What makes a father?
Jo LeFebvre can tell you, because she had Marvin Leren in her life.
He taught her how to camp, how to ride a bike. He showed her the value of hard work. She could rely on him for an open ear and good advice — and so much more.
He walked her down the aisle and danced the father-daughter dance with her at her wedding. And when he picked her up from the airport — which he always did — they never failed to stop at Dick’s for a hamburger. It was tradition.
“What makes a father?” LeFebvre, 53, asked. “Everything my dad was.”
But Elementis Chemicals begged to differ.
When a jury ordered the company to pay a settlement to Leren’s estate after his 2015 death at 72 from mesothelioma — the result of 20 years he worked at Z-Brick, in Ballard, making bricks containing asbestos — Elementis appealed.
The U.K.-based company, which supplied the asbestos to Z-Brick, argued that LeFebvre had no claim to the money because Leren and LeFebvre’s mother were divorced at the time of his death. She wasn’t his stepdaughter anymore.
LeFebvre’s mother had married Leren when the girl was 3 years old. The couple divorced when she was in college. But they remained close throughout LeFebvre’s adult life, including her own marriage; the birth of her son, Tony, now 30; and her own divorce. They spent holidays and family dinners together. They went on trips with her son and her mother — Leren’s former wife.
Before he passed, Leren started the lawsuit against Elementis related to his mesothelioma, and he made a will naming LeFebvre as a beneficiary. He died a few weeks later, but his suit against Elementis continued.
“When he was in the hospital, he said, ‘You have to go through this, you have to follow up on it,’” LeFebvre said. “He knew how beleaguering it could be, but it was the right thing to do.”
In 2016, a jury awarded Leren’s estate $294,000 in economic damages and $681,000 for pain and suffering. Elementis appealed.
On May 26, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled in LeFebvre’s favor, stating, “Divorces do not, in theory, sever the bonds of affinity between a stepparent and a stepchild any more than between a parent and a biological child.”
The court ordered that Elementis pay LeFebvre what Leren would have received.
LeFebvre’s attorney, Matthew Bergman, believes this is the first case to establish that the relationship between a stepparent and a stepchild does not end at the time of a divorce.
“This is every bit as serious a loss as it would be for a biological child,” Bergman said.
University of Washington family law professor Terry Price said the case set precedent by “a slim margin.”
“Here the company argues that once your parents divorced, you are no longer a stepchild,” Price said. “But the court is saying, ‘Yes, you are.’ This is another way the law will recognize a substantial paternal relationship.”
Deirdre Bowen, a family law professor at Seattle University, believes Elementis underestimated the bond between Leren and LeFebvre.
“Their theory was that they would only give the payout to someone who is actually harmed by the loss of the father, and that your stepdaughter is not your daughter, so she can’t be harmed,” she said. “But she is affected. It should be a no-brainer.”
It was a painful process for LeFebvre. “My relationship with my dad had never been questioned before,” she said. “I was so secure. This is my dad. And there was group of strangers, thinking, ‘She just wanted the money.’
“I would give everything to have my dad back,” she said. “It was my job to stand up for him when he couldn’t stand up for himself. He did that for me my whole life.”
When he first got together with LeFebvre’s mother, Leren had a Corvette and a truck. Not long after, he sold the Corvette to buy a camper so they could go on trips together.
“To sell a Corvette for a camper for someone else’s kid?” LeFebvre asked. “I mean, I don’t know. I had a boyfriend who sold his Corvette after his divorce, and he never stopped complaining about it.
“But my dad? Not once.”
LeFebvre lives near the Pike Place Market and has three jobs: as an on-site building manager for Providence Vincent House, an apartment building for seniors on a fixed income; as a concierge at 98 Union, a condominium high-rise; and as a seller at Frank’s Produce in the Pike Place Market.
“My work ethic came from him,” she said of Leren.
She thinks of her father every day, and especially when she crosses the Ballard Bridge, the well-worn route to his old house.
“I still catch myself thinking, ‘I should stop by while I’m in the neighborhood,’” she said. “It never goes away.”
On Father’s Day, she will head up to a property on Lake Conner that her father left her, and spend a week at his old trailer. Her mom and son are coming up, along with some of Leren’s friends.
“What makes a father, and a family, are the people who are there for you, no matter what,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re blood-related. It’s the people you support, and who support you, and who you spend your life with.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Seattle University family law professor Deirdre Bowen’s name.