On first meeting Bucoda Town Councilman Steve Purcell, he might be wearing a top hat and a tuxedo with tails. When thus attired, he calls himself Digger and passes out cards that read, “’Digger’ Purcell the Friendly Undertaker, the last person…to let you down.” It is clear Purcell is not your average town councilman.
An Oregon native, Steve Purcell enlisted in the United States Army in 1971, retired in 1991 and worked civilian jobs until a couple years ago. He went to basic at Fort Lewis and throughout his career served in Germany and South Korea. He was an instructor at the Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Fort Carson, and a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson.
“The best job I ever had,” reflects Purcell, “was when I was as a first sergeant with an infantry company out here at Fort Lewis. That was my dream job. Being a drill sergeant was interesting, but it can warp your mind a little bit. Takes you a while to get back into the normal swing of things.”
The second time Purcell was stationed in Germany was 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.
“The entire country shut down for three days,” laughs Purcell. “There was just a massive party. Then all the little East German cars that couldn’t do more than 45 miles per hour were out on the Autobahn getting passed by big Mercedes that were doing 120 miles per hour. About that time, I put in to retire and got my orders, but then they came to me and said they needed me in Desert Storm. After I finished that I retired.”
In 2000, the Purcell family moved from Rainier to Bucoda. In 2001, a vacant position on the Town Council was announced. Purcell threw his name in the hat. He was selected to fill out the remainder of the vacancy. When he ran for his first election, he was unopposed.
“It’s been that way ever since,” says Purcell. “No one else files. I will stay on the council until someone comes along and defeats me or until there is nothing more that I can do. It’s a rewarding job. But the biggest disappointment, and you’ll probably see this in a lot of small towns, is the lack of engagement from the people. We have been known to have meetings where the only people there are the Mayor, five Council members and the Clerk Treasurer. It’s a challenge to make decisions that affect the entire community without public input.”
During Purcell’s tenure on the council, a number of changes have happened in Bucoda.
“The town’s acquisition of the old Odd Fellow’s lodge and the renovation of that building into the Bucoda Community Center is probably the thing I am most proud of,” says Purcell. “It’s not my accomplishment, but it was something I was a part of. The building is beautiful and it gets used far more than the gym ever did.”
The Bucoda gym was once a community building available for day rentals, but is now used for the annual Haunted House. Next year will be the first year that the Town of Bucoda will take over the management of the haunted house instead of contracting it out. As a haunted house, the gym pays for itself and then some, which is a win-win for a building with high maintenance costs.
The Bucoda Community Center is used for weddings, parties, receptions, bazaars, Odd Fellow and Rebekah meetings, community dinners and church services. Bucoda City Hall also has its offices there.
“The Bucoda Community Center is a far better venue than the gym ever was,” says Purcell.
Purcell still has dreams for Bucoda like a permanent structure at the Town Square for festivals. He also thinks Bucoda eventually needs a sewer system in order to have more brick and mortar business.
The third year of the Haunted House, the city council became more involved. Each council person came up with a costume and a persona. Steve was inspired by the classic radio show the Life of Riley. There was a character called Digby “Digger” O’Dell, the friendly undertaker.
“I started with a borrowed 100-year-old undertakers tuxedo before the tux I have now,” says Purcell. “The story I like to tell is that when the city purchased the hearse for advertising purposes, since I was the only person in town with a tuxedo, I got to drive it. That’s the way Digger came about; it’s an homage to old time radio.”
Last year Purcell and the hearse crew were in six parades plus other events spreading the news about the Boo-coda Spooktacular.
“People don’t want to get too close to the hearse,” laughs Purcell, “but they are fascinated by it. For me, it’s the only Cadillac I’ll ever get to drive and it’s got an amazing air conditioner.”
Purcell also serves in the community as the current Noble Grand of the Skookumchuck Lodge 129 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The Odd Fellows have been in the United States since 1819. The stated purpose is to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.
“In the 1800s, that was pretty straightforward,” says Purcell. “If someone is sick, you go visit. If someone needs a hand, you help them out. If somebody dies and they have no family, then you bury them. You have an orphan, then you see that they are taken care of. In the 21st century, it’s not so cut and dry. We still visit the sick, we still relieve the distressed. When the Tenino Food bank needed a new freezer, the Odd Fellows donated a significant portion to purchase.”
“My joke about being on the city council,” laughs Purcell, “is that I went in for a short term and it ended up as a life sentence. But seriously, it’s enjoyable and rewarding. It’s almost a natural extension of my military career. In the Army, I served the entire nation. Here I serve Bucoda and by extension the county and the state. I’m involved in something that is bigger than myself. I’ll keep doing it until the job is finished. That’s how I approached the Army, I wasn’t going to leave until the job was finished.”