“I got to Lopez because my husband picked up the wrong newspaper,” says Kate Hanna. In 1997 Kate was at a crossroads. Her former-boyfriend-now-friend Steve Steidl, a plumber, had moved to Washington where he had family, looking for work, all the way from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Kate had grown up. Since high school graduation Kate had worked for Jamesway department stores, rising from cashier to assistant manager. Although she used vacation days to work as a “carnie” at the Bloomsburg County Fair and others, Jamesway was her “whole world;” the company was grooming her for the important buyer position. When the business abruptly collapsed, Kate decided she might as well join Steve in Bellingham. She was 33 and, except for Steve, she knew no one.
They had been in Bellingham about a year when Steve went out for his newspaper. “He usually picked up the Bellingham Herald, but they had switched the bins, so he picked up the Skagit paper instead,” Kate relates, “and there was an ad for a plumber on Lopez Island.”
Steve applied for the job, and Steve Robertson picked them up from the ferry. “We knew, from the first moment we stepped foot on the island,” Kate says. “It all clicked.” Driving back to the dock, she remembers, “This eagle flew up from the side of the road, right over the car—his wings just blacked out the whole windshield. …So we just knew we had to be here.” One Steve took the job the other Steve offered.
While packing for the move from Bellingham, Kate found a postcard Steve had sent back to Pennsylvania in 1993. Flipping it over, she read, “Lopez Island, Shark Reef.” “I had never noticed the caption,” says Kate, “but now it seemed like I was supposed to live here.”
Taking some time off, Kate “drove every island road, took it all in,” and did some painting and sketching. She worked at the Islander for a year (with a fellow Scrantonite, another coincidence), then became secretary of Steve Robertson’s construction company. In 1999, she and Steve Steidl got married on Sept. 18. Later, looking at that fateful 1993 Shark Reef postcard, Kate noticed its postmark was Sept. 18, too.
The couple opened a plumbing company and ran it for about 10 years. Meanwhile, in 2004, Kate took a job with Island Marine Center, where she is now starting her 16th year.
If you have visited the Napa desk at Islands Marine Center, you know that Kate has a certain gift. “I remember numbers and number sequences,” she says. “I probably have 16,000 part numbers in my head that I can rattle off.” She can even tell you which numbers are which brands—Ford versus Chevy. “My counter-worker calls me a savant,” she laughs. “Not quite Rain Man, but…”
Where did this talent come from? Back in Scranton, Kate’s uncle, a mechanic, lived next door, and she often watched him taking things apart. “I like to understand how things work,” Kate says. “I also loved going to junkyards; I thought they were cool.” Her uncle’s encouragement clearly stuck, and Kate found another mentor on Lopez. Kevin Stanley, then of Lopez Mechanical, would position them both on their backs under a car to point out which parts connected to which. “He’d say, ‘When you call me on the phone, I want you to visualize it just like this,’” Kate says. “He taught me to enhance the gift I already had.”
Kate and Steve split up in 2016 and Steve moved away, but Kate hopes to stay on Lopez always, as long as she can keep affordable housing. She does miss the fall colors of the east, and still goes back occasionally, despite the dissipation of family ties. Even though she first arrived in the Northwest during February, Kate says, “I saw those mountains, and the water, and the thousand shades of green, and I knew. I had to live in this state. I just felt at peace here.” She loves to go camping, and, along with her visual arts, she also plays the spoons.
Kate not only likes her job, she appreciates the importance of working for Lopez’s oldest business. About IMC founder Ron Meng, Kate says: “He knew boats. Every single boat, he had an intimate story to go with it. That was pretty special.”
Of her own work, Kate says, “I like that when I sell an auto part, a little piece of me is in every vehicle that drives by.” She enjoys meeting boaters from all around the country, and she gets a kick out of knowing locals by their cars.
When asked to summarize how she feels about her Lopez life, Kate turns to a familiar metaphor. “It’s like a cog … the wheels turn, the parts fit and that’s where you are supposed to be.”