Russ Zabel from the mid-1990s.
Russ Zabel from the mid-1990s.
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On April 1 Russ Zabel wrote the lead for his life's final chapter in his trademark laconic style.

Following a visit to his doctor for stomach pains, the long-time Queen Anne and Magnolia News reporter sent an e-mail to two colleagues: "The good news is I'll be back to work today; the pain I had was caused by gas. The bad news: checking out the digestive problem revealed I have lung cancer."

The cancer proved aggressive. Mr. Zabel, 59, died at his Magnolia home Sunday, April 12.

"He stood apart from all," said his sister Robin Zabel of Santa Fe, N.M. "He was hard to know but very sweet and honest by nature, oddly innocent and kind and generous to a fault."

A student of the theater, Mr. Zabel admired the works of Samuel Beckett. His weekly, wry Police Blotter in the Queen Anne and Magnolia News garnered a wide following.

When the going got weird, Mr. Zabel got going. Besides writing boilerplate stories on neighborhood meetings and zoning codes, Mr. Zabel's reportage included an account of a transvestite riot at Denny's; a Department of Homeland Security raid on the Mecca Café after a man was overheard talking on his cell phone about "getting bombed at the Mecca"; and a homeless man who constructed a two-story tree house featuring a pulley system that hoisted furniture and party-goers to his aerial perch. When the autumn leaves fell a Highland Drive dowager, her view marred, called police. The man, homeless again, liked the story so much he called Mr. Zabel and asked that a copy be sent to his mother in Texas.

Though he had mastered a gruff, old-school persona, friends and colleagues were aware of his sensitive, compassionate nature. In the mid-1990s, after two cats were found hung in Discovery Park - a story Mr. Zabel covered - he was subdued for days.

A charmed, nomadic existence

Mr. Zabel's picaresque life was one for the books.

Born on Jan. 11, 1950, in Carlsbad, N.M., he was the oldest of three children. His geologist father and his mother, a professor of law, divorced when he was 11. That event triggered a life of travels in the United States and overseas in the 1960s - Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Europe - as his mother followed various teaching positions. It was a rolling, bohemian existence, their houses always filled with students as part of their extended family, Robin Zabel said.

Fluent in French and Italian, Mr. Zabel hosted his own radio program in Italian-speaking Switzerland. He also composed music for an Italian filmmaker. He finished up his university education at Indiana University, where he focused on Chinese-Tibetan studies and journalism.

Calling Seattle home, Mr. Zabel went to work for Murray Publishing in the production department in 1987. Pacific Media Group purchased Murray Publishing and several other local community newspapers in 1990, becoming Pacific Publishing Co. several years later.

Retired Pacific Publishing president Tom Haley recalled in an e-mail: "Russ asked me if he might be considered for the news staff at the Queen Anne and Magnolia News. I said, 'Sure.' Russ and his talent found their niche, and the News gained a reliable, savvy, colorful career journalist who became a dear friend to his colleagues, this writer included."

Along the way, Mr. Zabel won numerous journalism awards. His coverage charted two decades worth of Queen Anne and Magnolia history: The People's Lodge, the Mercer mess, the viaduct, the Interbay P-Patch, airplane noise, the neighborhood Comprehensive Plan.

Mr. Zabel and Christa Dumpys, Queen Anne/Magnolia Neighborhood District coordinator, often crossed paths in the line of duty. "He had such a presence at neighborhood functions and community meetings, covering stories about all the neighborhood happenings," Dumpys said by e-mail. "Since both of our jobs involve going to lots of community meetings, we often saw each other and joked about who went to more meetings. It is truly a loss for the community, and he will be missed."

Mr. Zabel was known for doing the hard, detail work of understanding the issues and the people involved. That grounding gave him the wherewithal to write memorable story leads. A July 5, 1995, piece on the fractious battle between Interbay P-Patchers and golf interests began, "If there were a patron saint of golf courses, it would seem his or her help could be used in putting together a golf course in Interbay."

Gazing at Tibet

Upon his mother's death in 1997, Mr. Zabel wrote a column about his upbringing. Its playful, globetrotting spirit revealed a background that took many of his readers and not a few of his colleagues by surprise. The column (go to www.queenannenews.com for the complete text) touched on, among other things, his mother's interest in transcendental meditation. Her name was Shirley - the Zabel kids called their parents by their first names.

"My mother died meditating the day after she and my sister arrived in Fairfield," he wrote. "She even had a little grin on her face when my sister found her that Monday morning. We had her cremated, and a family friend in Texas - a man from India - has offered to take her ashes to his country in the spring. There, he will arrange to have a traditional Hindu religious ceremony performed and then will dump her ashes into the Ganges River. It's not a traditional send-off by any means, but Shirley would have liked it."

Robin Zabel said, at one point in his 20s, her brother embarked on an around-the-world jaunt with the goal of entering Tibet. Politics prevented her brother from crossing the Tibetan border. "He wistfully viewed it from India," she said.

Mr. Zabel is survived by his sister Robin, his half-brother Court and his stepmother Jeanne. Congo Fred, Mr. Zabel's gruff, African Gray parrot, has found a new home.

A gathering in Mr. Zabel's honor will take place at 7 p.m., April 30, at the Mecca Café, 526 Queen Anne Ave N.
BY RUSS ZABEL

(From the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Jan. 22, 1997)

I was on vacation during the holidays this year and planned to just hang around town. Instead, I ended up catching a red-eye flight to the Midwest on Christmas Eve because my mother died the day before.

It was, as they say, unexpected. She would have been 69 this week. Yet, as countless other aging baby boomers like me are finding out, it really is becoming a common event to lose a parent these days. Unlike countless other baby boomers, though, I work for a newspaper and it's my turn to write a column this week.

So I thought I'd tell you about my mother, Shirley, because she was a most extraordinary woman. My brother, Doug, and my sister, Robin, and I have always called our parents by their first names, incidentally.

Anyway, Shirley and Robin had driven up to Fairfield, Iowa, for the holidays from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where my mother was a law professor and where my sister is a third-year law student in the same school.

They own a condo in Fairfield, which is home to the Maharishi International University of transcendental-meditation fame. There's a 20-year-long connection there, but more about that later.

My mother received her law degree at the top of her class from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City when I was in second or third grade and already had a younger brother and sister. Shirley was still married at the time to my father, Vic, a geologist who retired a few years ago from the federal government in Washington, D.C.

She ultimately got a job as the first woman to be an Assistant Attorney General in New Mexico and later worked as a lawyer in the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. We all lived in Falls Church, Va., at the time, and it was around then that my parents got divorced - another common boomer experience.

My brother, sister and I stayed with her, and Shirley moved us all to Philadelphia, where she went to graduate school and became a law professor. She got a job right away, too, teaching at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

She was fired after only a year, which we all figured had more to do with our family's anti-Vietnam War activities than her performance as a professor. It was the mid-1960s, a time of national paranoia, and our phone was tapped and people who had been at the house were questioned by the FBI.

In any event, it was then that our family's adventures really began because Shirley got a job right away through a Ford Foundation grant teaching law at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan.

That's not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. The Sudan is a former English colony, and much of their law is based on English common law - the same way ours is in this country.

So off we flew at the beginning of the summer, ending up briefly in Ethiopia by mistake, thanks to an incompetent travel agent back in Idaho. We finally did get to Khartoum, though, and it was a blast.

I left school at the end of summer to go to my boarding school in Pennsylvania, while my brother and sister stayed with Shirley and did correspondence courses - sort of.

I couldn't wait to get back at the end of the school year, but it was 1967 and the Arab/Israeli War had broken out while the rest of my family was in Europe on holiday. The war meant we couldn't get visas for the Sudan, so I joined my family in London that summer.

Then Shirley got another job teaching law in another former English colony in Africa. It was Nigeria, which was having a civil war at the time, although the town we were based in was around 700 miles from the nearest fighting.

My brother, sister and I ended up going to schools in Switzerland, but we did spend a fair amount of time in Nigeria, as well. The family also traveled all over Europe, usually toting a couple dozen pieces of hand luggage through countless airport terminals.

We also spent of a lot of each summer in London for several years and at one point maintained an apartment in Paris. Shirley finally returned to the state, where she also taught law in Connecticut, Salt Lake City, Des Moines, Iowa, at Gonzaga University in Spokane and lately in Texas. She also was an external examiner (she graded other professor's exams) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Thanks to my having been taught first and telling her about it, Shirley also became interested in transcendental meditation. Ultimately, she, my brother and sister all became teachers of the technique.

They also spent literally years if you add up the time at resident courses all over the world and learned some fairly esoteric techniques. Shirley also became a faculty member at the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, which is how she and my sister ended up owning a condo there.

My mother died meditating the day after she and my sister arrived in Fairfield. She even had a little grin on her face when my sister found her that Monday morning.

We had her cremated, and a family friend in Texas - a man from India - has offered to take her ashes to his country in the spring. There, he will arrange to have a traditional Hindu religious ceremony performed and then will dump her ashes into the Ganges River.

It's not a traditional send-off by any means, but Shirley would have liked it.