Joann Otto passed away unexpectedly on Friday, March 22, 2024. She served on the Preservation Trust’s board starting in 2016, the same year she retired from the faculty of Western Washington University, where she chaired the Biology Department. Scholar, administrator, volunteer board leader, friend—Joann poured her deep reservoir of intellect, compassion, and hard work into everything she did. The news of her passing caused an upwelling of sadness and tributes  from SJPT’s board and staff members, past and present. Their words are collected here.

Joann Otto, 1949–2024

Angela Anderson, Executive Director, together with all the staff and board of the San Juan Preservation Trust: Joann was a member and supporter of the San Juan Preservation Trust for almost 30 years, and over time became a strong advocate for the conservation of the San Juan Islands and a leader of the organization. Her efforts helped in the protection of Vendovi and Jack islands, and countless other projects throughout the archipelago. Since the moment she joined the Board of Directors of the Preservation Trust in 2016, Joann’s leadership has been steady and impactful, with countless hours behind the scenes on projects like Board Member recruitment, committee coordination, and organizational development. She never hesitated to fill a leadership void and was incredibly committed to the work of the Preservation Trust. She enjoyed walking with friends and colleagues on nature preserves on San Juan Island, where she kept a home and was a true role model in the community. As individuals and as an organization, we benefitted immensely from the generous gifts of her time, wise counsel, dedication, and friendship. It truly was a privilege to have worked alongside and learned from Joann. Her impact on our individual lives and on the viability of the islands will endure.

Attending Annual Meeting, 2017

Kathleen Lewis, SJPT staff member: I greatly valued Joann’s wisdom, steady guiding presence, and her subtle humor, as I worked alongside her in SJPT board and board committee meetings. She was humble, funny, and generous with her time. She was perpetually unruffled and wasn’t one to shy away from a task. SJPT was lucky to have her on our team for as long as we did—she leaves a big hole that will be hard to fill.  Thank you, Joann—I’m hoping you are peering down on us all through your big microscope somewhere, smiling and knowing the work you cared so much about will continue.

Tom Tidyman, SJPT staff member: I got to work closely with Joann these past few years on multiple administrative and behind-the-scenes efforts for the Preservation Trust. Meetings run by Joann were my absolute favorite; she knew how to keep order and stick to business efficiently. At the same time, she was always able to keep the work fun and light with her humor and passion. When asking for feedback or for volunteers, she often said that as an educator, she was trained to wait in silence until someone spoke up or stepped up. Joann was a true thinker, and she thought lots about SJPT and our future. I will especially miss our talks about leadership and governance. She truly made a difference for our organization.

John Howell, SJPT board member: As a new SJPT board member I didn’t know Joann for very long (which saddens me).  But in the year that we knew one another I developed great respect and admiration for her. When I joined the board Joann volunteered to be my mentor—to answer questions and check in with me regularly. She was a mentor extraordinaire. She performed this role with enthusiasm, humor, and in a way that made me feel very welcome as a new board member. We exchanged multiple emails, had helpful phone calls, and took a walk around Wescott Bay, where I learned about local wildflowers. She could not have been more kind and generous with her time. Thank you Joann. I didn’t get a chance to sufficiently thank you. The Preservation Trust lost an exceptional board member; I lost a new friend.

Craig Canine, SJPT staff member: During every meeting I observed that Joann attended, I was always impressed that—to echo the old E.F. Hutton TV ads—“When Joann talks, people listen!” Invariably, the next person to speak would begin by saying, “I agree with Joann.” I will miss her voice, her wisdom, and her friendship.

Alice Hurd, past president and former SJPT board member: I met Joann in 2016  when she joined the SJPT Board. She was clearly a person with lots of experience in working effectively with groups of people; she was very hard-working and dedicated, full of good ideas and pleasant to work with. A wonderful addition to the Board.

After I left the Board, in 2020, I met with Joann on her frequent trips to San Juan Island, and we would take walks. This Joann was much more fun! We would typically meet at some favorite spot on the island, often at American Camp, or Bell Point, or Zylstra Lake, or the woods at Mt. Finlayson if it was raining. In April the chocolate lilies up by the American Camp redoubt were a favorite draw.

We would often share stories about travel. Joann was an intrepid whitewater rafter, she was on a mission to travel to all 50 states (and sadly was at #49  just last month), and enjoyed all kinds of opportunities from Shakespeare in the city to camping,  to dinosaur tracks in Texas.

We also talked about day-to-day challenges. I learned that Joan was also tireless and determined in  taking on projects at her two homes (in Bellingham and San Jan Island), her car and repair equipment (she is the ONLY friend I have ever had who bothered to send me a photograph of a bearing puller she had used successfully!). Rarely hiring anyone to do something she could do herself—from yard work and gardening to painting her porch to chimney repair to resolving plumbing mysteries to cutting, hauling and splitting wood (although sometimes she was nice enough to share these tasks with visiting friends).

But the side of Joann that I enjoyed the most was the scientist. On our walks, she was so observant and curious.  She would pose a question, and if we couldn’t answer it, the answer would come to me in an email  from Joann within hours or days. The buoy east of Finlayson—private or public? How long had it been there? Is that a camas or  a brodiaea? What are the distinctions between the male and female bobolink? What is that large-leafed whiteish flowering plant? Where did the eagles go from that nest?

My favorite: One time we found fresh broken eggs on the ground. She sent an email a day later with a little explanation of the habit bald eagles have of killing and eating their own infertile eggs, and sometimes stealing eggs from other birds. At the bottom of that email was a simple closing: “Isn’t nature great??”

Although I will surely miss her good company on my walks, I will always enjoy remembering her while I am out there!

Chocolate lily photo by Joann

Although I will surely miss her good company on my walks, I will always enjoy remembering her while I am out there!

Nancy Greene, SJPT board member: Joann and I came on the SJPT Board at the same time, and we immediately became “comrades.” The thing about Joann is that she was respectful and approachable to all who met her. She had that wonderful talent of making you immediately feel like you’d been friends forever. She loved the Preservation Trust and its mission. I admired her quiet, thoughtful intelligence and experience, which always offered appropriate solutions to problems. Joann was the perfect team player and leader, quietly nurturing all of us to move in the right direction. It was a pleasure to work alongside her. She will be deeply missed by all of us.

Mary Miller, SJPT board member: Years ago, when the Stewardship Committee was in its infancy, I encouraged Joann to join, knowing that her diverse skills, position as Chair of the Biology Department at WWU, and deep commitment to the lands and shorelines of the San Juans would have a great impact on how the burgeoning “Stew Committee” would develop. She joined, and her impact was enormous. She had vision, drive, and a beautiful sense of humor. She was a thoughtful friend and devoted steward of our beloved islands. To say her passing leaves a hole in SJPT’s heart is an understatement.

Tom Cowan, SJPT board member: I’ve worked with many scientists, but few, if any, other than Joann, that always knew the best words to use and the right context for important policies and communications. What a gem!

Little did I know the passion Joann had for using microscopes as a learning tool! … [She had a] visionary perspective on the importance of getting as many people as possible to experience the intricacies of nature provided by a microscopic view.

Keith Wentworth, past president and former member of the Preservation Trust board: Joann Otto’s passing was a shocking loss to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her as a friend and colleague. She embodied that rare combination of good listener and compassionate leader who improved the quality of life for those around her. I will sorely miss Joann’s sense of humor, sharp mind and inspirational dedication to education, conservation, and community.

An additional anecdote: A few years back, Jane Wentworth, botanist, hinted that among the items on her birthday list she would like to own a microscope for identifying plants and viewing tardigrades. Because I knew nothing about microscopes, I immediately contacted Joann Otto to ask if she might have any suggestions.

Little did I know the passion Joann had for using microscopes as a learning tool to inspire a lifelong exploration of nature! In the weeks that followed my initial inquiry, we had several enlightening conversations not only about the technical characteristics of microscopes for different applications, but also about Joann’s visionary perspective on the importance of getting as many people as possible to experience the amazing intricacies of nature provided by a microscopic view. Joann Otto’s dedication to education and conservation remains an inspiration.

Judy Meyer, SJPT board member: I first met Joann as we were beginning to think about how we should use and steward our recent acquisition of Vendovi Island. Her strong commitment to biological and, more broadly, environmental education was apparent in her contributions to our deliberations. When she later joined the Board, she continued to bring her advocacy for the importance of education to our decision-making.

I also saw another aspect of her personality, namely, a willingness to do the nitty-gritty work that maintains the health of the organization. She helped identify and interview prospective board members; she took on the thankless but important task of bylaw revision. These are the kinds of behind-the-scenes tasks that enable the Preservation Trust to carry out its mission. They are not glamorous, but an organization falters without them. And she did them cheerfully and well. Joann was Vice-Chair of the Stewardship Committee for part of the time I was Chair, and I could always count on her to effectively lead the committee or report on our activities when I couldn’t; she always had my back. I valued her actions and her presence, and I miss her. 

At board retreat, 2016

Camille Uhlir, Former SJPT board member: During the time I worked with Joann on the SJPT board I found her to be an admirable human being and a fine example of a leader. She was engaged in life and willing to do the work and to contribute to the community as an educator, a communicator, a volunteer, and a friend. If there was a task that needed doing she stepped forward. She was a good listener, modest and thoughtful, definitely someone you would choose to have on your team.  She was a gift and will be missed.

Barbara Rosenkotter, SJPT board president: Joann did so much for the Preservation Trust. Quietly, with little fanfare, she worked behind the scenes on so many projects. She was always willing to help in a multitude of ways, too many to enumerate. Basically, if something needed to be done, Joann was willing to jump in and help—always with humor and a willingness to share her vast knowledge and expertise in many areas. Her loss is a devasting blow, but we are consoled by our many fond memories of her, and we’re grateful for the permanent difference she made as a champion of island conservation.

Tim Seifert, former Executive Director: Joann Otto’s first contact with the Preservation Trust did little to portend the immeasurable impact she would have on the organization. In a string of short, efficient emails sent in 2002 while she was on the faculty of Purdue University, she notified us that she was the executor of Dr. Claire Huckins’ estate, and that Dr. Huckins had left a generous bequest for us. We tried to extract some background from Joann (who was this mysterious Dr. Huckins, and what was her connection to the islands?), but Joann wasn’t interested in superfluous detail. Her emails remained courteous but direct, we never spoke on the phone, and the Claire Huckins estate wrapped up in record time.

On the day that we received the funds from that bequest, Joann called. Two hours later, my impression of her as an aloof, no-nonsense academic had melted away. Witty, fun, and so very smart, she joyously told me of her friendship with Claire, of her time as a student at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, of introducing the Illg family (of San Juan Island) to Claire during one of her visits (where they learned about the need for land conservation in our islands), and—memorably—of her deep respect for the work we were doing at the San Juan Preservation Trust.

We stayed in touch. In 2004, Joann made her move from Purdue to Western Washington University in Bellingham. Dedicated to her new role as chair of WWU’s biology department, she declined several pleas to join our Board of Directors. When the opportunity to acquire Vendovi Island came to us in 2010, she could no longer resist. She raised her hand to help.

We may not all remember, but at that time Vendovi Island—located at the entrance to Bellingham Bay and visible from downtown Bellingham—was a dark mystery to those of us unfamiliar with Whatcom County. Equally mysterious to us were the people of Bellingham: We knew that a fundraising campaign had to include them, but we had no idea where to begin. Enter Joann, who joined the Vendovi Island Steering Committee and assumed the unofficial role as Ambassador to Bellingham. With her local ties and proven leadership skills, she opened countless new doors for us within her community. Following the thrilling success of that $7+ million effort, she had no choice but to ratify her commitment to the Preservation Trust by joining our board in 2016. From there she took on many leadership roles within the organization, injecting order and heart into our efforts to care for these islands that she loved.

The same sharp intelligence and precise manner that we detected in her first emails remained essential to Joann’s character throughout her time with us. But it was her effortless ability to wrap those traits with warmth, humor, and grace that made her such a high-level achiever, such an effective leader, and such a loyal friend. Joann’s fingerprints will remain on this organization and these islands in perpetuity. We miss her.

The same sharp intelligence and precise manner that we detected in her first emails remained essential to Joann’s character throughout her time with us. But it was her effortless ability to wrap those traits with warmth, humor, and grace that made her such a high-level achiever, such an effective leader, and such a loyal friend. Joann’s fingerprints will remain on this organization and these islands in perpetuity.