Seattle Times Troubleshooter consumer columnist Shelby Gilje wrote about everything from Nigerian scams to cellphone rip-offs. She died Wednesday at age 79.
Long before they became trending consumer stories, Shelby Gilje was writing them.
Twenty-four years ago it was “Beware the mysterious Nigerian prince.” That was when the scam was sending out actual stamped letters instead of phishing emails.
Nineteen years ago it was about all the ways cellphone providers jacked up your bill. That was the era of flip phones, when you’d get charged per minute for incoming and outgoing calls, plus charges for retrieving voicemails.
Eighteen years ago it was about women’s health rights; in particular, how doctors are prohibited from accepting incentives or bonuses from insurance carriers to encourage mothers and newborns to leave the hospital earlier than the law permits them to stay.
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Ms. Gilje, a 30-year veteran of The Seattle Times, and best known for her “Troubleshooter” column that dealt with the concerns of thousands of readers who contacted her, died Wednesday at age 79 after suffering a blood-clot stroke.
In keeping with her consumer orientation, Ms. Gilje was cremated and had prearranged a low-cost funeral through the nonprofit People’s Memorial Foundation, says her daughter, Kari Gilje of Fall City.
It was a different world for women journalists back in 1958 when Ms. Gilje graduated from the University of Washington’s School of Communications.
When she was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame at the UW, it posted a story on its website about a particular incident:
“She recalls an instance when she was working as the assistant editor on the Times’ city desk when a deadline couldn’t be met because of heavy traffic on the 520 floating bridge.
“ ‘The main editor in the newsroom turned to me and said, ‘We didn’t have these troubles before we had token women.’
“To the man who insisted on being called ‘Captain,’ Gilje replied, ‘Well, Captain, if you have the balls to get me a sweatshirt that says ‘Token Woman,’ I’ve got the balls to wear it in the newsroom every day.’
“Gilje didn’t have a problem with ‘Captain’ from that point onward.”
And she had to deal with callers to the newsroom who wanted to speak to the “man in charge.” She’d answer, “Well, I’m the person in charge tonight,” and that was that.
Says Jean Godden, the former Seattle City Council member who also had been a columnist at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Shelby always seemed indestructible and, as a woman who worked in the mostly male newsroom of her early days and mine, she had to be.”
The Troubleshooter column that Ms. Gilje inherited existed before Google searches.
If you weren’t savvy enough to navigate the phone book blue pages that contained government agencies; if you were flustered over what to do about that outrageous phone bill, good luck.
“It’s almost hard to imagine now how hard it could be to find and pursue help and information before the internet,” says Madeline McKenzie, one of Ms. Gilje’s staff researchers. Troubleshooter staff mailed out thousands of consumer-information packets to readers.
Says Terry Tazioli, whose career has included being Scene and then Travel editor at this paper, “At the very least, I wouldn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of Shelby’s investigations. Shelby is one of the many things I miss about newspapers these days — that chance to help readers with real problems.”
In keeping with her journalism roots, Ms. Gilje had written her own obituary and sent it to her kids.
It was titled, “Gone to The Great Newspaper in the Sky to join her friends.” It was a brief, muted sort of obit and did not contain the kinds of anecdotes such as the one about the “Captain.”
Kari Gilje remembers that her mom believed writing should be concise.
When Kari Gilje attended Nathan Hale High School, her mother would proofread her papers and mark them up. “They had red pen all over them,” she says.
The daughter also had to learn newspaper proofing marks. “Oh, yes, three lines meant capitalization, all that stuff.”
Ms. Gilje was married to another longtime Seattle Times reporter, Svein Gilje, who died in 2009 at age 75.
His ashes were scattered at the family cabin on Harstine Island and at Mount Rainier. The same will be done with Ms. Gilje’s ashes.
Ms. Gilje decided to retire in 2001 shortly after the end of a contentious seven-week newspaper strike by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. Her daughter says that Ms. Gilje was told the Troubleshooter column would not continue.
In accepting her UW Alumni Hall of Fame award, she said that despite her career ups and downs she had always loved it.
“I just thought it was the greatest way to spend your working life,” Ms. Gilje said.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Gilje is survived by a son, Kurt Gilje, of Seattle; four granddaughters; a sister, Shelley Collard Daniels, of Lake Stevens; and two brothers, Nelson Collard Jr., of Yelm; and Kevin Collard, of Auburn.