After hundreds of letters from students and years of dedication by a Kirkland Junior High teacher, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion became the...

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After hundreds of letters from students and years of dedication by a Kirkland Junior High teacher, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion became the state’s official vegetable Friday.

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the “onion bill” Friday afternoon as students and teachers who had lobbied for the bulb looked on. The Walla Walla Sweet Onion joins other Washington namesakes like the apple and the orca as a state symbol.

“I told my students it wasn’t over until the fat lady sings, or the governor signs,” said Toni Miller, the now-retired teacher from Kirkland Junior High who spearheaded the bill. “Well, today, the governor signed. It’s the final chapter.”

Students and teachers joined state legislators and Walla Walla Sweet Onion farmers in Olympia for the signing in the Capitol. For the students who pushed for the bill, it’s been an up-close view of the intricacies and pitfalls legislation faces on the road to getting approved, Miller said.

This year, the lobbying efforts were picked up by Eatonville Middle School students and their teacher Alex Hansen. Hansen had been following Miller’s progress last year, and when he heard she was retiring, he talked to his Pierce County students about taking on the project.

“What makes it especially sweet is it’s a joint effort,” Hansen said. “It was up to us to carry it through.”

The onion’s journey to becoming a state symbol was started by Miller and her students in 2004, when they persuaded legislators to introduce the bill for the first time. But it was late in the session, and the measure didn’t have enough time to be approved by both houses.

Miller and her next group of students tried again in 2005. It failed to get passed by both houses.

In 2006, the Kirkland Junior High students worked hard, sending letters and e-mails to representatives and senators and testifying during legislative hearings on the matter.

But they were met with stiff opposition from the Washington State Potato Commission, representing the state’s top-grossing vegetable. The onion bill briefly became the “bulb and tuber bill” after a Senate committee passed an amendment declaring both the potato and onion as state symbols. That bill died in the Senate for lack of a vote.

This year, the bill was revived by a group of legislators, including Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, and the potato commission agreed to stay out of the fight. In the end, the onion bill passed the House unanimously and the Senate with a 42-3 vote.

“It’s so cool to see how much power we have and how even students can influence legislative issues,” said Katey Callegari, 16, a sophomore at Lake Washington High School who worked on the bill last year. “I love politics.”

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com