Gary Phelps passed away suddenly from a heart attack on July 22, 2014, while at Providence St. Peter Hospital, Olympia, Washington.
Gary Eldon Phelps was born in Olympia, Washington, on November 27, 1939.
He served in the Navy, touring the Pacific aboard the USS Rochester and USS McKean.
Later he and his wife, Andrea, settled in Auburn, Washington.
He graduated from St. Martin’s College with a degree in Education; his 17-year teaching career included stints as a kindergarten teacher in Oakville, Washington, and as teacher of fourth grade pupils in Onalaska, Washington.
Phelps’s greatest passion was bluegrass music; he was often seen sporting the t-shirt of the latest bluegrass festival that he had attended. He was a past President of the Washington Bluegrass Association.
He played the fiddle with the Lewis County Pickers, and in other bands, and he was the Chehalis Jam director.
Jacklyn Lester, a house concert host resident in Adna, Washington, shared these thoughts about her friend …..
“Growing up on the east coast where bluegrass is plentiful and was so easy to get to for me, it was a big concern when my husband and I moved from Maryland to Washington whether or not I’d be getting a regular dose of the music that defines me in the new location. So you can imagine my thrill when I saw in the local paper about a month after we arrived in WA that there was going to be a bluegrass ‘concert’ in a logging supply store just eight miles from our home! I still have the advertisement in my photo album – it was THAT important to me! I posted it on my Facebook page.
We arrived in Washington on October 30 and the bluegrass show was December 13, 2003. The setting was quite unusual – the band was in a little space in the middle of the store and the listeners just stood around and enjoyed the music. Gary was playing fiddle in the band – The Lewis County Pickers. During their first break, I spoke to him because I was so excited to be hearing live bluegrass again. That began our friendship. He was so welcoming!
Gary was always looking ahead – planning, encouraging – and he had a great sense of humor. He also switched over and played mandolin in various bands. When I began hosting bluegrass house concerts, Gary attended. We had recently been talking about ‘doing something’ during the winter months – getting a band to come out and do a concert in our neck of the woods, and we were discussing locations for the show and who to book.
Last year Gary resumed a jam/open mic (The First Saturday Jam) in our area and I helped out by being the emcee. Each month, Gary, his wife, and I would make up raffle prizes for me to hand out during the jam. I’ve never seen Gary upset. Even when I was recently in the middle of a difficult and confrontational situation, he was diplomatic and tried to smooth things over so there would be an agreeable solution. He was uncomfortable banning the offending party from attending the jam. Those actions are evidence of him being a good school teacher (which he was prior to my meeting him).
Gary was one of those guys that I looked for at each festival because he was uplifting and fun to be around. I sought him out just to say ‘hi,’ and have a short visit. Of course, our conversations centered around bluegrass, but we also talked about other things – in 2006 when my husband was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Gary was going through colon cancer treatment. So, we had that topic to cover, too.
In addition to loving bluegrass, Gary was extremely involved with his grandchildren and their sport events. He was always talking about them and their accomplishments in baseball, softball, etc. He was their biggest fan and promoter. Oh, to have a grandpa like that! I can only imagine how devastated his grandkids must be.
It looks like Gary was a friend to everyone in the bluegrass community out here. His death is a tremendous loss and will be felt for a long time coming. The Washington Bluegrass Association (he was a past-president) bluegrass festival is August 8-10 and it’s going to be a difficult weekend for many people knowing that he’s not in attendance.”
A celebration of Phelps’s life was held at 12:00 p.m., on Monday, July 28, 2014, at the Swede Hall, 18543 Albany Street, Rochester, Washington. A private family burial was held earlier that day.
Friends can leave remembrances in the comments here, or in the funeral home Guest Book.
A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.
He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.
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