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Arlene “Buddy” Clay was born in Gardiner Maine, Aug. 2, 1912, to Annie Mayne Palmer and Charles Gordon Palmer. She was raised in Mexico, Maine, and graduated from high school in 1929. She then entered the New England Conservatory of music. She graduated from there in 1934.
Arlene met Earl V. Clay at the conservatory and they married June 26, 1936. They then moved to Manchester, NH, where Earl was the conductor of the NH state symphony. Arlene played trumpet in the conservatory symphony orchestra.
After the war broke out and Pearl Harbor was bombed on the 7th of December 1941, the orchestra broke up. The older workers went into military work and the younger ones joined the military.
In December of 1943 Arlene and Earl left for Seattle by train in response to an ad from the Civil Aeronautics Administration, forerunner of the FAA. After arriving in Seattle, they received six months of training at Boeing field as aircraft communicators and controllers. The Army then flew her and Earl to Nome in a DC3. While in Nome they worked for the CAA as aircraft communicators and controllers. In September of 1944 they transferred to Aniak. Together, they spent 10 years driving dog teams all over the Aniak area. They visited trappers, prospectors and generally explored the rural area.
Upon arriving in Aniak, communication was limited to one telephone at the airport office. As soon as civilians were allowed to obtain ham radio licenses in 1948, Clay received her license, KL707. To this day, Clay has continued to operate her ham radio and, in fact, commented that she selected her retirement home on the basis that “… they let me have my radio with me.”
Arlene and Earl resigned in 1947 from the CAA. Earl died in 1956.
After Earl died Arlene stayed at the homestead, which was about three miles upriver from Aniak. She took two jobs, one as a postal clerk and the other as secretary at the CAA. She commuted to work by dog team in the winter and by boat in the summer.
In 1960 Arlene became the magistrate for the Alaska Courts and was responsible for 12 of the surrounding villages. She served in this position for 17 ½ years. Magistrates had all the power of the U.S. Commissioner. It was during this time that defendants received the right to demand a jury for misdemeanor trials. This resulted in more travel for trials in the villages. The State troopers would fly to Aniak and fly over her cabin at the home site to alert her they were coming and she would get in her boat or dog team and meet them in Aniak.
Arlene Clay was always known as Mrs. Clay. While she didn’t have a degree in law, it was not required at the time. She was known as a tough but fair magistrate judge. One story that circulated concerned a couple of attorneys that came out from Bethel for a hearing. They were dressed in blue jeans and had no ties. She told them that when appearing in her court they were to wear suits and ties or she would hold them in contempt. They got the message and dressed appropriately from then on. She always wore her robe and while court was held in her house in those early days, strict courtroom protocol was required.
Clay retired from the Alaska Court System in 1977 but continued to live in Aniak for many more years. In May, 2012 Clay received the Judge Nora Quinn Award from the Alaska Bar Association which “is presented to an individual Alaskan who has made an extraordinary or sustained effort to assist Alaska’s rural residents, especially its native population, overcome language and cultural barriers to obtaining justice through the legal system.” She was further honored at a reception in Aniak on June 27, 2012, with the dedication of the new courtroom in her honor. The program for this event referred to Clay as “the face of the Alaska Court System during the early years of statehood.”
In 2011, Clay moved to a Wasilla retirement home where she is able to put up her ham antennas, and she continues to participate every night on the ham sniper net. She checks everyone in each Thursday night.
“Aniak Courtroom Dedicated to Magistrate Clay” ,Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, July 14, 2012 “99-year-old Ham radio operator still tuned in”, Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Oct. 30, 2011 http://jukebox.uaf.edu/site7/p/378, Project Jukebox, Digital Branch of UAF Oral History Program, Judges of Alaska, Arlene Clay