Longtime public servant, Harbor native John Erak dies

Longtime educator, legislator and Aberdeen City Councilman John Erak died Friday afternoon, Mayor Bill Simpson reported. Erak was 81.

“A true gentleman,” Simpson said of Erak, whom he’d known more than two decades. “We’d get in our arguments with each other and we were still friends. I learned a lot from him and I’m sure a lot of people in this community learned a lot from him. It’s tough.”

Aside from his college years, Erak lived all his life in Aberdeen, much of it in public service roles. A graduate of Weatherwax High School, Erak attended Grays Harbor College and later Central Washington University to earn his bachelor’s degree in education. He later earned his master’s degree and principal’s certification, studying at the University of Puget Sound, Portland State College and the University of Oregon.

His career in education spanned more than 30 years, including 18 as a teacher at Cosmopolis School, 12 as principal of Wishkah High School and four as Grays Harbor County schools superintendent.

State Oral Historian and former Daily World editor and publisher John Hughes explained counties once had elected superintendents, and when Erak held the post in the late 1960s and early ’70s, it was at the end of an era.

“He very well could have been the last of the Mohicans of one of those guys,” Hughes said.

“He was a guy of real strong opinions and determination, but he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just a real classic Grays Harbor guy. For all of his perceived rough edges, a very sophisticated guy. Taught school, well-read, served in the Legislature, knew politics inside and out, a very, very popular vote-getter year in and year out,” he added.

Erak first served on the Aberdeen City Council in the 1970s for a span of 11 years. Hughes recalled one of Erak’s many memorable phrases from that period: “I refuse to prostitute the chastity of my mind by lying to myself.”

“As well-educated as he was, he could come up with some pretty amazing mixed metaphors,” Hughes said. “And then he’d laugh at his own jokes. He was just a real interesting guy.”

Erak represented the 19th Legislative District from 1977 to 1984. Lynn Kessler started her tenure representing the 24th District in 1992, but remembered Erak “was still a political force. And he went on to serve on the City Council, so he never really stopped being involved.”

“He was always a very interesting person, and engaged in the political discussion and issues. He never backed away from them, ever,” Kessler said. “He was a stalwart for the Democratic Party, that’s for sure.”

After his turn in the Legislature, Erak returned to public service when he was appointed to the Aberdeen City Council to fill Simpson’s vacancy after he was elected mayor in 2008.

“He had a lot of wisdom that he was always glad to share. Deep down inside he was a great jokester. A very smart guy, a lot of integrity, and that’s hard to say for a politician,” Simpson quipped.

In addition to being a friend and colleague, Simpson was also a neighbor.

He said Erak would always walk his two dogs past his house.

“He cared a lot about the community and loved to walk his dogs,” Simpson said.