It came as terrible shock to all of us who had the good fortune to know and work with Neil Powers, especially those of us who have maintained longstanding and close friendships with him. Two weeks ago Neil Powers passed away of natural causes at the age of 63. Since it was like him to keep details like this secret, it took some digging for us to discover his exact birth date, Feb 25th, 1955.
Services for Neil will be held Saturday October 6th, 3pm in the Social Hall of Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Avenue on First Hill.
Born in Scranton Pennsylvania, Neil took his first job in Seattle in the mid-90’s (after living and working in Canada, a place he loved and spoke often about). The job with a small non-profit involved outreach and providing assistance to homeless youth in the University District. But he was hired away from that job in the late ’90’s and went to work as one of Seattle Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck’s legislative assistants until he stepped down in 2007. Neil specialized in areas of Land Use, Housing, and Homelessness but maintained a deep grasp of city politics in general.
When voicing our concerns on policy, it was Neil we would first talk to in order to influence Peter. Neil, to a fault was notoriously gracious, thoughtful, and polite with all those he interacted with, whether he agreed with you or not. “Kind”, ‘sweet’, “gentle”, and always on time are words folks use to describe him. In this latter instance, how he managed such punctuality when he literally had never driven, hated to fly, and always rode sometimes tardy buses, I do not know. A very early riser up at five AM, he joked that only Councilmember Jean Godden occasionally could beat him each morning to the Council offices.
Neil was deeply concerned about inequality, the rights of native peoples, the homeless, and as a gay man himself worked with and knew many prominent GLBT activists. He regularly contributed funds and in other ways gave his support to causes especially those addressing homelessness and backed candidates for local office especially those committed to racial and economic justice.
I’d joke with him that as Peter’s assistant, he was like the Vice Principal who got to absorb all the flak, tell us “there there”, was the one who sometimes had to say “no” i.e., wield the paddle on all us activists – always politely of course. Neil liked the analogy a lot.
When Peter Steinbrueck stepped down from the Council, Neil took these traits to work at United Way advising and assisting programs serving the homeless. When not at work, he continued to contribute time and his resources towards causes he believed in.
By this time I had become a good friend of Neil’s. Over the years there were many get-togethers with him and other friends at Pazzo’s in Eastlake, the Deluxe on Capitol Hill, or the Sandpoint Bar and Grill to discuss the current state of city politics. He and I and a few others made a practice of at least once a year hooking up for long weekends in downtown Vancouver, perhaps his favorite town where he also had many friendships.
About two years ago, Neil packed up and moved to Toronto. He rented out his home – a small but comfortable co-op apartment – off Broadway on Capitol Hill and left his job, and his many many friends to pursue a new career in journalism. Neil was fiercely independent and loved new adventures; what better to do with oneself than return to Toronto (where years ago he once lived in a unique intentional community on a small island adjacent to Toronto).
Recently he had graduated from journalism school there and was getting some work for small publications. A fellow classmate of his, Nicole Royle, wrote to tell me how many friends he’d made in school back there and was “one of the better journalists in the class”. Stories of his appeared in the National Post and the Financial Post, two of Canada’s premier publications. Occasionally he’d write a piece for our website, Outside City Hall including interviews with Nikkita Oliver and Bob Hasegawa during their campaign’s for Mayor.
It was Neil’s roommate in Toronto who alerted former City Councilmember (now Port Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck and also a longtime close friend of Neil’s) to his sudden death. At this time, we have only a few details on the underlying cause though he had recently been experiencing a shortness of breath, weakness, and a sudden loss of weight.
Last Friday, only hours before his passing, Neil called to alert me of his condition. I was concerned but he assured me he was seeing a doctor who had given him a series of tests and now was waiting to hear back on the results. He mentioned too that the doctor had found some evidence of “fluids in the upper chest”.
Neil seemed concerned but not overly so, at least not outwardly. His longstanding and chronic laryngitis obviously had not improved, something he’d been coping with for the last two or three years, so it was a little hard to hear him. I encouraged him to come back to Seattle where he had tons of support but he assured me he had support where he was and that he’d be sure and keep me posted when he learned the results of his tests.
At the end of our conversation he seemed to go out of his way to tell me how much he cared for me and our work and everyone back in Seattle. In retrospect, it makes me think he knew and was not telling me how bad things were or perhaps even was hospitalized at the time – But I just don’t know. That would be like him to downplay the gravity of it. I’m thinking, but now only surmising, that it could have been heart related. Peter said he also spoke to Neil last Friday and heard pretty much the same from Neil as I did.
His close friends are planning to hold a memorial service for Neil in the near future and we’ll keep you posted and alert you for time and place when it is set. I’ve felt sad to the core that someone with still so much life, and so many adventures ahead, had it all cut short. He is survived only by a brother from “back East” now taking care of his affairs, but again he left behind a ton of very good friends too numerous to mention here, who now are grieving for him.
But as Dylan Thomas said, Neil certainly did not go quietly or “gently into the that good night”. For those of us who knew him, the causes he cared about, and for the future of this city, he left an indelible mark and we’ll always remember him.