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Monday, January 6, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Marilyn Kirkby -- 1930 - 1992 -- The `Quiet Woman Of Fashion' Found Satisfaction In Her Last Campaign

After a 10-month battle with cancer, Marilyn Kirkby succumbed Saturday night in a hospice room filled with flowers from her many friends.

Times fashion editor since 1961, Mrs. Kirkby won numerous writing awards while covering trends from the streets of Seattle to the boulevards of Paris.

"I would say she was the first lady of fashion in Seattle, mostly because of her great understanding of it and ability to verbalize it," said Joanne Meyers, owner and founder of the Seattle Models Guild.

While Mrs. Kirkby, 61, wrote literally thousands of fashion articles, in her final months she drew the most satisfaction from a highly personal September story. It chronicled how her 35-year addiction to cigarettes resulted in cancer of the esophagus.

With characteristic lack of self-pity she wrote: "I'm not blaming anyone else for my predicament. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I tell myself there were 20 years of warnings before I finally quit."

A self-described private person despite her public persona, Mrs. Kirkby revealed her personal battle in the hope others would learn from her experience. "I feel absolutely awful when I see the number of teenagers, particularly girls, who are blithely lighting up," she said in the article.

Mrs. Kirkby's ability to find hope and purpose in a negative situation was familiar to those who watched her live her final months.

Despite numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, she

continued to come to work, riding the bus from Kenmore, long after her doctor thought possible. "I feel better when I'm at work," she said simply.

A word that aptly summed her up is gracious.

"She had a wonderful ability to make everybody around her feel at ease," said Meyers, a longtime friend. "It struck me when I visited her in the hospital; you'd ask her a question about her condition and she'd give you a quick answer then have you talking about your life. And she was interested and sincere.

"That's somebody who's not self-centered, not self-involved," Meyers says.

Because Mrs. Kirkby was, in the words of a former Times editor, "a sweet, gentle woman," people were often surprised to find she possessed a great deal of underlying strength and commitment.

"I would describe Marilyn as the quiet woman of fashion," said Gene Juarez, owner of hair salons bearing his name. "I remember my first interview with her. I went away wondering how much she understood. Then I read the story and realized she understood more than I did. After that, I always admired her. She had high integrity."

Born Marilyn McKinley on Jan. 23, 1930 and raised in Mount Vernon, she majored in home economics at the University of Washington. There she met the man who forever would be the most important person in her life: Rollie Kirkby, star halfback of the 1948-'50 Husky football team. They were wed Jan. 17, 1953. They had no children.

Marilyn Kirkby's Seattle Times career began right out of college; recently she earned her 35-year pin from the only employer she ever had as an adult.

"Marilyn Kirkby loved her work, and those of us who worked with her loved her," said Michael Fancher, Times executive editor.

"In her 35 years at The Times Marilyn saw the newspaper through sweeping changes. What didn't change over the years was her philosophy for serving readers. . . just tell it straight. She could be as tough as any reporter, but her positive outlook on life made her the complete journalist. Her work always had a special gift of sensitivity and caring."

Mrs. Kirkby evolved into her fashion career. Hired as a home economist, she worked her way into writing and headed the Dorothy Neighbors department before it was phased out in 1980.

Former Times advertising executive Rus Young made her department head: "Everyone liked her because of her sweet personality. She could change things without making people mad."

About 1961, Young decided Mrs. Kirkby should do what no other Times fashion editor had ever done: best her Post-Intelligencer competition by being the first local reporter to cover European fashion in London, Paris and Milan. Mrs. Kirkby, who'd cut her teeth covering the New York collections, immediately was up to the challenge.

"Some people thought it was a fun trip," Young said, "but it was a damned hard job. A lot of people in that business are tough, and she got along with all of them. . . she knew them all."

Indeed, Susan Phinney, the P-I's current fashion editor said, "I was constantly amazed at the breadth of her knowledge of the fashion industry. She was in the business longer than most fashion writers in the country, and was respected by literally everyone."

Like most people who met her, Phinney was charmed by Mrs. Kirkby's gentle kindness. "I didn't think of her as a cutthroat competitor. . . more of a sister in the same crime scene.

"The last time we were in New York covering fashion, I saw her outside in her Birkenstocks at 10:30 at night. She was getting a corndog or something because she'd been writing all night after covering the shows all day, and she was hungry." Phinney says she had to laugh. This is the glamour of fashion reporting?

As for fashion philosophy, Mrs. Kirkby's was characteristically unsnobbish. She thought women should look good so they'd feel good about themselves. But she never thought they should take it very seriously. "I don't think fashion should be your main interest in life, but it's a fun thing."

Said Jim King, former Times executive editor: "Marilyn's coverage of fashion, whether in Paris, New York or on Fifth and Pine, was always the same - fair, thorough, clear and without glitz.

"Her reporting priorities helped women choose apparel to wear on the street or to a social event - not what would be fitting to a costume party."

"She had an innate sense of the appropriate in everything she did and wrote about," added Verna Thompson, retired director of public relations for Frederick & Nelson. "Marilyn was an excellent reporter, accurate, always professional and consistently fair."

Mrs. Kirkby's first intimate encounter with cancer came 14 years ago when her husband battled lymphoma. Rollie Kirkby succumbed in 1978 at the age of 48. His wife suspected his heavy cigarette habit was a factor, yet continued to smoke until 1984. "There was no previous cancer in my entire family, so I thought it wasn't going to happen to me."

When a malignancy was found in her esophagus last March - a malignancy she believed began while she smoked - "at first I felt they were talking about someone else."

Always an optimist, she immediately fought back with treatment, despite knowing her form of cancer was especially difficult to cure.

She also set herself a series of goals. Her house would be painted. Her flower beds would be filled to overflowing. She'd weather treatment fashionably.

In preparation for losing her hair after the onslaught of chemotherapy, she bought herself a stylish cap. But her hair stubbornly refused to budge, and after modeling her cap once, she never wore it again.

The one goal Mrs. Kirkby never had was retirement, and even after it was clear treatment had not been successful, she never wavered in her determination to work. "I feel like The Times is my family," she said.

Keeping going as long as possible became a major goal, although at times that was hard.

"Having cancer has changed my life radically," she said in mid-November. "I'm not able to put in as much work as I'd like to, and I dearly love my work. I don't have the strength to go out socially as much. I love food, and I can't eat solid food.

"I never realized how much I enjoyed going out for a meal until I could no longer do it."

Indeed, after her March diagnosis, she was never able to eat solid food again.

New goals emerged. She wanted a good home for her dogs, Maxie, a small black mongrel, and Mako, a 140-pound Great Pyrenees-poodle mix. From among her readers came dog lover Ester Loewy. They soon became fast friends.

A week before Mrs. Kirkby was hospitalized for what would be the last time, she fulfilled a major goal. The American Lung Association asked her to participate in an anti-smoking video for teenagers. She enthusiastically agreed.

On that tape, she talked about her life:

"I used to enjoy camping and boating in the San Juans. I loved to plant bulbs and imagine how they'd look. Now cancer has taken over my life instead of cigarettes."

She talked about self-pity:

"When I feel sorry for myself, I tell myself, `Marilyn, you brought it on yourself.' I had so many years of warning before I quit smoking, so basically I feel it's my own fault."

And she talked of the thrill of receiving scores of letters from readers touched by her plight. Some told of renewed efforts to stop smoking.

"The greatest feeling I had was that I could help someone."

Mrs. Kirkby is survived by numerous relatives, including cousins Mary Maxwell of Burien, Cliff Arney of Renton; mother-in-law Ellen Kirkby of Burlington; sister-in-law Susan McKinley of Bremerton; nephews Patrick and Michael McKinley, both of Bremerton, Mark Kirkby of Kent,nieces Maureen Smith of East Bremerton, Cindy Schesser of Mount Vernon and Marlys Schesser of Bow.

In lieu of flowers, she asked that contributions be made to the Rollie Kirkby Scholarship Fund at Burlington-Edison High School, Burlington.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Acacia Funeral Home. A reception at the Lake City Elks Club will follow. Interment will be at Acacia Memorial Park.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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