George "Duncan" Williams
George Duncan Williams of Van Zandt, age 68, died Saturday, January 3rd in Whatcom County.
Duncan (generally “George” for business, but “Duncan” or “Dunc” with family and friends) was a long-time resident of the Bellingham area. He was the founder of the iconic Old Town Cafe (Facebook), and started the free Thanksgiving Day dinner, which became a tradition and is now in its 42nd year. As his sister Anna describes it, “Duncan supplied everything from his own resources except for the many kind donations provided by close-by merchants. And we, his family, and his amazing, energetic employees received the privilege and the gift of being part of the joy and grace of it all. Wherever you are, little BIG brother, thank you for helping us all to become better than we were before you arrived on the planet.” Not content to feed the hungry one day a year, he instructed his staff to never turn away someone due to inability to pay (but if the same person kept coming, to have them wash some dishes).
Duncan was born in Kern County, California, to Iris Lorraine Bowen and John Glenwood Williams.
His sister remembers one Christmas as a child, Duncan rode around on his bike going to various stores asking if anyone knew of a family in need, and gave up his Christmas to make sure they had gifts and a complete Christmas dinner. They rang the doorbell in the morning and then took off, an anonymous Santa.
He entered the Air Force Reserves in 1965, with an honorable discharge in 1971. He remained critical of the Vietnam War all of his life, reading every book he could find on the subject. He had a lifelong passion for social justice, helping others, voting, and combating bigotry. From an early age, he was a vegetarian, and loved animals.
For a time, he managed the Howard Johnson’s at Hollywood and Vine, allegedly the busiest in the world at the time, before leaving to start his own restaurant. In a 1974 newspaper article about the Old Town Cafe, he’s quoted as saying “When I built this restaurant, I had an idea of how I WOULD like to see a restaurant look when I walked in. I want to get across the feeling that people are welcome here. A job has to be more than just a job. I didn’t feel comfortable working for the big restaurants. It’s the difference of going to work with a knot in your stomach or going to work feeling good.”
Besides various restaurant jobs, he also spent some time in the Bellingham Police, cut and delivered firewood for many years, and worked at the Post Office, which he retired from after Parkinson’s disease made it impossible to continue.
He built several cabins during his life, using not much more than a chainsaw and a hammer. One of them was on Shi Shi Beach, joining a small group of hippies living there when it was much less accessible, and it remained one of his favorite places in the world. Eventually the cabins were dismantled.
He loved a good pizza, a good beer, the Seahawks, and reading in a hot bath. He loved to travel and expand his horizons, including visiting Mexico, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia.
He was a lifelong skeptic and free-thinker, agnostic, and a minister of the Universal Life Church. His guiding principle was always to do the right thing, from his heart rather than from an outside authority. He never stopped self-examining, and when realizing that decades earlier there were times when he hadn’t done the right thing by someone, he acknowledged it and apologized. To him, being a good person is a never-ending process, not a state of being.
He loved his family. When his body was falling apart from Parkinson’s, he would claim to be the luckiest man alive, because he’d finally had a chance to be present for the birth and childhood of one of his sons. His extended family tree may legally and genealogically resemble a bunch of tangled branches in a forest, but to him it was simple - family was family, and he loved them all.
In closing, some words from his sister:
“We who have been given the constant gift and honor of being the family and friends of George Duncan Williams will miss him every day for the remainder of our lives. But to truly honor his heart’s wishes for us, we will not carry this sadness, like a stone in our hearts, forever; because that wouldn't be what he wants for us as we walk our paths without him. When I think of him, two emotions come forward; Compassion and optimism, no matter the situation or those involved.
If there are any Mickey Rats out there from the Old Town Cafe days, I hope you will celebrate his life with us.
Duncan played softball with the IGA team for several years, something he enjoyed immensely in spite of the encroaching Parkinson’s disease which altered that ability. Yet, he turned that disappointment into an opportunity to stretch his capabilities to succeed at all the daily challenges that he confronted every day. He spoke of them as gifts because then he could be of help to his family and anyone who needed something that he could contribute.”
Duncan is survived by his wife, Maria Jesslou; his children, Lee (“Marty”), John, Robin, and Yuri; his brother David, wife Valerie, and children Brenda, Teri, Jeff, Justin, Collin, Terra, and Ian, and their spouses and children and grandchildren; his sister Anna and her children Dan and Gabe, grandchild Rose, and great-grandchildren; his dog Henry; his cat Lucy Fur; and numerous extended families and friends all over the world, all of whom are invited to introduce themselves and leave comments or stories below.
A funeral mass will be held on Friday, January 16 at 10:30am at the Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. It will be followed by a reception in the gym, where friends and family can share memories.
A birthday party will be held for him Saturday, May 23, 2015. (Location to be determined, but likely Whatcom County, Bellingham, or Seattle).
Special thanks to Pass the Hat, for financial assistance with funeral arrangements. It’s a local charity that helps “local families overwhelmed by the financial burdens of heartbreaking tragedies.” Donations may be made to them, or to The Hunger Project.
Thanks also to Whatcom Cremation and Funeral, and to all of the kind people who have been involved in the many details that need to be taken care of.
For news updates, including additional photos of Duncan's life, or to contribute your own photos or stories, contact John Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 206-769-1391. Comments can also be made below on this page.