HONORING A GEM – La Conner Soroptimists Barb Endrody (left) and Ruth Braun present to Superintendent Will Nelson a plaque and pictorial Ruby Award tribute created by artist Mary Ennes Davis posthumously honoring Lea McMillan Diacos. – Photo by Bill Reynolds
HONORING A GEM – La Conner Soroptimists Barb Endrody (left) and Ruth Braun present to Superintendent Will Nelson a plaque and pictorial Ruby Award tribute created by artist Mary Ennes Davis posthumously honoring Lea McMillan Diacos. – Photo by Bill Reynolds

The late Lea McMillan Diacos was truly a gem in her hometown of La Conner. 

How fitting, then, that her memory is honored here as a posthumous recipient of the Soroptimist International of La Conner Ruby Award in recognition of her steadfast support of local youth. 

The ruby, after all, is associated with wisdom, importance, vitality, strength, power and love. 

Diacos, a 1938 La Conner High School graduate, checked all those boxes prior to her passing in 2008. 

Her love for her community is tangibly reflected by her bequeathing $1.6 million in cash and property to the La Conner Community Scholarship Foundation. Diacos’ generosity established a major annual scholarship named for her parents, George and Lillian McMillan, whose pea cannery was a fixture on the south end waterfront. 

“I still marvel that this happened in our little town,” Soroptimist and retired school district administrator Maureen Harlan said of the seven-figure Diacos bequest. 

The McMillan Scholarship each spring provides four-year funding support to a graduating senior planning to enroll in a state college or university. 

During her lifetime, Diacos provided money anonymously for students. 

“She would come in and either say that she’d heard we had students in need or ask if there were any students who we knew needed some help,” Harlan recalled. “Then she’d hand over an envelope with money and say it was something for whoever needed help.” 

Diacos’ philanthropy went under the radar. 

But La Conner Soroptimists, including Pam Johnson – her parents, Ed and Ruth Dalan, were friends of the McMillans – agreed that Diacos’ many contributions merit attention in perpetuity. 

The Ruby Award, they decided, was just the vehicle to do so. 

Named for Ruby Lee Minar, a prominent advocate for women’s rights and the first president of the Washington, D.C. Soroptimist Club, the award recognizes women who have through their personal or professional lives worked to improve the lives of others. 

After her high school graduation, Diacos enrolled in Western Washington University’s College of Education. From there, teaching certificate in hand, she began her career as a classroom instructor with Anacortes schools. She married U.S. Navy veteran Christopher Diacos, an Anacortes business owner. 

Still, her devotion to La Conner didn’t waver. Nor did a deeply held value for community service. 

Those traits are spelled out in a Ruby Award plaque and pictorial tribute to Diacos created for La Conner Soroptimists by Bellingham artist Mary Ennes Davis, who six years ago developed the 60-foot by nine-foot history wall at the middle school. 

Davis used photographs provided by Linda Reynolds-Gravely and Catey Ritchie and favorite anecdotes offered by multiple sources – Johnson and Gail Bruce, among them – in crafting the plaque. 

“It was quite a bit of work,” said Harlan. “She listened to all our stories and did a great job of highlighting Lea’s interest in giving back to the town and school she loved.” 

When conferred to a living person, the Ruby Award includes a $1,000 check. This time, La Conner Soroptimists used those funds to reimburse Davis for her yeoman efforts. 
Barb Endrody and Ruth Braun, co-chairs of the La Conner Soroptimist service and awards committee, presented Davis’ work to Superintendent Will Nelson last week. 

An appreciative Nelson said the Diacos Ruby Award plaque and pictorial would be placed in a high visibility area, most likely inside the main entrance to the connected middle school and high school buildings. 

Chartered in 1996, La Conner Soroptimists have a well-established reputation for support of local schools and students, Endrody and Braun noted. 

The club, which operates the popular Vintage La Conner store at Third and Morris streets, has awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to La Conner graduates over the years, including $3,000 each to six seniors last spring. 

“We want to make a difference,” Braun stressed. 

Endrody said the Soroptimists provide scholarship aid to graduates working toward advanced degrees and with the Dixie Otis Memorial Award support La Conner teachers working toward master’s degrees and national board certification. 

Endrody and Braun said such support along with Ruby Award recognition are the result of the community’s embrace – through cash and merchandise donations to Vintage La Conner – of the Soroptimist mission. 

“We really thank the community for being so supportive of everything we do,” Endrody said. “Without those donations we couldn’t do what we do.” 

Launched in 1921, in Oakland, California, at a time when women weren’t permitted to join service organizations, Soroptimist International now boasts more than 1,300 clubs invested in bettering their communities and taking steps to assure the economic empowerment of women and girls. 

Diacos provided a perfect model for La Conner Soroptimists to emulate. 

“Everything we take in,” said Harlan, “we give back.” 

As did Diacos, whose sharing and caring nature is now memorialized via the Ruby Award. 

“There’s no other way to thank her,” Harlan said, “but to honor her.