‘You Don’t Replace a Gary’: Community Mourns Loss of Commissioner Stamper, Beloved Community Leader, Educator and Coach

East County Representative on Board of County Commissioners Dies From COVID-19 at Age 67


Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper, the consensus-building, soft-spoken and beloved leader who cherished his community at every turn and held a longtime career as an educator, died Wednesday due to health complications related to COVID-19. 

He was 67. 

He died at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, after a five-week battle with COVID-19. He was surrounded by his daughters. Stamper had been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

There was renewed hope last week as doctors looked to remove Stamper’s ventilator for a tracheostomy, and his lungs showed signs of recovering, but the situation did not improve. 

“I can not thank him enough for being the best friend, a fun travel partner, and a person who made me a better person just by the way he lived his life,” his longtime partner Bobbi Barnes wrote Wednesday evening on Facebook. “He may have lost his battle with COVID, but he won the lottery with friends, family and constituents who loved and supported him.” 

Stamper’s death leaves a huge hole in the communities of Lewis County and Mossyrock. He represented Lewis County District 3, which encompasses most of the county east of Interstate 5 outside of the Twin Cities. 

At 59 years old, Stamper retired as principal at White Pass Junior/High School in 2014 to run for the position on the Board of County Commissioners left vacant by Lee Grose. His goal at the time was to bring about economic prosperity and promote job growth in East Lewis County communities affected by a struggling timber industry. 

Stamper had a lofty, bright vision for his community. A Mossyrock High School graduate, according to previous reports in The Chronicle, Stamper went on to be a teacher at his alma mater and serve as a youth sports coach. 

"Gary was a leader for the east end. He truly loved Lewis County," said Morton Superintendent John Hannah. "It was just typical Gary. I've never seen the man unhappy. Always a smile, always positive, and he just loved this spot in Washington. He will be missed.”

Morton and White Pass elementaries would often share assemblies back when Hannah also served as a principal. He said he remembers one time Stamper dunked Hannah’s head into a pie during a pie-eating contest, a sign of his fun-loving attitude. 

On Friday morning, hundreds of community members gathered on the steps of the historical Lewis County Courthouse to memorialize Stamper. As people lingered a block of Northwest North Street, Jackson Browne’s “The Barricades of Heaven” played over a speaker. Silver platters filled with Tootsie Rolls sat on tables. 

Mossyrock Community Church Pastor Wayne Nelson, who grew up with and attended school with “Bones,” Stamper’s nickname, described his friend as a man of many titles: “Bones,” logger Stamper, mill worker Stamper, college student Stamper, teacher Stamper, coach Stamper, Principal Stamper and “the commish.” 

“What was Bones’ gift? He was not the most educated man in the world, I can vouch for that. And he was not noted as the smartest man in the room, unless he was alone and then it was debatable. But what he had was the ability to read everybody in the room, and he could relate to every person in the room. Bones understood people. Bones was always Bones -- there’s no pretense, there’s no phoniness about him. What you saw was him all the time,” Nelson said, adding later: “The commish was comfortable in his own skin. He never tried to be someone else.” 

Sheena Stamper Woods, his oldest daughter, told the packed block that her father was “annoyingly great” and attentive. He was a great father, she said, who knew when his daughters were throwing parties at home. 

“As I grew older, I learned to appreciate that involvement he had in our lives and not a day goes bye we won’t miss him,” she said. 

Between 1996 and 2008, Stamper served as a fire commissioner on Lewis County Fire District 3’s authority board. Before he took up reins as a county commissioner, he served as principal at White Pass Junior/Senior High for four years. 

“Gary Stamper had such a big heart for people, and also a heart for service. He was exceptionally devoted to his community, as a career educator and more recently as a very able county commissioner. This is a tough loss,” state Sen. John Braun said in a statement. 

Remaining Commissioners Lindsey Pollock and Sean Swope called for an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss the road forward and timeline for filling Stamper’s seat. The Lewis County Republican Party will nominate three candidates and Swope and Pollock will choose one of them to complete Stamper’s term. 

While serving on the Board of County Commissioners, Stamper prided himself on “standing up for the little guy.” According to county staff, he took notable pride in advancing outdoor recreation activities across the county, including construction of a park in Packwood, and advocated for the timber county to receive federal dollars through multiple avenues. 

Stamper was also a self-admitted softie when it came to animals and he enjoyed helping others. His kindness went far, whether it was delivering firewood to a struggling family or purchasing shoes for a student in need. 

He was also a mentor to students through extracurriculars. Back in 2007, Stamper coached the Mossyrock girls basketball team to a 2B state championship title. He had been coaching the team for 13 years up until that point and had helped to raise the bar on what athletes could achieve during his tenure. 

After stepping down later that year, he told The Chronicle the thing he was going to miss most about leaving the team was practices. 

“Games are only 32 minutes long, but at practice it’s not just Xs and Os, it’s about dealing with people. Practice is reality, not just about basketball,” he told the paper then. 

Many who knew Stamper say his willingness to engage and cooperate transferred over from his coaching days into just about everything else he did. He was always willing to work with those who disagreed with him, work through difficult situations and reach across the aisle — all with a smile. 

“I think I could speak for all (county staff) when I say that he was a friend to all of us, he was a fantastic boss and we all honestly thought of him as our work dad,” said County Manager Erik Martin during a remembrance ceremony hosted Thursday morning at Twin Transit's Mellen Street e-Transit Station. 

“He was that guy that always made you feel better when things didn’t look like they were going right, he was a very calming presence in the office. There was never a problem that he knew we couldn’t overcome and he was always unbelievably supportive of the staff,” Martin continued. 

Flanked by buses festooned with colorful flowers and LED boards reading “REST IN PEACE GARY STAMPER,” community leaders at the remembrance ceremony gathered to hug and remember Stamper for who he was. 

“I’ve only known Gary for about eight years. During that time, we were very good friends. What I can tell you is his love and compassion for this community knows no bounds, and I’m going to miss him as a friend,” an emotional Sheriff Rob Snaza said.

Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said she spent the day with Barnes at their home in Mossyrock the day that Stamper died. They knew that day he would be taken off the ventilator, so the day was filled with stories of the couple’s travels and warm memories.  

“We knew that this was a very realistic outcome; however it was a complicated process because there were definitely signs as his conditions would improve,” Pollock said, describing the last month of Stamper’s fight. 

Pollock said what stood out from Barnes’ stories was the “steady, even presence” that Stamper commanded in every situation. 

“Gary absolutely loved Lewis County and was absolutely dedicated to the citizens and doing the best he could for everybody. And he would listen to everybody’s story,” Pollock said.

Swope said Stamper “more than anything was a good friend.” 

“He’s the type of person you’d want to be your neighbor,” Swope said. “If Gary wanted one thing to happen in our community, it was just that we would get back to being neighbors.” 

Swope said it’s going to be a hard path forward without the senior commissioner, who he looked up to as a fighter. Throughout Stamper’s fight, Swope always expected he’d make a return, especially with last week’s improvement. 

“You don’t replace a Gary,” Swope said, “and that’s what’s going to be the most terrible part.” 

Cards for the Stamper family can be sent to the Board of County Commissioners office at 351 NW North Street, Chehalis, Washington, 98532. The county is requesting all cards be labeled “To the family of Commissioner Stamper.” 

Plans for a service will be announced at a later date. 

In addition to his partner Bobbi Barnes, Stamper is survived by his daughters and their families: Sheena and Emmett Woods (and their children, Rory and Reese) and Michele and Jesse Gore (and daughters Hadley and Emma); his stepson and his family, Tyler and Jessica Walster (and daughters Olivia and Kambree); and his stepdaughter and her family, Kelly Walster and Charlie Chancellor (and daughter Cree).