Guy Bergstrom and Vini Samuel met at a college debate tournament. Guy was attending college in Spokane and Vini was at Western Washington University. It’s one of those love at first sight tales except with lots of arguing at first — over policy issues, not relationship matters.
Guy ended up winning the debate tournament. But the joke was on him. It would be the last argument he’d ever win against Vini. He transferred to Western. They both graduated together and were married a week later.
“She’s my soul mate,” Bergstrom said. “I knew it instantly.”
Samuel smiles, holding his hand at their dinner table in Montesano.
Today, Samuel’s one of the best known attorneys on the Harbor. Bergstrom is a top communications specialist for the state House Democratic Caucus. They are avowed Democrats, with an eye on helping local Democrats maintain their foothold on the Harbor. Samuel is a former chair of the Grays Harbor Democrats.
“I’m Christian and I believe it’s not about me, it’s about us,” Samuel said. “My mother’s family are all missionaries and I see so many people working so hard. When you see suffering and pain and you have opportunities and resources and you don’t make sure people have a fair shot at your dreams, that’s not right. And that is the basic democratic principle.”
“I always believed everyone deserves a fair shot and that’s not going to happen if you don’t have public schools, public universities and roads and things like that,” Bergstrom said. “I really believe you need those things to give your kids a better life, to win a race to the top for the best jobs in the world. We can’t win a race to the bottom. There’s no way America could beat China or India for the lowest wages. So I disagree with the notion that we should tear down what our fathers and grandfathers built and try to win a race to the bottom. Our kids deserve better.”
“I believe in finding good people, putting them in place and hopefully they do good work,” she added.
Samuel was born in India. When she was 6, her family immigrated to the United States. Her father had been a teacher in India, but found himself doing remedial jobs to earn a living for his family, which included Samuel’s mother and sister, who came later.
“He did what he needed to do to survive here,” Bergstrom said.
“He was a stock boy, a prep cook, he didn’t have any choice but to succeed,” Samuel added.
English is actually her second language. Her native Malayalam is her first. Bergstrom points out that it’s the only language spelled the same backward and forward.
Samuel’s family settled in Juneau, Alaska, where her father’s skills thrived. He became Alaska’s director of Commerce. Her mother was in real estate investment for the state. Both are retired today.
Samuel figured she’d spend her entire life in Alaska. But when she went to check out colleges, she found her favorite university at Fairbanks was, frankly, too cold.
“You shouldn’t have to keep your car plugged in to keep it warm for fear of it freezing up just to get groceries,” Samuel said.
She set her sights on Western Washington University, “quite literally the closest, most-northern university in the United States that is not in Alaska.”
She double-majored in history and English. At one point at Western, she said she even worked on a massive study on Grays Harbor, combing through old newspaper files to study the people, culture and economics of the region — an odd coincidence that she’d eventually end up living here.
Aspired to be attorney
Samuel always had an eye toward law school.
“She would dress up her Barbies as lawyers and judges,” Bergstrom said with a grin. “She’d take her dad’s black socks, cut holes in them and make judge’s robes for Barbie — and Ken was always in the docket.”
“Ken was always in trouble,” Samuel laughs.
“In my extended family, it seemed like you got to have a choice between lawyer, doctor and engineer,” Samuel said. “I can’t explain it, but I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. My parents weren’t crazy, mandating I do this. I still love history and lawyers were pivotal in large points in our history and India’s history. They make a massive difference when they act in society. I wanted to make a difference.”
Samuel was part of the first full law school class at Seattle University. She and Bergstrom, who married in 1994, lived in Tacoma.
Bergstrom was editor in chief of The Western Front and graduated No. 1 in his journalism class. He was able to score a job at the weekly Pierce County Herald
“We’re in Tacoma at this ratty apartment and she’s going to law school everyday and I’m working at the Pierce County Herald, making peanuts,” Bergstrom said. “We’d literally eat Top Ramen. I think our food budget was $25 a week.”
“I will tell you one oriental Top Ramen, one dollar’s worth of baby shrimp and a green onion can make a feast, ” Samuel said with a grin. “I will tell you that I will never eat Top Ramen again in my life because we ate Top Ramen for three years. I never want to look at it or see it.”
Guy eyed writing
Bergstrom said he always wanted to have a career writing.
His mom was a Head Start teacher and father is a disabled Air Force veteran. Samuel said she figured she and Bergstrom would go back to Alaska after she earned her law degree. She had even interned in Alaska.
But when Bergstrom scored a job with the state House Democratic Caucus in Olympia, they decided to make their home in Grays Harbor.
“By then, I knew of Grays Harbor because of my studies,” Samuel said.
Together, they had a son named Thomas. Today he is 10 years old. And Samuel’s parents actually moved to the Harbor to be closer to him.
“In a way, this area reminded me of Juneau,” Samuel said. “Trees, fish, rain, guns. Oddly familiar. I love it. And one of benefits of Grays Harbor, people tend to be supportive of each other but there is a core of libertarianism — ‘Don’t ask any questions if you’re here. Anything you want to know about me, I’ll volunteer.’”
As Samuel worked for other law firms for about seven years, Bergstrom became one of the top speech writers and communication specialists for the Democrats.
Bergstrom would work on floor debates for lawmakers, whether they were discussing bills until 6 p.m. or 3 a.m.
Home at night
The job would often mean that Samuel and their young son wouldn’t see Bergstrom during the legislative session, typically going from January until April, although sometimes into June. But they always had a rule that no matter what time it was, Bergstrom had to come home.
“That’s our rule,” Samuel said.
“Even if the session goes until 5 a.m., I drive back home,” he said.
“Our family is really important to us and we both have very stressful careers and we have a child and if we don’t work constantly to keep that intact you can have problems,” Samuel said. “So him coming home is a big deal to all of us.”
“Sometimes when Thomas was young, he would say ‘my dad is lost’ because he didn’t see me for days on end,” Bergstrom added. “That’s because I would wake up before he got up and come home after he went to sleep.”
Samuel said sometimes she and Thomas would drive up to Olympia just to spend a little bit of quality time as a family.
“In those years I would get out of court and drive to Olympia with Thomas just to see Guy for a few minutes,” she said. “I’m not complaining. He has a great job and I’m not saying goodbye to a spouse who’s in the military for who knows how long. You do what you have to do.”
One of those early decisions was that Samuel would concentrate on family law and practice mainly on the Harbor.
“She could have gone to Tacoma or Seattle and worked for a huge firm and made a big six-figure salary to try and make partner in five years,” Bergstrom said. “She had a lot of classmates doing that. But that would have been 12 to 16-hour work days and no time for a family at all.”
“I wanted to make a good living but I wanted more to have a family intact to where I could make dinner every night,” she added.
In 2004, Samuel started her own law practice and four years later, built her own office a block from the county courthouse at 114 North River in Montesano.
Although running your own business has its own challenges, Bergstrom points out that Samuel has an amazing knack for organization that makes everything in their lives easier.
“She lives to organize things,” he said. “So if there’s a group at church or anything, she lives to organize it and she’s good at it.”
“If I see a mess, I need it cleaned up,” Samuel said. “I can’t help it. I figured this out about myself. Everyone has a certain talent. And my talent is I can see in chaos, the order that could be. It’s not like junk, if you give me junk I can organize that, too, but I’m talking about organizing a group or an event. And when I finish something I organized, I feel so happy about it.”
It was Samuel’s organizational skills and Bergstrom’s keen sense for political strategy that led to her being named an official delegate for Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
“It should have been impossible,” Samuel said. “There were hundreds of people vying for a spot with some people spending thousands of dollars to create slick promotional materials.”
“I told her ‘don’t do that,’” Bergstrom said. “Don’t try to compete with the craziness. Talk to people and listen. And she did and she got selected.”
“And everything he said was right,” Samuel said, noting the whole family traveled to the national convention. “The experience in Denver was amazing, inspirational.”
For about eight years, Samuel served on the Montesano City Council. She says she has no immediate desire to get on the council again, although she may eye a different public office in the future.
“I think everyone should run for city council and sit on city council,” she said. “I think it would make them better citizens if they participated in their city management. I needed to learn what it meant to run a city and I think I had my own perspective I brought to it.”
After council, Samuel and Bergstrom had more time for their family. Together with Thomas, they actually try to go abroad as much as possible.
Bergstrom said he grew up on Air Force bases New York, Germany, Holland and elsewhere, while Samuel lived in Juneau and spent a year of high school in Belgium.
Rather than move constantly, their compromise is the family vacations. So far, they’ve gone to France and Belgium, India and Dubai, Iceland and Sweden and this year, Belgium, Germany Luxembourg and Austria.
“I wouldn’t want Thomas to live in one place and never go anywhere,” Bergstrom said. “I want him to experience other places so he knows what we have here.”
“After I visit other places, I realize there is still so much to do here,” Samuel said. “There is so much poverty that still exists here. There are kids that are abused and kids that are so smart and have no future. I can’t even walk through the city of Montesano without having things I wish I could do. I desperately believe that we are agents of change and I’m not wasting a minute. Nobody should.”
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.