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Longtime Whitefish leader spent decades in community service

by By LYNNETTE HINTZE For the Pilot
| February 21, 2024 12:00 AM

Sally Porcarelli, a former First Lady of Whitefish and dedicated Whitefish community leader and volunteer for decades, died Sunday, Feb. 11. She was 90.

From teaching skiing to beginners through her long affiliation with the Big Mountain Ski Club and winning marathons in her later years, to her active involvement in organizations such as the North Valley Hospital Guild and Soroptimist International of Whitefish, Porcarelli was a powerhouse on many levels.

“She was the epitome of dynamite that comes in small packages,” recalled Patti Harmon, referring to Porcarelli’s petite stature and unsinkable enthusiasm for community work. Harmon was a registered nurse who worked at North Valley Hospital when Porcarelli was the administrative secretary at the hospital, a job that involved working with the CEO, nurse administrator and the human resource manager. Her career with the hospital spanned 28 years.

“She managed it all beautifully, " Harmon said. “As you can imagine, it was quite a busy job. I admired her professionalism…I admired her a great deal. She was one of my heroes.”

In a 1995 Daily Inter Lake article featuring Porcarelli, a physical therapist told the reporter that the truth was, “she ran the hospital.” In addition to her administrative secretary duties, Porcarell was in charge of all purchasing for the hospital, as well as personnel, inventory and accounts payable. She also handled the switchboard, and even restocked the soda machine when needed. In her off-hours, Porcarelli raised five children and took up marathon running.

“She was always smiling, very helpful and very sweet,” remembered Wanda Good, who worked with Porcarelli on the annual Hospital Guild sale for many years.

Porcarelli was 40 when she started running. She waited until her children were grown and then “wanted to do something for herself,” she told the Inter Lake reporter in 1995. She completed her first triathlon when she was 50 and won the championship for women 50 and over in an Idaho competition. In the mid-90s she won the championship for women 60 and over.

“She was quite competitive. I don’t think I was ever able to keep up with her,” Harmon said, recalling a trip to the Bloomsday race in Spokane one year when Porcarelli scorched the competition.

In 1986 Porcarelli qualified to compete at the U.S. triathlon Series National Championship.

Longtime friend Bert Kasper recalled how Porcarelli would get up at 4 a.m. to train for triathlons, running long distances and then swimming in Whitefish Lake at a friend’s house on the lake. For the bicycling portion of her training, she’d cycle from Whitefish to Kalispell and back on U.S. 93.

The Whitefish Pilot followed Porcarelli’s passion for running, with a headline in 1994 that exclaimed “No couch potato: Porcarelli continues to run – and win – races at age 60.” In 1996 an article featured her longtime participation in the Whitefish Lake Run.

BEYOND HER personal and professional endeavors, community volunteerism was a place where Porcarelli put her skills to good use. She moved to Whitefish from Upper Michigan in 1971 and didn’t waste any time getting involved in Whitefish organizations.

She joined the Whitefish Soroptimists in 1977 and served two terms as president before taking on the club secretary job for more than 25 years. She worked tirelessly alongside fellow Soroptimists at the Thrift Haus that raises money for scholarships and other charitable giving to help women and girls. As a Soroptimist she was actively involved in attending district, region and federation conferences, gatherings that focused on the organization’s mission of improving the lives of women and girls through education.

Flo Williams, who also was active in Soroptimists, remembered how Porcarelli recruited her and later encouraged her to be club president.

“I remember Sally saying that with a bunch of women you can’t please everyone,” Williams said with a smile. “She said ‘just listen to both sides and make your own judgment.’”

Porcarelli also coaxed Williams into participating in the Race for the Cure in Helena for many years.

“She was lively and fun and liked to be involved in a lot of things,” Williams recalled.

Porcarelli also was heavily involved with the Big Mountain Ski Club, serving as a ski instructor with the club’s volunteer program for many years. She was the club secretary for 20 years. Kasper remembers how patient Porcarelli was with the “Never Evers,” the beginner skiers as they were called back in the day. She taught youngsters how to ski for around 30 years.

“She was just a neat lady,” Kasper said. “I just felt she was so calm all the time; she never complained. She was such a sweet lady.”

Porcarelli also served as secretary of the hospital auxiliary for 20 years, and was once secretary for the Flathead Valley Ski Foundation. She was a whiz at shorthand.

The “Loveseat” program for infants and toddlers riding in cars was a project started by Porcarelli through the hospital auxiliary. Her community involvement also included serving on the board of directors for the Flathead County March of Dimes, and she served as chairman of the Whitefish Mothers’ March. Porcarelli was secretary for the TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) group for a time as well.

“I believe she was the epitome of volunteerism,” her daughter Patty Markuson said. “During those days a payment wasn’t made. People gained a sense of purpose, fulfillment in serving and had great joy in doing so.”

In 1986, during the height of Porcarelli’s community service, Beta Sigma Phi named her First Lady of the Year for Whitefish, an honor given to a Whitefish woman who had made important contributions in civic work, homemaking, business, government, education or other activities.

Porcarelli’s friends and fellow volunteers repeated their descriptions of her best qualities: caring, empathetic, fair, warm, honest and a strong sense of self. All that, plus human energy that seemingly knew no bounds and a million dollar smile.

“She was one of a kind,” Williams said.

A celebration of life service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at Christ Lutheran Church, 1550 River Lakes Parkway, in Whitefish.

Memorials may be sent to Soroptimist International of Whitefish, PO Box 1843, Whitefish, MT 59937, for an educational scholarship that will honor Porcarelli.