Barney Goltz, a former state senator and beloved figure in Whatcom County civic life, died Thursday, Dec. 25.

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Barney Goltz, a former state senator and beloved figure in Whatcom County civic life, died Thursday, Dec. 25.

Sen. Goltz suffered sudden cardiac arrest during a Christmas dinner with friends and family in Olympia. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease in recent years.

Sen. Goltz, 84, was elected to the state House as a 42nd District Democrat in 1972. He was elected to the state Senate in 1974 and served three terms, becoming president pro tem of the Senate before his retirement in 1986.

During his years in Olympia, he was known for his gentle wit and a no-hard-feelings political style.

Sen. Goltz grew up in Minnesota and attended Macalester College in St. Paul, where he helped one of his professors, Hubert Humphrey, get elected mayor of Minneapolis. Sen. Goltz often cited Humphrey as his own mentor.

His real first name was Harold, but his college classmates dubbed him “Barney” because of his rural upbringing.

Son Jeff Goltz, one of four deputy attorneys general in the state Attorney General’s Office, said Democratic politics were a significant part of his own childhood memories. He remembers his father’s campaigning for Adlai Stevenson when the family still lived in Minnesota, and for John Kennedy after their move here.

Sen. Goltz moved to Bellingham in 1957 to take a job as director of student activities at Western Washington University.

State Rep. Kelli Linville, a 42nd District Democrat, said she was inspired by Sen. Goltz when she started her political career.

“He was the kind of role model that everybody in elected office should try to emulate,” Linville said. “He focused on solving problems for our community and generally maintaining a positive attitude, no matter what issues he was facing.”

Another of Sen. Goltz’s political recruits was Tim Douglas, former Bellingham mayor. Douglas said Sen. Goltz got him to run for a precinct committeeman’s post.

Douglas said he learned to envy Sen. Goltz’s quick-but-gentle wit. “He absolutely disarmed people with that, in the most contentious of situations,” Douglas said.

Mary Kay Becker, a Washington Appeals Court judge and former state House member, said Sen. Goltz was a unifying force among Whatcom County Democrats, especially when the Vietnam War and environmental issues created factions within the party.

“He was unflappable and incorruptible, and a lot of fun to be around,” Becker said.

Becker won election to the state House in 1974, the same year Sen. Goltz moved up to the Senate. Sen. Goltz’s legislative tenure included Becker’s eight years in the House, eight years when she saw his hard work, caring attitude toward people and sense of humor win fans on both sides of the political aisle.

“He was a treasure, just a treasure,” Becker said, “just the soul of public service.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire praised Sen. Goltz for his contributions to the state’s higher-education system, calling him a “pillar in the higher-education community.”

Sen. Goltz was also known for his impromptu comic poetry. During his days in the Legislature, he sometimes amused colleagues by reducing a thorny issue to limerick form. And the hundreds of people on his holiday card list looked forward to some annual political satire.

In 1981, he and his wife, Marguerite, who preceded him in death in 1994, sent out cards with this message:

“In keeping with current economic theory, a gift in your name has been given to someone richer than you.”

His holiday cards also generally included a poem. The last of those poems arrived in friends’ mailboxes in the past few days. It concludes:

“And aren’t you glad the election’s done,

and that Obama and Biden won.

Let’s hope there will be cause to cheer

And that we’ll have a great new year.

So happy holidays to all!

I wish for you a joyful ball,

And that this little verse will send

An annual smile at year’s end.”