Share story

The mementos are gone and the last of the gifts — a festively wrapped bottle of Grey Goose vodka and homemade lefse from staff — rest on the desk.

It was early on the last day of the year and the last day of Bob Drewel’s long and illustrious career, and he knew what he would write in a note to his successor, Josh Brown, a Kitsap County commissioner who will become executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) on Thursday.

“I expect he’ll soar like an eagle here,’’ Drewel said he would tell the new director, “because he’s surrounded by eagles. You can’t do that if you’re surrounded by buzzards.’’

Drewel, 67 — called by many one of the most influential public figures in the Puget Sound region and a beloved manager — retired Tuesday as PSRC executive director. It’s a position he came to after three terms as Snohomish County executive, president of Everett Community College, a member of numerous boards and the policy architect of lofty transportation projects such as Sound Transit and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s third runway.

All that aside, his effectiveness in the PSRC office is a microcosm of what made him effective in the greater community, say his colleagues.

“Bob is great,’’ said communications director Rick Olson. “Our staff loves the guy. He always asks what the kids are doing, knows their names or asks what the dog is up to.’’

Drewel’s executive assistant, Sheila Rogers, said, “He makes you feel like you are an equal member of the team.”

Taking the job with PSRC “was one of the best decisions in my life,’’ Drewel said. And now that he’s leaving, it’s with mixed feelings, he said.

Whether he’s talking about the office or the entire four-county council, his personal charisma and refusal to take individual credit in favor of crediting the team keeps everyone invested in a common goal, say colleagues.

Rallying the elected representatives from small towns or large ones over the complex issues of land-use and transportation requires skill, said Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark.

Although many of the representatives from the small cities are underpaid for their public service and overworked without having to be involved in PSRC meetings, “Bob has made it possible for us to sit down as a region and talk about how things must work,’’ she said.

“Bob has a knack for bringing people to the table, keeping people at the table and keeping the spotlight on other people at the table,’’ she said. “He genuinely believes that government can be a tool for good, particularly for our region … that if we sit down together … we can figure out the solution. It seems so corny and old school, but he’s the guy who shows it works.’’

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, in an email, described Drewel as “the architect of regional partnerships; a steadfast, hands-on partner with the vision to see the big picture and the tenacity to see the task through. His leadership will be missed.”

Drewel grew up in Seattle and Kennewick, graduated from the University of Washington in 1970 and was once an assistant manager of sales for Seattle’s Rhodes Department Store. He later joined the personnel office of Everett Community College, then twice worked as interim president and later was asked to be president.

He was elected Snohomish County executive in 1991 and served the maximum terms possible — three.

As a testament to his contributions to Snohomish County, the administration building was named for him and a large crowd of well wishers on either side of the political fence gathered for the ceremonies in 2008.

Drewel, who lives in Arlington, says he owes his family, his wife, Cheryl, and daughters, Amy and Lindsay, a debt of time. But retirement means continuing to serve on boards such as the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of Washington’s two research universities to resolve conflicts around difficult public-policy issues. And he belongs to a number of boards in Snohomish County.

“I’ve had a blessed life,’’ he said. “Those who have received have the obligation to give.’’

Nancy Bartley: or 206-464-8522