Gone in a Heartbeat

Mike Chappell, the visionary lawyer and environmentalist who helped breathe life into the Spokane Riverkeeper program, dies suddenly.

Mike Chappell in a 2009 photo.

The Center for Justice, Gonzaga Law School, and much of the Spokane community are reeling with shock and grief today as word filters out about the passing of Mike Chappell. Mike was stricken Sunday afternoon with an apparent heart attack after playing a round of golf at Indian Canyon Golf Course in west Spokane. He was 44 and leaves behind a wife and two young sons. For the past two years he has headed up the Environmental Law Clinic at Gonzaga Law School, and in that capacity represented the Spokane Riverkeeper, among other clients.

Chappell can be described for the smart, tough lawyer that he was. But these gifts barely begin to define who he was and what he meant to his colleagues, his students, and those who got to know him over the past couple years after he and his wife Cynthia moved here from California. For us, today is mostly about our tears.

His loss comes so suddenly it has been hard for his colleagues to speak about him, and then to adjust to talking about him in the past tense.

“He crafts this, he drives this program,” said a subdued and shaken Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich. “It’s more than just a relationship like the relationship other Waterkeepers have with other law clinics. He helped create this program. It was his vision. I hope to carry this vision with his spirit and in his honor.”

“It almost feels like someone sucked all the air out of the room,” said Pilar Rodarte, a CFJ and GU law clinic intern who’s worked under Chappell’s supervision for the past year. “He just touched so many things. I think I was very lucky and got to see it all. I got to see the professor side of him and I got to see him as a community advocate through his work at the Center.”

Suffice to say, Chappell’s inspiring effect on his students, friends, colleagues and others will run its course for years to come. One thing is certain though. The Spokane Riverkeeper program is very much a part of Mike Chappell’s mark on our work and on our community.

As we reported in a feature story, “A Man for All Reasons,” two years ago, it was a babysitter with Spokane ties who persuaded Mike and Cynthia to visit Spokane when the couple was looking for an affordable community with good schools in which to raise their children. They were living in the San Francisco area at the time where Mike worked as an attorney for Lawyers for Clean Water. By mere coincidence, Mike Petersen, the executive director the Lands Council in Spokane, called Chappell to try to get information on a waste water contractor. That led to a breakfast gathering during the Chappell’s scouting visit to Spokane at which Chappell met Rick Eichstaedt, the Center for Justice’s lead water lawyer.

“It was just amazing,” Chappell said later about the breakfast. “The meeting set the precedent for how it’s gone. We started talking and one of the things I said was that I’d done some research and saw there wasn’t a Waterkeeper project in Spokane and I’d really like to see one.”

That’s just what Eichstaedt and a few others in the Spokane environmental community had begun to think as well. Together, they made it happen, with Chappell moving to Spokane, pitching in to craft the application for the Riverkeeper project, and taking the position as the head of a revived environmental law clinic at Gonzaga.

Mike (right) with Bart Mihailovich (middle) and Rick Eichstaedt at an award ceremony for Bart last week.

A large man with a sharp wit and hearty laugh, Chappell was a formidable presence, and not just on water and environmental issues.

“He was just so social,” Eichstaedt marvels. “He could just make himself fit into any social situation.”

Eichstaedt and Chappell were very close. Their young boys went to the same child care service and, among other things, the two of them taught a class together at Gonzaga. But what Eichstaedt and Mihailovich remain in awe of his how Chappell could use both his intelligence and his social skills to push hard in adversarial circumstances and, yet, also build consensus and shape agreements.

“I always felt better having Mike in the chair next to me,” Eichstaedt said this afternoon, his voice struggling to get out the words. “And that’s going to be one of the biggest things…”

Among those still in shock this afternoon was Andy Dunau, the director of the Spokane River Forum.

“You can’t fake that kind of passion,” Dunau said, “and Mike had passion in spades. He brought that passion and a fresh energy to Spokane. He lived it the way he wanted to.”

–Tim Connor