Mavis Williams has been staring death in the face for 35 years as Franklin County deputy coroner, but the 82-year-old hasn't lost her smile.
"I always thought I'd know when I'd retire, and it's time," she said Wednesday with a kindly grin and bright eyes.
Williams, who came to the coroner's office in 1977, has handled hundreds of cases, but family tragedies always are the toughest to deal with, she said.
"Sometimes saying 'I'm sorry' isn't enough. But you do it anyway, and put your arm around a shoulder," she said.
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At noon today, Williams should expect to receive a few hugs when her boss, Coroner Dan Blasdel, presents farewell wishes during a retirement fete in the Franklin County commissioners' office.
"I'll miss Dan and the excitement and the officers," Williams said. But she won't miss the phone calls at home while cooking dinner or taking a bath because of a coroner's call-out.
"You'd be surprised how many meals I've missed because of this job," she said.
Williams was in her 40s and had been a telephone operator before Louise Rabideau, wife of then-prosecutor Jim Rabideau, who also served as county coroner, said her husband needed an assistant.
"As time went by, I learned and got better," Williams said. "You have to be willing to work long hours, sometimes in the dead of night, or to get people out of bed."
The toughest part of the job is notifying next of kin, but Williams said she always tried to let a uniformed officer handle that. Williams was there to provide support and help the family understand what would come next or if an autopsy would be needed.
Deaths involving children were the most difficult. She recalls one traffic accident where the victim was a small boy who had severe head trauma.
The father had "lost it," and the mother "was functioning, barely," Williams said. The boy's body had been removed, but Williams still shudders when remembering the scene.
"You have to find a way to keep your emotions in check, especially when it involves people you know," she said.
A Pasco resident throughout her career, Williams lives within walking distance of her windowless office deep inside a nondescript trailer next to the Franklin County jail. That trailer is scheduled to be razed to make way for the jail expansion.
And her retirement will bring two people job-sharing as her replacement. Both are registered nurses who also work at Lourdes Medical Center.
"It speaks well of the office to have two very qualified people work in my place," Williams said.
Blasdel, who Williams hired in 1992 and later was elected to the top job, said Williams carries compas-sion that goes beyond what the job requires.
"It's like she's everybody's grandmother," Blasdel said. "As a Pasco graduate who spent her whole life here, many times she knows the people she's going out on. She has a calming effect on them."
The police also treat Williams with special care and respect.
"They'll take her by the hand on (a case with) difficult terrain," Blasdel said.
Just last month, Williams reached out. A man was on trial for shooting a woman, who survived but is confined to a wheelchair. Williams contacted the Knights of Columbus to obtain a motorized wheelchair for the woman, Blasdel said.
And then there is "old school" Williams, who continued to knock out coroner's reports on a vintage Underwood typewriter until forced to use a computer and fax machine.
Office staff still laugh about Williams asking the receptionist to fax a report, Blasdel said, only to question later why, if it was faxed, the report then was returned to her desk.
"She actually thought the pages should have gone through the machine to the where she wanted it to go," Blasdel said. "I'm going to really miss her."
Williams said she has no specific post-retirement plans other than gardening.
"I don't have a green thumb, but I'll try to do my best," she said. "It'll be nice knowing that when I start a project I'll be able to finish it."
Williams, recently widowed, has a grown daughter, Janet Anderson, who is a registered nurse at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; email@example.com