Women on the Waterfront: Clare Petrich

Clare receives her lifetime achievement award from the World Trade Center Tacoma. Photo Credit: Port of Tacoma

Meet Clare Petrich: dock owner, international envoy, and former Port of Tacoma Commissioner. Clare’s strong connections to her Croatian family history, passion for international dialogue, and experience running an important dock on Tacoma’s working waterfront helped her to pursue a career that was inaccessible to many women of her generation.

Clare’s story begins with her family. At eight years old in 1888, her grandfather emigrated from Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar, Croatia, with his mother and father, eventually settling with relatives in the young port city of Tacoma, Washington. Already an important hub for railroad transportation and freight, Tacoma’s seaport was also growing.

When Clare was a child, her father and a business partner opened a shipyard and dock on Tacoma’s working waterfront. Eventually, her father became the sole owner, and for over 60 years, the yard helped to launch fishing vessels, built parts for Boeing planes, and was a part of Tacoma’s growing international shipping scene.

Growing up as a young woman in the early 1940s, Clare wasn’t allowed to work around the dock. She believes that her father would have disapproved of her working at all. Clare eventually married a member of the Foreign Service and began living overseas. She credits her early passion for diplomacy and foreign relationships to that experience. Because of her life abroad, she learned to appreciate different cultures and diplomatic relationships as well as cargo, “because all of our goods were always shipped!”

In 1980, Clare moved back to Washington. After the death of her father in 1989, Clare was left with the responsibility of running the dock business, including a machine shop that had contaminated the area over its decades of operation. Clare recalls feeling lost in all the details of running the business and described her relief in finding an organization called the Women’s Fisheries Network. “It was a lifeline for me, because they had monthly meetings, and I got to know women who were in the industry,” said Clare.

The First Female Port of Tacoma Commissioner

In 1995, Clare was the first woman elected to the Port of Tacoma Commission. “I realized that just by virtue of running the little dock, I certainly was aware of the issues with the fishing boats and the small business side of the waterfront, but then I also had these 15 years of diplomatic service that [were] all about international trade and international relationships, and that that was something nobody else had,” said Clare.

Becoming Commissioner was not without its own tribulations, however. Clare first applied for the position when a sitting member of the Port Commission died. “I got called back for a final interview, but definitely was not chosen to be on the commission. I did have a friend who was there, however, who said to me, ‘Don’t feel bad about it…there’s this one guy on the Park Commission, and he saw your application and he said, ‘I don’t care—as long as I’m on this commission, there will never be a woman here.’’”

Of course, that only reinvigorated Clare’s passion for the position. “I took it on as a challenge,” said Clare. After a fervent campaign of doorbelling, where Clare “probably talked to half the people in Pierce County,” she won the election. She was re-elected to that position until her retirement in December 2019.  

Building Boats and Building Relationships

Prior to becoming commissioner, while visiting Taipei, Taiwan, Clare saw a newspaper article about a dragon boat racing team from Toronto competing in a race. Seeing that article, her immediate reaction was: “That looks like something people in Tacoma would really like to do!” She was so inspired by that article that she carried a clipping of it with her for years to come, and once elected port commissioner, she started working towards a dragon boat racing program in Tacoma.

Clare’s work as a member of the port commission involved developing deeper international relationships with trade partners. On a visit to China for the port, she became frustrated with the lack of commitment to partnerships and started looking for alternative solutions. Eventually, she found like-minded people in the Sister Cities program. With their help, she was finally able to find strong collaborators and started planning to bring Chinese shipwrights to Tacoma to build a dragon boat. While fundraising for this goal, Clare met a marina tenant named Jimmy Chen.

“Jimmy had two dragon boats that he had brought to the marina in Union because he wanted to challenge the Tribe there to a dragon boat [race]. But the Tribe hadn’t built their canoe yet,” said Clare. “So, these poor old dragon boats were sitting in his garage…He gave them to us for $1.”

With the boat problem solved, Clare then needed to find a crew. She called the city manager, Ray Corpuz. “I said, ‘Ray, the Port is challenging you to a dragon boat race,’ and Ray said, ‘We’ll beat you. I’ve got firemen. I’ve got really strong guys. We’re really going to win,’” recalls Clare. To finish her machinations, she then turned around to her colleagues at the port and said, “Hey, we’ve been challenged.” The port responded by pulling together a team of longshoremen to compete in the race.

With two teams and two boats, she had her dragon boat race. “We had this demonstration race, and it was tons of fun. We put ads out in the paper, and oh my god, the boats had been in his garage for ages, and they were very leaky…so half the half the crew in that boat were actually bailing as we were doing our first time in the in the dragon boat.”

After the longshoremen vs. firemen race, Clare got in touch with Connie McCloud, Culture Director of the Puyallup Tribe. Together, they helped bring several dozen Tribal members to Fuzhou, China, where they traded boatbuilding experiences with shipwrights there.

Retired but Still Working

Today, Clare is retired from the Port of Tacoma. She is the chair of the Sister Cities Council of Tacoma and a member of the board of directors for Sister Cities International. “It’s fun being retired!” she says of her post-Commissioner life. It certainly hasn’t slowed her down: Clare is still participating in Tacoma events and helping to facilitate international dialogues.

She recently received her dual citizenship from Croatia and is still actively involved at the Petrich Marine Dock. In February, she participated in a procession for the restoration of the rowing gig Vérité, which she had originally christened 25 years ago as a port commissioner. She’s also working on translating an out-of-print book about a Croatian fisherman into English.

In her career, Clare took on both a male-dominated industry at the dock and a male-dominated political position at the Port of Tacoma. Clare thinks that “it’s just remarkable the changes that have occurred at the Port…It was always a white guy’s world, and it’s not anymore, because it’s a worldwide business,” said Clare. “That’s so positive, I think, for anybody to realize that, and learn that, and participate in that. But every individual has to have confidence that they’re able to do it and to take the risk.”

Clare feels strongly that working in maritime “is truly one of the most fulfilling careers [and] interests.” She says, “There are so many opportunities in maritime, from environmental changes and learning to longshore opportunities. It’s a big world. It’s as big as the oceans.”

If you liked this story and would like to learn about Clare’s experience, consider reading more about other women on Washington’s working waterfronts. Hear from tugboat captain Katrina Anderson about what it’s like to guide ships to shore, or hear from Beth Adams about her experience working as a chief engineer aboard one of Washington’s largest ferries.

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