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Monday, August 8, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shirley R. Speidel, 77, Known As Free Spirit Who Enjoyed Life

Shirley Ross Speidel - who once played a tap-dancing nun in a community play, compared night ferries to lighted birthday cakes, and served as her historian-husband Bill's toughest editor - came as close as anyone to being a free spirit.

Life to her was one enormous adventure, said family members.

Even in her invalid years, ending with her death July 28 at age 77 from spinocerebellar degeneration, she would dress, get made up, and in her wheelchair tool around the Vashon Island dream house her father-in-law had given them as newlyweds.

"She taught me everything I can think of, about dignity and courage in the face of illness," said her daughter Sunny Speidel of Seattle.

Mrs. Speidel, active in the Republican Party, the Arboretum Foundation and other garden clubs, lived in a perpetual state of wonder that affected those around her.

"She was dark-haired and dramatic, elegant even when casually attired," said her nephew Dan Trefethen, Seattle. "She was one of the most vivacious women I've known."

Born in Minneapolis, Mrs. Speidel moved with her mother and sisters to California, then to Washington state. Her childhood experiences and her disposition engendered in her a love of travel that she shared with her husband, who died in 1988.

Mrs. Speidel would read the books for the trip around the United States or to Europe, and he would charm the locals: One family invited them for tea in a restored castle.

As Speidel's mentor, his wife not only was an exacting editor and a good sounding board, she got him to stop drinking.

And she gave him the push into historic preservation, said Sunny Speidel, who now runs the Seattle Underground Tours her parents founded.

"Dad could do anything mom made up her mind he could do. She also would sit next to him and mouth his bad jokes - he told very bad jokes."

Mrs. Speidel loved gardens, especially roof gardens, and often lectured about them. She thought they not only were beautiful for residents of other buildings - and Monorail riders - to look down at, but helped clean the air.

"She made life interesting and special for all of us," said her daughter.

One of Mrs. Speidel's early amusements, when she and her husband led the Underground Tours, was to round up discarded wine bottles from around Pioneer Square, and place them here and there on the tour, for people to "discover" and take home as souvenirs of 19th century Seattle.

Mrs. Speidel also served as a docent at the Museum of History and Industry, was an early guide at the Arboretum's Japanese Tea Garden, was active in the Vashon Island community, and appeared in plays at the Drama Dock there.

"She looked for something special in every day," said her nephew, "and she would find it because she was looking for it."

Other survivors include her niece, Pat de Luca, of Carmel, Calif.; cousin Virginia Yerxa, Colusa, Calif., and another niece, Shirley Mitchell Johnson and her children.

A memorial service has been held.

Remembrances may be sent to the American Cancer Society or the Bailey Boushay House.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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