In 1977, the Bellevue Fire Department hired the then-23-year-old Jeanette Woldseth, who became the first paid female firefighter in Washington state.
Capt. Jeanette Woldseth thought of herself as just a firefighter.
She didn’t want to be remembered as a female firefighter, even though she was the first in the state. She also didn’t want the attention or focus on her, even when cancer consumed her body.
Yet, it’s clear part of Capt. Woldseth’s legacy is that she paved the way for other women to not only join the firefighting ranks, but to succeed in the male-dominated profession.
Remembering Jeanette Woldseth
Family, friends, firefighters and cancer survivors will share stores of Capt. Jeanette Woldseth’s impact on their lives during a memorial at 1 p.m. Saturday at Westminster Chapel, 13646 N.E. 24th St., Bellevue.
Capt. Woldseth, who retired as a captain with the Bellevue Fire Department in 2002, died from complications due to cancer in February. A memorial in her honor is scheduled for Saturday in Bellevue when those who were touched by Capt. Woldseth will share their stories.
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The 64-year-old was meticulous and confident as a firefighter, friends and former colleagues recall. She was supportive and gregarious with friends, playing sports and traveling internationally.
While she rarely spoke about herself, she often discussed the Bellevue Fire Department, even trying the patience of some. One firefighter said when they’d travel, Capt. Woldseth rarely took a break from thinking and talking about the department.
Her desire to save lives started at a young age.
Her grandfather shared stories of responding to fires with horse-drawn teams and becoming a Seattle Fire Department captain during his career from 1913 to 1945. Her father served as a volunteer firefighter for the Bellevue Fire Department. Seeing both in action solidified her career choice.
While working as a drive-in theater manager, Capt. Woldseth also became a volunteer firefighter in Bellevue, but she had her sights on becoming a full-time firefighter with the department. In 1977, Bellevue hired the then-23-year-old Capt. Woldseth, who became the first paid female firefighter in the state.
The fire chief at the time, Dan Sterling, had some initial concerns about hiring a woman, but Capt. Woldseth surpassed his expectations during training.
Her brother, Brian Woldseth, said, “One of the things we talked about was that there was no women’s (rest)room. They made it hard on her. She’d have to walk past the men using urinals to get to a stall.”
She ascended to lieutenant in 1981 and then captain in 1985.
“She taught me a good work ethic,” he said. “If you wanted something you had to work hard to get it.”
Marty LaFave, who retired as deputy fire chief last year, said Capt. Woldseth was adamant that firefighters assigned to Station 2 in Eastgate, where she was assigned the longest, tested their equipment regularly, cleaned the facility and completed reports.
“One of her legacies is the ability to be detailed when it came to captain duties,” LaFave said. “She served as a good example that there wasn’t any difference in competence between women and men.”
He won’t forget in the early 2000s the difficult decision Capt. Woldseth had to make during a response to a Lakemont construction site, where two men had passed out because of a gas or lack of oxygen in an underground vault. She had a choice: wait at the remote location for the rescue crew to arrive to help the two men or extricate them from a manhole and put firefighters’ lives at risk.
She concluded every second counted and that her crew needed to try to save the men, he recalled.
“She made some risk-benefit decisions that were amazing,” he said.
Capt. Woldseth’s decision and the firefighters’ actions saved one of the men, he said.
She often talked about that incident with LaFave while they went on vacations, reviewing her analysis and conclusion.
Retired Bellevue Lt. Dan Trippel became one of Capt. Woldseth’s travel buddies, vacationing in more than 15 places in the United States and Europe.
“She would never stop talking about Bellevue Fire Department,” especially while vacationing, Trippel said. “I’d say ‘Be quiet. We’re not on duty.’ She was always trying to better firefighters.”
Lt. Camari Olson became friends with Capt. Woldseth in 2003, while Capt. Woldseth was retired but still the union’s secretary.
“I was in awe of her and thinking of her doing that (joining the fire department) back in the ’70s,” Olson said. “It had to have been a hard road.”
When Olson learned her breast cancer had returned for the second time in 2005, Capt. Woldseth was by her side during doctor appointments, hospital visits and chemotherapy.
Five years later, Capt. Woldseth was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. But in 2013 it returned and metastasized to her liver. Not wanting to tell friends and firefighters that the cancer was back, Olson made the difficult calls for her.
Capt. Woldseth rarely talked about her illness.
“She certainly didn’t have pity parties,” LaFave said.
While she skied and played soccer, she wasn’t much of a bicyclist until she started raising funds for cancer research during the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s annual Obliteride.
For the past couple years, Olson and Capt. Woldseth teamed up for the biking event. Over the years Capt. Woldseth raised $51,000.
“Even though it was too late for her, she did everything she could do to raise money for the future people with cancer,” Brian Woldseth said.
Olson formed a team called Jeanette’s Cancer Crushing Crusaders to bike the Obliteride in August and raise money this year in her honor.