The life of longtime Shaw Island resident Genavie “Geb” Nichols will be celebrated at the Shaw Community Center beginning at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 16, just the way she wanted: with a good party. Geb died on her terms, in her home at Bay Head Farm, with family at her side and birds outside her window, on April 8th. She was 84.
Geb had a hand in almost all aspects of Shaw life over the past 42 years. It began when she and her second husband, John Nichols, (Woodland Park Zoo Superintendant) bought the Shaw General Store (along with a post office, marina, gas station and newly forged contract with the WA state ferry service) in 1971. Her children joked that they could get mail to her with the address: Ma; Shaw; WA.
Geb later laughed that all she brought to the job was the experience of having bought groceries for her large family for more than 20 years. Yet, she handled her new round-the-clock job with great competency, enthusiasm, and finesse –qualities her new friends and neighbors would grow to expect from all her subsequent contributions to Island community life.
Geb and John happily sold the store five years later to an order of Franciscan nuns, and moved to “Bay Head Farm” -- adding to her list of newly acquired life skills: animal husbandry, gardening, canning and weaving.
They were a part of the original sustainable organic and slow food movements, and it was not uncommon to find them sharing their former-milking shed cabin with lambs, incubator turkeys, and the legendary Capistrano swallows who nested in their living room. She had many blue ribbons for her canned vegetables and “sheep to shawl “competition at the San Juan County Fair.
Along the way, she developed two businesses: mail order Christmas greens and legendary Bicycle Bob’s Salsa, where she could be seen driving the delivery truck into town to stock the supermarket shelves. Her faithful Border Collie companion, Tula was not far from her side as she went about her business.
Geb was the volunteer librarian for the community-funded Shaw Island Library & Historical Society for the past 16 years. Though her formal education after high school was in the arts, she was a voracious and sophisticated reader and a movie maven who built a remarkable collection of books and videos that residents greatly appreciate and at which visitors marvel.
She also served as a commissioner of the island’s fire district; and as a director of its cemetery and school boards. She helped to organize the opening ceremonies of the Shaw Community Building resulting in the first annual 4th of July parade.
A field at the farm has been used for years as a landing zone for Airlift Northwest med-flights and known by all as “Geb’s Field.” As her health declined, she once was flown to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham and was amused to discover that the EMTs attending her en route had long assumed “Geb” was a fabled homesteader.
The youngest of four children, Geb was born to Gladys Theresa Difford and Wallace Ellsworth Difford on Jan. 6, 1929 in Louisville KY. The family moved to Tacoma in 1938 following “The Great Flood” of the Mississippi River in 1937. She attended Annie Wright Seminary, graduating high school in 1947. She had dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart, and had secretly taken flying lessons by the age of 17. Her first solo flight was one of her fondest memories.
She married George Irving Thomas in 1948 and moved with him to Baltimore while he attended Johns Hopkins Medical School. While there, she attended the Maryland Art Institute, and studied drawing. The couple moved to Boston with their first child, George Jr., in 1950; and then to Japan in 1952 with newly born Andrew.
Overseas, she developed an appreciation for Asian arts and culture, and a love of travel. (Her children recall that theirs was the only family served sushi and octopus during the 60s.) The family returned to Seattle in 1953, where George began his career as a cardiovascular-thoracic surgeon.
With the addition of three more children -- Chandler, Genavie and Sarah -- the family settled in 1960 a few doors away from Seattle’s Laurelhurst Beach Club. All were accomplished swimmers, water-and snow-skiers. Geb also studied classical piano at Seattle Cornish College of the Arts with renowned pianist John Rowland Cowell, who personally selected a grand piano to match her style. She regularly attended the symphony, ballet and theater, even while living on Shaw.
Geb’s life in Seattle included a great deal of volunteerism. She was the first caucasian director at Neighborhood House, a non-profit providing support to low-income families in and around Seattle’s Yesler Terrace housing project. She was also a part of the original PONCHO auction and Ryther Children’s Center Guild. Geb was active in the anti-war, feminist, environmental and civil-rights movements; and raised her children to be independent thinkers.
She is survived by her five children and their spouses; her brother, David Difford; and her grandchildren: Tyler and Colter Thomas, Hannah Halladay, Nigel and Robin Thomas, and Sam Johnson.
Donations in her memory can be made to the Shaw Island Library & Historical Society, P.O. Box 844, Shaw Island, 98286. The money will be used to continue to build the library’s book and video collection.