SOUTHWORTH — Once you got to know Katie Phillips, she was — simply put — family. She also was vibrant, fun, a helper and charismatic.
Those were some of the terms ascribed to the wife, mother and Washington State Ferries toll booth employee who was taken from family, friends, fellow employees and customers by a hit-and-run driver in the early morning hours in South Kitsap along Sedgwick Road and Peppermill Place Southeast on March 22.
The driver who hit and killed Phillips as she was aiding a stranded motorist on the dark, rainy roadway eventually was arrested and awaits punishment from the courts. But choosing to shine light, not grief, on the impact her life had on others, dozens of family members, friends, WSF employees and customers — “Katie’s family” — gathered to pay tribute to the gregarious mother of two boys on Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Southworth Ferry Terminal. It was fitting that the ceremony took place next to one of the toll booths she manned during most of her three and one-half years employed with the ferry system.
Phil Olwell, Southworth Ferry Terminal supervisor, and WSF Director of Operations Greg Faust spoke movingly of Phillips’ spirit and generosity during the ceremony. The toll booths were decorated with balloons, flowers and decorated signs — festooned in purple, her favorite color — that spoke of the woman’s sunny personality and her love of this region’s sports teams. Washington State Patrol troopers also were on hand to honor the late state employee.
Before the ceremony, Olwell spoke haltingly of Phillips’ spirit and her connection with the toll booth crew: “I’ve been with the organization for 37 years and I’ve never had an employee that has impacted not only myself personally but this group like she did. There wasn’t much about her that people didn’t appreciate.”
Olwell said he has kept in touch with Phillip’s family since her death. As might be imagined, he said, her husband and two sons “are really struggling right now. It’s very challenging when you lose that piece of the puzzle.”
And how are coworkers handling her loss?
“It’s like the tides we work with every day — it ebbs and flows,” Olwell said. “This is a day when you reflect on emotions and grief, the devastation and the anger — why her and why us?”
The grieving process continues for them.
Dana Billington worked alongside Phillips at the Southworth toll booth. She noted that it didn’t take the young woman long to make a mark among coworkers.
“She was a hoot from day one,” she said. “Katie blended in with this family here. She just had that kind of personality, always laughing and dancing, upbeat and never cranky, no matter the weather. She was always ‘up’.”
Co-worker Nicole Martinez shared similar recollections of her first experiences working with Phillips.
“On day one, she came out just smiling and ready to go. That first day, she came out in blue hair ready to rock and roll for the Seahawks. She really blended in with this family,” as Martinez characterized the close-knit toll booth team.
“It was seamless. It’s hard to believe it was only two years that she was here.”
Martinez said the personable Phillips also shared pieces of her personality with customers.
“It was just like her to spend a few minutes talking with customers and her coworkers after her shift,” she said.
And some of those customers, who would later call her a friend, were on hand at the ceremony to pay tribute.
Diana Harless, who also manned the booth, first met Phillips when she brought her sons down to the ferry terminal while trick-or-treating. After working together and sharing time off-hours, Harless said Phillips was like a daughter to her.
“We’d all go out and have lunch together and celebrate. She even came and got me for work when my dad wrecked his car,” Harless said quietly as the ceremony was about to begin. “Katie came out to the [Vashon] island to come and get me so I could get into work.”
And while Phillips was known for her lighthearted personality, Harless said her friend and coworker was a reliable teammate.
“We never had to worry where Katie was because she was out on the lot doing her job. She was always where she was supposed to be, willing to help anybody.”
On this day that Olwell called “a bittersweet moment,” those who loved and appreciated their lively friend would later watch the unveiling of a cautionary road sign at the location where Phillips died in March. Following the brief toll booth ceremony, the group traveled west on Sedgwick Road, also known as State Route 160, to watch the dedication of a “Please Drive Safely — In Memory of Katie Phillips” sign at the spot of the hit-and-run incident.
Phillips’ mother, Deborah Harrah of Brownsville, assisted Olwell in unveiling the new sign. After removing the blue vinyl cover to reveal the sign, the two spoke a few words in tribute, then hugged.