Some 1,200 miles away, wielding a pick axe and wearing hobnailed boots, she made history.
Now, 30-plus years after her death, she’s helping history come alive here in Yakima.
Mary Cronin, born in 1893 in Denver, may never have visited Yakima (although she came close when she climbed Mount Rainier), but she’s left an imprint here, in the form of old newspapers.
This is a story that perhaps should start at the end, which was about a year ago when Jim and Chris Leverett were cleaning out an old family cabin in Port Ludlow, which had been damaged in a rainstorm. The torrent of rain had caved in the roof, making a significant mess, but when they opened an old desk drawer, there lay a dozen newspapers, all at least 70 years old.
A little musty, maybe, and definitely yellowing, but they were undamaged and in excellent condition. They’d been sitting there, untouched, for several decades.
The newspapers had belonged to Cronin, Jim’s maternal Aunt Mary, who was at once an intrepid adventurer, history lover, mountaineer and a woman who was at least a generation in advance of her era.
She also knew the importance of collective memory, which may be why she saved certain newspapers heralding important dates. The earliest is the Nov. 11, 1918, Denver Post, with the front page covered in bold type: “WAR IS OVER, GERMANY SURRENDERS.” The newest paper in the collection is the Aug. 15, 1945, Dallas Morning News: “Japan Surrenders Unconditionally: MacArthur to Rule Nippon Empire.”
Or there’s the Oct. 8, 1944 Seattle Sunday Times: “WENDELL WILLKIE TAKEN BY DEATH.”
The papers reflect several places where Cronin lived or visited — Seattle, Denver, Dallas — as well as significant occurrences of the time, from the end of World War I to the last of World War II.
“These were all from critical times,” Jim explained. His aunt was just 25 when saved her first one, announcing the Armistice of World War I.
“She was a smart woman and knew the importance of historical events,” Chris pointed out.
For Jim, the most compelling newspapers in the trove are those containing stories about the early 1940s.
“Anything to do with World War II is of interest to me,” he said. “I grew up in that period.”
In fact, he vividly remembers Pearl Harbor Day. He was 11 years old, rowing a boat in Puget Sound near his family’s home in West Seattle, where he grew up. Once the news of the Japanese air strike on U.S. Naval ships in Hawaii came over the radio, Jim’s father yelled across the water to his son to watch out for the Japanese military. He wasn’t joking. Jim also heard a neighbor come running out of her house, shouting “Did you hear the news?”
Indeed, the blaring headlines accurately reflected the zeitgeist of the times.
But Cronin did more than collect documents that would become historical. It turns out she was a mountain climber, a very accomplished one who was the first woman to climb the most mountain peaks in Colorado higher than 14,000 feet.
According to the Denver Post, which featured an article on her climbing exploits, she had summited about 44 of the highest peaks by the early 1920s. One of the few women in the Colorado Mountain Club, she eventually climbed all 51 (now, with the advantage of GPS measuring systems, 53 peaks are considered higher than 14,000 feet in Colorado), becoming the first woman to do so.
She told the newspaper at the time that she’d never had an accident, even though she made at least six trips up the “treacherous” east face of Longs Peak.
“It’s all in knowing how,” she related to the newspaper reporter. “We learn to avoid steep snow fields, where avalanches are most common, high ridges or summits where lightning may strike during an electrical storm and dangerous gulleys down which boulders might fall.
“You run greater dangers daily on city streets than in an entire season of mountain climbing,” she concluded.
“She was quite the outdoorswoman,” Chris noted.
“In her wool shirt, heavy whipcord breeches, wool socks and hob-nailed boots and a favored old hat,” the Denver Post described, she went on to climb Mount Rainier with a guide, who had to be rescued when he fell 50 feet into a crevasse. Cronin, along with several other members of the climbing party, went down to retrieve the guide who escaped with only cuts and bruises.
When Cronin wasn’t climbing, she worked in the billing and accounting department of Western Union. “She was a career woman, and I’m very proud of it,” said Jim, who worked in banking for 41 years before retiring.
Cronin, who never married or had children, began her career in her hometown, but she was transferred to Omaha, Neb., and eventually, Dallas. Neither of those cities offered much in the way of mountains.
But she remained busy. “She was quite the traveler,” Chris said. “She went to places by herself a lot; she’d just get on the bus and go.”
She was also generous, paying to send her two nieces to college. “Neither would have been able to go to college without Aunt Mary,” Jim noted.
Jim didn’t necessarily need financial help to attend Washington State College (now Washington State University), where he was required, like all young men of the era, to participate in ROTC. As soon as he graduated in 1952, he was ordered to show up for Army basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. On his trip east, he and a friend stopped in Dallas to stay with Cronin.
“We had a great trip,” he recalled. “We filled her apartment with cigarettes, and she took us to the Cotton Bowl to see the musical ‘Oklahoma.’”
He admitted, however, that two young men on their way to basic training (and later, for Jim, service in Korea during the Korean Conflict), weren’t exactly thrilled to go to a Broadway musical. “Neither of us gave a hoot about a musical; we would have preferred Louis Armstrong.”
In looking back on it, “I’m sure she was glad to get rid of us.”
The last part of Cronin’s life was much more subdued. Sadly, she developed glaucoma, but she didn’t believe in taking medicines, so she refused medical help and eventually became blind.
She moved to Port Angeles, where her sister Catherine Leverett (Jim’s mother) lived and took an apartment near her. Jim recalled his mother having to buy a typewriter so she could keep up with Cronin’s financial affairs and correspondence, especially Aunt Mary’s Christmas letter to her mountaineering friends.
Cronin died in 1982 at age 88.
Most of her possessions were moved out, but the newspapers mysteriously found a home in Jim’s parents’ cabin. Now the dozen newspapers are in Yakima, and Jim and Chris intend to donate them to a newspaper, library or local archival collection.
They point out that Cronin made her mark: on mountains, in the working world and with a small piece of history.
As Jim said, “Aunt Mary was a very resourceful, independent woman who was ahead of her time.”