Hard hat, neon orange safety vest and a camera around his neck.
That was the uniform of “Volunteer Vern” and is the image Terry Lee, executive director of the Peninsula Metropolitan Park District, says he’ll conjure when he thinks of Vernon Young.
Young, who died Tuesday at age 78, was instrumental in the acquisition and conservation of Gig Harbor area parks, including 98-acre Sehmel Homestead Park and Wollochet Bay Estuary Park.
Picking up litter, building and maintaining trails, and spending his time outdoors, Young seemed to have endless energy. But what he thought was a back problem at the end of November led to a cancer diagnosis a month later.
On Jan. 1, he told his wife, Betty, “I have to last four more days.” That’s because Jan. 4 marked the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. Young perked up that day but died three days later.
He was born in Tacoma but moved to the Gig Harbor area in the 1940s when he was 7. He grew up fishing, camping, hunting and exploring the outdoors. He graduated from Peninsula High School and Clover Park Technical College. He worked as an airline mechanic, retiring in 1994.
With newfound free time, Young filled his days with outdoor-related activities.
“I just think it was in his blood,” Betty Young said.
The couple moved from a 20-acre small farm near Battle Ground back to Gig Harbor in the 1980s. Not long after that, Young became active in efforts to preserve the land he explored as a child.
His passion to preserve open space knew no bounds. He once used his home as collateral against a loan to buy land to prevent it from being developed. PenMet Parks then bought the land from Young, saving him from having to put a reverse mortgage on the home.
He was a founder of the Peninsula Heritage Land Trust, sitting on its board of directors. He was integral in creating the Great Peninsula Conservancy, which was formed by the merger of the heritage land trust with other similar agencies. The nonprofit land trust works to preserve open space and natural habitat in Kitsap, Pierce and Mason counties.
As a member of the conservancy, Young led the effort to raise money to help buy the Sehmel property, securing its position as public open space in perpetuity.
“He has a passion for conservation and stewardship of the land,” said Kate Kuhlman, the conservancy’s operations director. “His real interest was getting people out on the land and enjoying it.”
Young established Envirocorps, a nonprofit organization connecting volunteers with projects focused on maintaining public lands. Work includes trail building and maintenance, and picking up litter. He started the organization so he could volunteer on his own terms.
Lee learned of Young’s litter cleanup efforts with Envirocorps when he sat on the Pierce County Council. Their friendship solidified once Lee became executive director of the park district.
“He was always calling me reminding me that the fields needed mowing,” Lee said. “He wouldn’t let any grass grow under our feet. He held us accountable, and it was for all the right reasons.
“As the director of the park district I felt I was finally doing my job right because Vernon started leaving me alone.”
Lee never found Young’s persistence a nuisance because his passion was always backed with action.
“You talk about someone with a servant’s heart or a dedication to serve, and that is Vernon,” Lee said.
Fox Island resident Bob Ingram became fast friends with Young after meeting him five years ago. They also became business partners. Young used Ingram’s electronic greeting card company to raise money for his volunteer efforts.
“I saw him countless times on the side of the road picking up litter while driving from my home,” Ingram said. “I have tremendous appreciation for this man who is one of the most selfless, honest, hard working people that I’ve ever met.”
Son Mark Young and daughter Shari Allard have memories of their father seated in the living room, laptop open. He was always working, focused and seeking knowledge, Allard said.
He used the computer and social media, but his children won’t go so far as to say he was tech savvy.
“He was always trying to figure out how it worked and getting it to work,” Mark Young said. “He would try to intimidate the computer: ‘The computer needs to do what I want it to do.’”
Young’s skills were better suited outdoors, especially when he was on the water with a fishing pole in hand.
He was recognized with a national conservation award from the International Federation of Fly Fishers in 2002. He was named the Federator of the Year in 1997 by the Washington State Council Federation Fly Fishers.
As they remember him, Young’s children and wife say he was a man who valued honesty and integrity and who never passed up a chance to get outside.
“We used to say, ‘It’s not a family picture unless there’s a fish in it,’” Allard said.