor Griffey. He knew today’s foe could be tomorrow’s ally, and a broad alliance might be needed to neutralize powerful interests. He was part scout, part ambassador for Steinbrueck.
“Neil understood how important relationships were. He was out there building relationships, hearing what people outside the political establishment were saying,” said Steinbrueck, a councilmember from 1997 through 2007.
He spoke to Powers, who moved to Toronto three years ago to study journalism, just days before he passed. Powers, 63, said he had been losing weight, didn’t know why and was seeing a doctor. But what he really wanted to talk about was how Steinbrueck was doing.
Typical Neil, said friends and colleagues who lined up to praise his optimism and generosity while photos of Powers hiking, riding trains, dining with friends and blowing soap bubbles played on a screen at Seattle First Baptist Church. Troubadours Joe Martin and Jim Page supplied respectfully rousing music. The service for Powers, a Canadaphile, ended in a sing-along to “The Circle Game” by one of that country’s great exports, Joni Mitchell.
In terms of the diversity and quality of the company he kept, Powers was like an amazing quilt, Steinbrueck said. Martin, who shared a few pints with Powers, likened him to an Irish revolutionary. Pure called him “a born-again Canadian.” City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said he was a champion of indigenous people and their art. Sara Luthens recalled his vivid descriptions of early protests for gay rights.
Hiking buddy Randy Beitel noted how long walks in nature tend to reveal a person, but Powers remained a bit mysterious. Beitel went hiking on Mount Rainier after learning of his friend’s death. He ran into a small band of mountain goats. “They reminded me of Neil,” he said, “Such wonderful creatures with an air of mystery about them.”
After a hardscrabble upbringing in Pennsylvania (during which time he was educated by Jesuits), Powers’ activism was forged in the early years of the gay liberation movement, including the 1981 protests of bathhouse raids in Toronto, sometimes called Canada’s Stonewall. He became the first openly gay mentor in the Big Brothers program in Canada.
In Seattle, he helped start what is now called the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter. Powers worked on housing-related issues with the United Way of King County after Steinbrueck left office.
Powers’ impact is felt by some of our most disadvantaged residents, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. At the United Way, Powers administered loans to help build supportive housing for homeless veterans and people with mental illness, Lee said; “He was critical at getting the housing and services together for people who needed them.”
Above all, Powers listened. As a journalist, a scholar and a late-in-life violinist, he listened. In that sense, he was the rarest of scholars; a student of humility.
He made an indelible impression on journalism students and faculty at Centennial College in Toronto, where a memorial and a scholarship were created in his honor.
Powers’ good friend John Fox, one of Seattle’s most outspoken housing advocates, had the last word at the Seattle service for Powers. He used his obituary to relay a message from Nicole Royle, a classmate of Powers’ in Toronto, who had sent a poignant message about Powers’ passing:
“Neil made a swath of students and an entire faculty fall in love with his gentle, intelligent heart,” Royle wrote. “We are all incredibly sad and miss him greatly.
“I just wanted to reach out, hoping that it will warm your heart to know that the reach of Neil’s inspiration extended into yet another city in the world. Neil was an incredibly special person and I am overcome by how incredibly lucky I am to have known him.
“My heart goes out to you all in Seattle. We truly have lost a great one.”
Gifts in Neil’s memory may be sent to:
ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, 1415 43rd St., Seattle WA, 98105; Seattle Displacement Coalition, 5031 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105
Bob Young was a staff reporter for The Seattle Times from 2002 through 2017.
Read the full Nov. 28 - Dec. 4 issue.
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