Naomi Ruth Reimer used poetry
to explore family’s Mennonite odyssey

This is a guest post by Dean Kahn

Naomi Ruth Reimer was born in 1924 on a farm in west-central Oklahoma, the granddaughter of Mennonites from Ukraine who settled in the Panhandle State three decades earlier.

Naomi’s German-speaking family soon moved to the nearby small town of Corn, a Mennonite community, where her love of reading, and of writing poetry, helped her graduate as valedictorian of her high school class. The second oldest of eight children — five girls and three boys — Naomi would sit in the hall of their small home and read poetry to her younger siblings.

“She loved to entertain us by reading,” said Gordon Reimer, a younger brother who became an electrical engineer for Boeing Co. in Seattle and retired to Birch Bay. “I could read pretty well because Naomi taught me.”

In 1943, while Naomi attended college in the Midwest, her parents and siblings moved to the Custer area near Ferndale, where her father, Cornelius Reimer, operated a dairy farm. Later, the family moved to the Smith Road area north of Bellingham, where her father raised chickens.

The family’s move from the Midwest to the Northwest wasn’t an isolated decision. Dozens of Mennonites moved to the Whitehorn area, south of Birch Bay, to seek a better life in the 1930s and 1940s, and Cornelius had relatives in lower British Columbia.

When the family moved to Custer, Naomi enrolled at Washington State University to be closer to family. While in Seattle for a summer job, she met and married Bob Duke. Once their two sons reached school age, Naomi returned to school herself, earning a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Washington and a master’s degree in literature at Seattle Pacific University.

One of her sons, Brian Duke, a retired school principal, said his mother kept a journal by her bed in which she wrote personal reflections and poetry. Her favorite poets included Theodore Roethke and Robert Frost, whom she read to her young boys to calm them during storms.

Reimer, who later divorced, taught middle school English for about five years, in Renton and in the small community of High Prairie, Alberta. She also worked at the state capital in Olympia as a research editor for Bellingham lawmaker Barney Goetz, for Senate Democrats, and for the governor’s office. She retired to Birch Bay in 1996.

Through the years Naomi wrote a novel, but it was never published. She also wrote poetry, much of it about her Mennonite heritage. Naomi was raised in the Mennonite Brethren Church, and later attended other churches, including a Baptist church in Seattle, the United Churches of Olympia, and the United Church of Christ in Blaine.

Brian Duke said his mother’s interest in her Mennonite background developed late in her life, and she traveled to Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine to explore the lands of her ancestors.

She wrote poems about the lives, the persecution, and the migration of Mennonites in the Old World, and about her family in the New World. The title of her book, The Taken, refers to the millions of people, including Mennonites, killed or exiled during the despotic rule of Joseph Stalin.

Reimer, who had several poems published in Mennonite journals and magazines, self-published her book in 1997. A review in the Journal of Mennonite Studies said the weight of history in some of Reimer’s poems crowded out “the potential for evocative power her subject might possess.” The reviewer, Sarah Klassen, found more satisfying Reimer’s poems about her parents, about her own life, and about her grandfather, whose suicide haunted his children.

“Reimer’s poems are never self-indulgent,” Klassen concluded. “Even in her most personal poems she keeps herself in the background, modestly preferring to draw the reader’s attention elsewhere.”

Reimer died of cancer two years after her book appeared. She’s buried at Enterprise Cemetery, south of Custer.

“On Learning Solitude”

Run alone, a scarecrow girl in an older
sister’s handed down everyday dress.

At table, eat cabbage soup, fried noodles,
calling them kjielkje, but except for food
speak English — concealing the Plautdietsch.

Afternoons hide in an upstairs hall corner
next to a bookcase, read Little Women
four times, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King,
Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes
not understanding the words, only knowing
the thunder of the lines like the shudder
and roar circling the house all one lightning
infested night, illumination coming and going,
mysterious, random — the terrible voice of God.

. . . . .

Dean Kahn worked for The Bellingham Herald for 29 years, with stints as a reporter, editor, and columnist.

This profile is an abridged version of one that appeared in the December 2019 issue of The Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society. To purchase the issue, or other issues of the journal, go to, or visit Village Books.

. . . . .
Naomi Ruth Reimer photos used with permission

Elizabeth Watts Henley’s poetry
survived life filled with personal challenges

This is a guest post by Dean Kahn

Elizabeth Artis (Watts) Henley was born into a prominent Bellingham family in 1912. Her parents, Arthur and Maud Watts, encouraged their four children to pursue higher education, and all of them left their mark.

Sister Ruth was a research chemist. Brother Arthur, Jr., became a general practitioner in Bellingham. Sister Catharine, who went by “Kitty,” took over her father’s real estate and insurance business and became a community, regional, and national civic leader.

Elizabeth, who went by “Betty,” showed literary promise when she won a children’s poetry contest judged by Ella Higginson, Bellingham’s nationally known writer. Elizabeth went on to publish numerous poems in prominent magazines, but her writing and teaching were derailed for several years by the Red Scare after World War II and by time in a mental institution.

The precise reasons she spent more than two years in a mental health facility remain opaque. John Henley, her sole surviving child, says he hasn’t explored public records about his mother’s life, and says any pertinent papers his parents might have possessed have disappeared.

Elizabeth began writing poetry professionally during the early years of the Great Depression. She also was a poetry editor at The Puget Sounder, a weekly newspaper created by June and Farrar Burn, a well-known literary couple who lived for many years in the Northwest, including time in Bellingham.

Elizabeth earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the University of Washington, where she wrote a master’s thesis about 16th century English poet Edmund Spenser, and taught English from 1934 to 1940. While at UW, her friends included left-leaning activists and at least one acknowledged communist.

She also met and married Preston Henley, who attended UW to study business. She and Preston moved to New York City, where Elizabeth taught at Hunter College High School and had more poems published. After the war, the family moved to Boise, Idaho, and then to Portland, Ore.

Elizabeth taught at Portland State College and became friends with many fellow Oregon poets, notably William Stafford and Vi Gale. Her poems appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, and in McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies Home Journal, which were more literary then.

But John Henley says his parents’ marriage became tense, in part because his mother kept her liberal views while his father was “very conservative.” In addition, investigations of alleged communists in academia arose after World War II. A legislative committee investigated the University of Washington. Among those questioned was English professor Sophus Winther, who acknowledged being a communist in the mid-1930s. Elizabeth knew Winther, and mere close association with communists posed risks for one’s job, reputation, even custody of one’s children.

Henley recalls that his mother told him that a top administrator at Portland State College asked her to resign, to protect the college from possible bad publicity. She left the college, then, to avoid bringing ruin on her family, committed herself to a mental health facility.

Elizabeth and Preston divorced in 1956. He gained custody of the children, and later remarried. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s poet friends lobbied Oregon’s new governor, Mark Hatfield, to gain her release. Hatfield helped Elizabeth obtain a job in 1959 at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, teaching English composition to remedial students.

She disliked being paid less than male professors, and being sexually harassed by colleagues without recourse for help. On the positive side, she continued to write, she loved teaching, and her students loved her. She retired in 1975, and died Jan. 2, 1981, in Corvallis. She’s buried in Bayview Cemetery, in Bellingham.

No book of her poems was published during her lifetime, so, in 2000, her son John and a cousin, Ellen Watts Lodine, published To Hear Unspoken Things, a selection of her work. Here is one of her poems:

“Song of Wheels Turning”

Listen my child to the song I sing,
It is old, it is trite, it is true.
Never go back to the one green hill,
Let it come back to you.
Little and dark, a muffin of trees,
It fades where horizons drop.
You learn as you leave how partial a view
Of the earth you saw from the top.
Taller you travel for being there,
It is less if you return.
Let it come to you as a windy height
Captured from boulder and fern.
There would be tear, only tears, if you found
So much as a gnarled tree,
And cried, “It is here, It is just the same,
The change is in me, in me!”

. . . . .

Dean Kahn worked for The Bellingham Herald for 29 years, with stints as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He wrote more than 1,000 columns, of which about one-in-seven focused on local history.

This profile is an abridged version of one that appeared in the December 2019 issue of The Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society. To purchase the issue, or other issues of the journal, go to, or visit Village Books.

Elizabeth Watts Henley photo courtesy of John Henley

poets, historically

December 16, 2019

Four of the 11 articles in the 2019 Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society discuss poets with local ties.

Marielle Stockton, an English literature student at Western Washington University, wrote “To Lie There Forever, on the Silver Crest of the World.” The article details Washington Poet Laureate Ella Higginson’s memorial poems written in response to three deadly local tragedies — a shipwreck, a mining accident, and an avalanche.

Dean Kahn, a retired Bellingham Herald staff member, contributed profiles on the following three poets:

  • Charles Edward Butler, a librarian at Western who wrote a memorial poem about the same 1939 avalanche, which killed six people associated with the college.
  • Naomi Reimer, who published a collection of poems about her extended family’s Mennonite odyssey.
  • Elizabeth Watts Henley, the daughter of a prominent Bellingham family who became well known in Oregon poetry circles despite a lifetime of personal challenges.

Copies of the annual publication are available for $10 at Village Books and online at WCHS.

. . . . .
Thanks to Dean Kahn for the update!

love words

January 29, 2016

The Bellingham Herald will once again run love poems written by Whatcom County residents in honor of Valentine’s Day. Selected entries will run in the Sunday, February 14, Herald, and all accepted entries will run online at

Poems can be emailed to; mailed to “Valentine’s Day poems,” c/o Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald, second floor, 1155 N. State St., Bellingham, WA 98225; or hand-delivered to the Herald’s customer service office.

Please include your name, age and town of residence. Also include your phone number, in case questions arise (phone numbers won’t be published). The deadline to submit a poem is Monday, February 8, 2016.

profiling poets

May 28, 2015

Clover: A Literary Rag

In case you missed it, The Bellingham Herald has a lovely profile by Dean Kahn featuring writer/editor Mary Elizabeth Gillilan, who is the visionary behind Clover: A Literary Rag and the Independent Writers’ Studio. Volume 9 of the admirable Clover will be released during the Chuckanut Writers Conference, with in-store sales (at Village Books, among other places) and readings to follow (and subscriptions encouraged).

show some love

January 28, 2014

The Bellingham Herald

The Bellingham Herald invites Whatcom County residents to show some love for the paper’s annual love poem feature in honor of Valentine’s Day.

Selected entries will run in the Monday, February 10 Herald, and all accepted entries will run online at

Poems can be emailed to; mailed to ‘Valentine’s Day poems,’ c/o Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald, second floor, 1155 N. State St., Bellingham, WA 98225; or hand-delivered to the Herald customer service office.

Please include your name, age and town of residence. Also, include your phone number, in case questions arise. The deadline to submit a poem is Friday, January 31, 2014.

love words…

February 11, 2013

Bellingham Herald 11Feb2013
Love poetry by your friends and neighbors on page A6 of today’s Bellingham Herald! Special thanks to Dean Kahn.

Poetry feature article!

November 17, 2012

Whatcom Magazine

The winter issue of Whatcom Magazine, which comes out Saturday, November 24, will have Dean Kahn’s story about the local poetry scene. The package includes short profiles about, and a poem from, five poets: Susan J. Erickson, David M. Laws, Timothy Pilgrim, Carole MacRury and Jessica Lohafer. There’s also a guest piece by Kevin Murphy on what people should keep in mind when they read a poem aloud, and when they listen to a poem. Watch for it! There’s more about Whatcom Magazine here, other articles by Dean Kahn here, and you can also visit Whatcom Magazine on Facebook.
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