When the poet Theodore Roethke praised a woman he’d known for, “the many shapes a bright container can contain,” he probably had someone in mind like the multi-faceted Lela Brugger.
Brugger was a central figure in Auburn’s arts community, in fact a member of Valley Creative Arts. She was also an advocate for the countless causes dear to her, who with equal measures of compassion and passion went to bat for children, spoke and acted on behalf of the houseless and the hungry, and advocated for civil and women’s rights.
She was never shy about voicing her opinions, including her long-standing opposition to war.
In everything she did, said her children, Josh and Jessie, mama was “fierce,” or, as her late husband Dick Brugger used to call her, “ferocious.”
“She loved playing games, and more than playing them, she loved winning,” Jessie recalled.
When locked in a game of solitaire with friends and family, she was so ferociously competitive, that she and Dick would get into arguments so heated he concluded he would bow out from any future card games, “to save my marriage.”
Brugger, 77, died of ovarian cancer at 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at Puyallup’s Good Samaritan Hospital with family and friends at her side.
To Brugger’s last hour, all who knew and loved her clung to hope that she would do as she had done after her first infusions of chemo and surgery last year — rally.
“We didn’t know she would die, and mom was such a fighter,” said Jessie. “She was incredibly focused on getting better. She was in the hospital, and she wouldn’t even watch TV. She was focused on getting out and getting home. She was doing well, and then she was not.”
“I expected more time with her,” said Josh. “I expected her to get past this and make it to her next round of chemo. She was a great woman, and an amazing mom. It’s a hard loss.”
Lela Brugger’s unquenchable passion for life and her sense of humor was with her until the end, and made her a favorite with doctors and nurses.
“She’d say to hospital staff: ‘I want to be home with my kiddy cats,’ And the doctors and nurses would say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, you have cats.’” “No,” Jessie would answer with a laugh. “She means her kids.”
Asked to describe herself in the hospital, Brugger used the phrase, “a feisty lady bug.”
Brugger was born in Montreal, Canada, on Jan. 8, 1943, same day, though eight years after, the birth of her beloved Elvis Presley. She never tired of mentioning that fact.
”Mom loved her some Elvis,” Josh recalled with a smile.
“And she loved to dance,” Jessie added. “If there was a stage here, she’d be up there dancing on it. We had no idea how great we had it. Mom and dad fought, they loved, they were passionate, they didn’t hold anything back. It was loud in the house all the time. People would say, ‘My God, it’s like an earthquake in here, it’s so loud!’”
Lela, formerly a marriage counselor, met Dick Brugger. an American citizen when he was a Franciscan Friar in Canada. He left the order to marry her. And when they came to Auburn in 1976, where he would take the reins of a then-fledgling organization called Auburn Youth Resources, she was by his side, supporting him absolutely through all of his years there.
With the Bruggers, support was never a one-way street. They were always there for each other.
Proving that you may take the girl out of Canada, but you’ll never take Canada out of the girl, Lela Brugger also “loved her some hockey,” and was a lifelong fan of the Montreal Canadians.
“We’re dual citizens. Mom still had her Canadian citizenship. She became an American in 2010, but she was so proud being a Canadian,” Josh said.
“She was very aware of what was going on politically. She was even friends with (former Canadian Prime Minister) Pierre Elliot Trudeau,” said Jessie. “She was always asking, ‘What can I do to make a change in this world?’ She was big on making a change, and being a part of that change.”
One of Jessie’s fondest memories was of her mother’s playful side, which often manifested with her jumping out of a closet or from behind a door to scare her daughter.
“She was always so supportive. If one of us was receiving an award or honor, she was always there for us, and for anyone else,” Josh said.
It was with her mother’s encouragement that Jessie, today a professor at Green River College who teaches animation, pursued art as her vocation and avocation.
“She was a huge force of nature, and she was about kindness,” Jessie added.
“She created energy, and the community is going to lose that,” said Josh, tears welling in his eyes. “She had a big part in bringing passion to people, and encouraging people to find the artist within themselves.”
The Brugger family is hosting a celebration of Lela’s life from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, in the Event Center at Auburn’s Les Gove Park. All are invited.