"There were just so many things, and I just think about all that it took for the staff to put those kinds of things on, on an ongoing basis and make it fun for the kids. And I’m truly impressed and amazed at the love and the dedication people had because it really made for a fun place all the time."
What was your favorite memory of life at the home?
That’s kind of a tough one, because I put together that history of the Children’s Home which really kind of captures so much of what I saw as just the wonderful times, the seasons of the year. I mean every 4th of July was as wonderful exciting celebration.
Originally in fact, Dad tells in his memoirs there they got to bethel on the 4th but they had already gone back up to the...they didn’t know what days the folks were arriving in 1948 because they didn’t have anyway of communicating then that well. So they missed catching the barge because then they brought all the kids down to Bethel on the barge to spend the 4th of July in Bethel. As it became difficult to do… there was so much alcohol problems developing in Bethel as the years went by. The Children’s Home decided to do it’s own 4th of July celebration. And so it became an area wide celebration where we’d get 4 or 500 people to celebrate at the home. And we had games and food and activities, I mean it was an incredible amount of fun. When I think back now over the amount of work it took to put on some of these things. You know because 4th of July was a huge celebration. Christmas time there would be a the candle service and Love feast and we’d have 2-400 people come up. Another night they’d have the Christmas program and have a Christmas play for people. You know every time of the year there was so many activities that brought people from the communities around there so that it became an activity center for that region. That’s what kind of created a lot of that… I don’t know if the term is ambiance of the home or that perception that people had of the home that it was fun place to go. But that even during for the kids just on a day-to-day basis there was the Christmas activities. There was Valentine’s Day, there was Easter I mean everything was celebrated. I mean Halloween was a great time, we used to have ghost walks through the woods for everybody. And then the older kids got to do a scary ghost walk in the girl’s dorm basement that the staff would set-up and sometimes the older kids would get to participate in. I mean they did a lot of stuff.
And then they had what was called evening activities two nights a week where you could pick a class. It could be cooking, drama, woodworking, electricity, embroidery, sewing. And for like six weeks you would go to this class and you would learn how to do it then they would have this big fair at the end. They usually had one series before Christmas and then after Christmas they had another series of classes. There was just so many things, and I just think about all that it took for the staff to put those kinds of things on, on an ongoing bases and make it fun for the kids. And I’m truly impressed and amazed at the love and the dedication people had because it made, it really made for a fun place all the time. I mean it’s hard to name one thing that’s my favorite.
When was the last time you were at the orphanage and what was it like there?
I was up there, must have been the year after I left so it would have been 2006 or 2007, might have been 2007 that I was there. (Was the girl’s dorm still standing?) Yeah but most of the roof was gone and most of the windows in all the other buildings were broken out. It was truly depressing. Up until… well for the first 20-years that the home was closed it was left pristine. I mean it was in good condition. I truly think that kind of what happened because I mean everybody in the area considered it, I mean I don’t want to say a sacred place but it had almost that feel to it and people respected it. But over 20-25-years a whole generation is born and raised that has no connection to it whatsoever and so kids are like, well it’s an abandoned place. And so it becomes much easier for… now 40-years have gone by. Now basically the only people that have a real sense of connection to it are old people like us. And the young people don’t have any sense of what it meant, what it was like. So what you are doing I appreciate because it will help to remind the old people, but it may also help to remind the young people of what some of that history was.
Do you think there was cultural loss for Yup’ik children who lived at the home?
I mean there was no question about it because we weren’t… you know one of the things that home probably could have done better was have more Native people working there. They did try, it was kind of hard to get people there and to have you know, because the church had certain requirements. I mean back then you didn’t have many Natives who had teaching degrees. They would have loved to have a Yup’ik teacher I’m sure. They did get some folks who came in and helped with some of the housekeeping and maintenance and stuff like that but the kids weren’t living in their traditional, subsistence, cultural existence. I mean the clothing and all the adults around them are all speaking English. And all that so I’m sure that there was a certain amount of loss for the culture and stuff. Particularly for those who came and stayed for a long time. There were those who, we were talking about earlier, who, that came just for the school year like lay-pastors kids that would come up and they would stay just for the school year and they would go back maybe at Christmas time. There was probably less of a loss there because they had such close connection and they were able to spend summers and all that.
But even there I’m sure you do lose, when you are taken out of your environment and put in for… I mean for some of those kids it was very, very different and probably a terrifying existence to start with at least until they figured it out.
I mean some of these kids were either by BIA or whatever, they were taken out of their homes or their parents died and suddenly they are just picked up and dropped off… having grown-up in very small… I mean some of them… sod huts. I mean they grew-up in the early years and then they suddenly come into this big three-story building. With a long room with fifteen other kids to sleep on cots and stuff. Yeah. There’s got to be some trauma and there’s got to be some loss of their culture, their feelings, their traditions, no question about it.
What do you know about Gabe Fox?
Dad always felt that he… you know some people felt that he froze to death, that he was just never found, that his body was never found whatever. A lot of people say that he turned into a spirit and they’d see him running across… above six-inches of snow.
But I remembered and I don’t know if you were around when this happened. The folks were retired and they were in Seattle. In fact I think it was maybe even after Mom had passed away and Dad got a call from a hospital down in California trying to track him down. Because there was somebody in the hospital there by the name of Gabe Fox that was trying to get a hold of Dad. And when Dad tried to track it down he wasn’t able to. He was never able to connect he never found anything or they didn’t respond or he’d left of something. And, you know I remember Dad saying, I don’t know if it was the Gabe Fox I knew. I don’t know if it was just somebody who was trying to pull a hoax on somebody. I think they’d left a message and Dad called back and you know, that was from some hospital down in California.
If you could narrow down your experience at the home to one word or phrase what would it be?
Pretty fricken’ awesome. It really was pretty amazing. My wife grew-up in Anchorage and so my kids were raised about a block or so, block or two from where my wife was raised and so her life in their minds was very unexciting. But I took the kids out, out to the home. And we went camping there you know, many years ago. And they were absolutely fascinated. They love hearing stories about it because it was so unique. And so unusual. When I look at the fact that in the time frame that we lived there we went from wood stoves and dog teams to fuel oil and snow machines. To the first telephone in Bush Alaska was at the Children’s Home.
To you know, the time that the home closed then. It’s like we lived over a century of time compared to most anywhere else in the country. To go through that much change and to experience and to have it all be positive. I mean, you’d mentioned earlier about the water, which you can talk a lot more about that than I could. Because you were involved with that a lot more. We had hot and cold running water long before anyone had that in Bethel. And the subsistence self-sufficiency of the home, when I think about it today it just astounds me. It really does. We were three-miles from the nearest village, 20-miles from the nearest town. Across the river from being able to get mail service. There were periods of time in the year where we couldn’t get mail service. Nobody could get there. That’s why they eventually built that little runway out on the Kuskokwim or Kuskokwak. So that we wouldn’t be completely stuck, you know, so they could land a plane there if they absolutely had to. And they did.
Because otherwise during break-up and freeze-up there was absolutely nothing you could do. If there was an emergency, if there was a crisis. Other than when they brought the helicopter the one time from the Air Force. Yeah, really pretty amazing.
I mean, I look at, if you go down to Seward and you go and see the old Jesse Leigh Home buildings in Seward. They are the same vintage style and everything of the buildings at the Children’s Home. They were built after World War I, same time frame and all that. And very similar type programs, similar type missionary focus and all that. But they were in a town that was on the road system and they had access to stuff. They didn’t have anywhere near the challenges that my folks did working at the home.