“Crowned at 15—Still a Queen!”
The Diva has been called to her biggest performance yet…
On Sunday, February 10, the curtain fell on the great drama of this life, as Neva Cole was called into the land of light and joy.
Neva Adella Houston was born on December 27, 1939 in the little logging town of Clebit, Oklahoma, the first-born child of parents Norman and Myzelle Houston. A few years later, as the lumbering work in Oklahoma diminished, Neva’s father loaded the family in the car and headed west in search of work. The family landed briefly in Fort Wauchuca, Texas and then Flagstaff, Arizona before making it to eastern Washington State and Hanford, where her father started work for the Hanford Nuclear Project (part of the Manhattan Project), producing materials for the atomic bomb that would help end WWII. Due to its secrecy at the time, no one knew just what the Hanford workers did—only that they were bused back and forth to the desert each day.
The family started in temporary housing in the Yakima Valley as the Hanford work crews literally built the town of Richland, creating a little city from the nothingness of the eastern Washington desert. Housing was almost impossible to find; most of the nearly 40,000 Hanford workers were people, like Neva’s father, who had come from the south in search of work. Single men were housed in work camps; family housing was difficult to come by. The family was eventually assigned an “A” house in the government created and controlled town of Richland. During this time, siblings Barbara and Norman joined the little Houston family.
Neva had fond memories of growing up in Richland—because it was an “instant” town, everything was new—the schools, the houses, the stores, the gas stations—everything. Life was good, especially in the summers, which seemed to be eternally sunny, and when life revolved around the town’s huge swimming pool, and harvesting, eating, and “laying in” the delicious abundance of food from the rich farmland and orchards that blanketed the surrounding river valley, and from the family’s own thriving backyard garden.
But Neva’s life really revolved around “Miss Jean Smitset’s School of Dance,” where she excelled at Tap, Acrobatic and Ballet. In her own words, “I simply loved it!”
Neva was limber, athletic, and strong, and before long was doing specialty acrobatic routines at festivals up and down the valley. It was lipstick, powder and paint heaven; it was a world of sequins, costumes, makeup, hairspray, music, dance and the spotlight. Her mother’s costumes for her were works of art—she created a cut-glass glitter cloth bare- mid-riff top with big billowy chiffon sleeves, a short glitter cloth ballerina skirt and glitter ballet slippers that Neva wore as she performed as a figurine on top of a music box, coming to life as the music started, and daintily executing all kinds of breathtaking acrobatic poses. In high school, Neva was a cheerleader, an accomplished member of the drama department, a member of the debate club and a Rainbow Girl.
In the summer of 1955, when she was 15, Neva was crowned Mardi Gras Queen, and spent the summer attending festivals and rodeos, and riding in parades up and down the Yakima Valley, sitting on the back of a 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible. She was a rodeo competitor (barrel racing was her speciality) and a frequent rodeo queen, sporting white gabardine western pants with gold cord trim edging down the legs, white satin western shirts with fringe and gold trim, white boots with gold insets and a white hat with gold trim—with long blond hair flowing down to her waist. Whether barrel racing or waving to the crowds during the “Queen’s Ride” around the rodeo arena, Neva was a sparkling beauty, basking in the spotlight and delighting the crowds. She was a born entertainer and crowd pleaser!
After high school, Neva attended the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University. She was a leader and integral part of both the WSU Drama department and Debate program. She also was thrilled to be hired by the Virginia City Players, where actors from New York and California came to do turn of the century melodrama and vaudeville acts in an old restored mining town in Montana. She was hired to perform as the ingenue in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” and proudly got her Equity card as an actress, which entitled her to union wages and benefits. She performed and toured with the Players, making $400 a week (not too shabby for the late 1950’s!).
During Neva’s freshman year in college, she met the love of her life, Don Cole. Don was a senior at Whitman, and the two met while on a blind date at a WSU Homecoming event. Don graduated from Whitman and joined the Navy; Neva did not hear from him again until three years later, when he was out of the Navy and had started law school at the University of Washington. By then, Neva had finished school and was working in Seattle. Don looked her up, and six months later, in 1963, Neva and Don were married. Neva Adella Houston was now Neva Cole.
The two lived in Seattle briefly, then moved to Washington D.C., where Neva worked for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and Don was a staffer for Senator Warren Magnuson. It was during this time that they welcomed their first child, Christiana Cole, in 1967. The couple’s life journey brought them back to Seattle in the politically tumultuous year of 1968, when Don was the Democratic nominee for the 1st Congressional District. Neva worked actively on the campaign, and shortly after it’s conclusion welcomed her second child into the world, Stephen Cole in 1969.
The young Cole family made their way back to Washington D.C., where Neva worked for the Washington National Cathedral. She performed in theatrical and liturgical productions at the Cathedral as well as state visits, national celebrations and occasions. This proved a launching pad for Neva’s career as a speaker, when she was repeatedly invited to present on topics such as empowerment and improvement. As a speaker and performer, Neva was a force! Dynamic, energetic, and sparkling with positivity, she was in high demand and soon was traveling all over the country, speaking and working with businesses, associations, universities, and social service agencies on the power of positivity. She loved what she did—she loved making people feel happy and energized!
Neva and Don spent their years leading up to retirement in Chicago, Illinois, and then retired to Bainbridge Island Washington, while also enjoying retirement residences in Kennewick, Washington and Fort Myers Beach, Florida.
Neva maintained her powerful theatrical and dramatic flair well into retirement. She was a starring performer in a variety of theatrical productions, including “Death Trap,” “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” and “Tea Time Travesty” with the Fort Myers Beach Theater, and recently co-starred with her husband Don in Bainbridge Island’s Reader’s Theater production of “The Odd Couple” and “A Cowboy Christmas.” She also thoroughly enjoyed producing and directing a fabulously fun, funny, and successful Reader’s Theater production of the Elvis Presley retrospective “All the King’s Women.”
Religion was an important part of Neva’s life, and her passion for performance fused with her passion for God—she remained active in church, giving the most spirited and heartfelt readings to congregations every Sunday, from Fort Myers Beach to Bainbridge Island.
Neva was one of a kind—a glittering presence who charmed, entertained, and lifted spirits wherever she was—whether the stage, a party (which she loved!), the kitchen, or the living room. A true Diva, Neva exuded great style, personality and confidence, no matter the circumstances. She was a powerful force of positivity for all who knew her, and a constant source of inspiration, strength, and support for her children and grandchildren.
She doted (in ways only a Diva can!) on her 5 grandchildren, Katja and Annika Tunkkari, Riley Oliver, and Tallon and Tanner Cole.
Our Queen, our NevaDiva, will be terribly missed on this earth—but we know she is wowing the crowds in heaven.
Neva is survived by her husband, Don Cole (Bainbridge Island, Washington) children Christy Cole (Bainbridge Island) and Steve Cole (Trevor, Wisconsin), grandchildren Katja and Annika Tunkkari (both of Bainbridge Island), Riley Oliver (San Diego), and Tallon and Tanner Cole (both of Trevor, Wisconsin).