Click on the Alumnae’s name for a further details.
Paula Easley’s contributions to Alaska come in many forms, especially in the public policy arenas advocating sound natural resource, land-use and energy policy, and expanding the state’s mental health services.
Stony River village on the Kuskokwim River was a far cry from suburban Louisville, Kentucky, where she grew up. However, her introduction to Alaska in this remote community of about 100 residents in the early 1960s set her on a path that would include leading Alaska’s largest resource advocacy organization and also shaping economic and land-use policies by mayors, governors and three US presidents.
Paula (nee Shain) married James B. Pence II in 1956. An undergraduate of the University of Louisville and graduate of Bryant-Stratton Business College, Paula had been raised in a large family where self-sufficiency was instilled as a basic principle. At age 21 she tested the principle, starting her own secretarial business serving small Louisville companies.
Paula, her husband Jim and daughter Kathryn, born in 1960, moved to Stony River to help run a lodge and fur trading post with her sister Diane and husband Dr. Bob Carpenter. Together they planned to build log cabins on skids for barging to treeless western communities, using local labor. The project included an arts and crafts component that would enable Native residents to market their handmade crafts. At the time, Alaska’s rural communities teetered on the brink of change from a subsistence-to- cash economy with few or no jobs available, as was the case in Stony River.
While the first cabins were built, villagers were proud of finally being able to earn a living. To the families’ great disappointment, however, the project was ultimately abandoned due to government agency requirements and insurmountable equipment, production and shipping challenges. Paula and Jim moved to Anchorage in late 1963 where her mother, Margaret Vollertsen and young brothers, Rick and Steve Vollertsen, lived.
Not realizing it at the time, Easley’s bush experience inspired a life-long course of advocating for a diversified Alaska economy. She began researching everything available on development policies of other sparsely-populated states and sought help from the country’s top think tanks. With virtually no infrastructure off Alaska’s limited road system and great distances from national and international markets, it became apparent that Alaska manufacturing was not feasible. The most realistic option was natural resource exploration and production, if people could be encouraged to risk investing in them.
In 1964, while working for IBM in Anchorage, Easley and family experienced the Great Alaska Earthquake. The lure of independence struck again, and from 1965 to 1970 she managed a company providing secretarial, employment and logistics services to rural businesses and communities across Alaska. Conference services were provided to organizations such as the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Centennial Commission, the Governor’s Economic Development Policy Council and numerous government agencies.
Through her research and travels, Easley learned about both Alaska’s urban and rural economies. In the late 60s, as staff to the Alaska Business Council, she staged several Alaska Travel and Trade Fairs in Washington, Oregon and California, thanks to funding by Western Airlines. She worked with the part-time Anchorage Mayor, George Sullivan and hundreds of Alaskans to promote tourism and trade. Many thousands of people attended each event, excited to learn about the 49th state. At the time was the new world-class Prudhoe Bay oil discovery also attracted attention
Easley’s second daughter Laura was born in 1966. In 1967 tragedy struck the family when Jim, her husband and business partner, became ill with melanoma cancer and died that same year, leaving Paula the children’s sole supporter. Juggling family and a demanding company that involved frequent travel proved her greatest challenge. Earlier she, Jim, and Paula’s mother had bought a large home to accommodate their combined families; chaos and many memorable adventures were shared during the five-year period.
In 1970 Paula married George Easley, then Anchorage Deputy City Manager. George accepted an engineering assignment in California soon after, and the family headed south. In 1971 Governor Bill Egan appointed George Commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities. So the family moved back north, to Juneau.
The Prudhoe Bay oil discovery brought an era of optimism and excitement over Alaska’s ability to become self-supporting. George and Paula became spokespersons advocating a trans-Alaska oil pipeline route as opposed to a Canadian route. Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a tie vote in Congress to affirm construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the project, which was completed in 1977.
In early 1975, the Organization for Management of Alaska’s Resources (OMAR), was formed to advocate a second pipeline that would carry Prudhoe Bay natural gas south to a deepwater port near Valdez. Easley became OMAR’s executive director and headed a three-year national grassroots campaign, as the route decision required federal approvals. Countless Alaskans paid their own expenses to travel to other states and Washington DC to gain support for an Alaskan route. President Jimmy Carter ultimately chose a trans-Canada route, which was a shocking disappointment to Alaskans. Nearly forty years later, there is still no pipeline to carry gas from the Arctic to any market, domestic or foreign.
Easley is given much credit for bringing together a coalition of industries, labor and communities as a powerful force with the OMAR gas pipeline campaign. The organization broadened its focus in 1978 and became the Resource Development Council (RDC), Alaska’s largest development advocacy group.
In Easley’s writings, speeches and participation on national land-use and regulatory panels, her advocacy was always based on the conviction that public decision-making had to reflect a balance between economic development and environmental protection, and to recognize that both must be achieved to protect all interests.
Under Easley’s leadership between 1975 and 1987, OMAR/RDC and its 78-member statewide board focused on expanding transportation, mining, timber, petroleum, tourism, fishing, agriculture and assuring multiple-use of Alaska lands. She worked with nine RDC presidents, a small staff and hundreds of volunteers on multiple state and federal issues. All required research and preparation of comments for countless public hearings in and outside Alaska.
During her tenure RDC’s leaders played a major role in public policy debates and decisions ranging from ANILCA land classifications to regulations promulgated under the major national environmental laws, particularly the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.
RDC continues to be Alaska’s largest resource development organization and Easley remains a strong supporter, having served on its board for 25 years. After retiring from RDC in 1987, Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink appointed her to serve as the Economic Development and Planning Director and focused on federal policies affecting municipalities.
At the height of the late 1980s recession, Anchorage faced many new federal environmental mandates. She and the mayor feared their new compliance costs were becoming unaffordable to taxpayers. Working with department heads, Easley and the mayor documented the city’s costs and shared their research with 2200 mayors across the nation. The project culminated in a national network of policy leaders from community governments, think tanks and grassroots organizations determined to bring about change at the federal level. The coalition’s Unfunded Mandates legislation was the first bill to become law under the 1994 “Contract with America.”
Easley served as the mayor’s Government Affairs Director for five and a half years until the end of Mayor Fink’s second term. She then formed a public policy consulting firm, Easley Associates, focusing on federal issues affecting Alaskans and the western public land states.
A prolific writer on economic and environmental policy issues, Easley has had 130 commentaries published in newspapers, magazines and trade journals. Sixty of those articles appeared monthly in the Anchorage Daily News between 2002 and 2007. Her policy-related reports include “Alaska’s Role in National Energy Policy: Policy Guidance for Cities and Counties,” “Wetlands of the United States: A Report to Congress,” “Paying for Federal Environmental Mandates” and others. She’s given over thirty speeches to Outside organizations, promoting Alaska’s development and addressing policies affecting Alaska and the Western states. Today, her primary focus is on energy and climate change policy.
President Bill Clinton appointed Easley to the national Regulatory Fairness Advisory Board and Presidents Reagan and Bush appointed her to the National Public Lands Advisory Council, on which she served for eight years. The US Small Business Administration named Paula its “Women in Business Advocate of the Year” in 1993. She has been listed in the Heritage Foundation’s Annual Guide to Public Policy Experts since 1995 and served on the National Council of Women Advisors to Congress, National Policy Forum’s Environmental Task Force, the Clean Water Industry Coalition, National Wetlands Coalition, National Grassroots ESA Coalition, the Environmental Conservation Organization and the National Grassroots Campaign to Stop Unfunded Mandates. Paula is featured as one of fifty-three “real environmentalists” in William Perry Pendley’s book, “It Takes a Hero.”
Unrelated to resource development, her 2001 book, “Paula Easley’s Warehouse Food Cookbook,” has been particularly popular with rural Alaskans who are avid Costco and Sam’s Club shoppers. It is available from amazon.com
Today Easley is serving her second 5-year term on the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s Board of Trustees which develops the state’s mental health program serving people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and other disorders. Revenues to support beneficiary programs come from Trust fund earnings and development of Trust lands. Her major interests have been growing the rural health workforce and improving rural mental health services and also generating revenue from real estate investments and projects on the Trust’s one million acres of land holdings.
Gail Phillips, former Speaker of the House of the Alaska State House of Representatives said, “Paula’s philosophy and continuing legacy is one of passionate advocacy for responsible development leading to strong economies and healthy communities. Her career as an acknowledged and respected spokesperson for resource development issues has made her a role model for Alaskans in the resource and environmental industries and organizations.”
Easley’s daughters Laura Hill, and Kathryn Easley and her 30-year partner Allison Hewey, live in Anchorage, as do two grandchildren, Gavin and Paige. Paula and George Easley, the girls’ adoptive father, parted ways after ten years but remained friends until his death in 2000. Today she enjoys cooking, entertaining and hosting discussion groups on current events.
Awards and Recognition Received
U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Women in Business Advocate of the Year” Award 1993
National Register of Prominent Americans
Outstanding Young Women in the United States
Outstanding Civic Leaders of America
Heritage Foundation’s Annual Guide to Public Policy Experts – Since 1995
National Council of Women Advisors to Congress
- Personal conversations and interview with Gail Phillips, February 2017
- Personal phone calls and emails with Gail Phillips, February and March 2017
- Written information from Carl Portman of the Resource Development Council
- Biographical Board Member sketch from the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust
- Information from sources on-line through Google
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/Lqn70XQ98QQ
When Neva Egan moved to Valdez from Wyoming in 1937, she never imagined a one-year teaching assignment would lead to a lifetime of dedication to Alaska. She married two-time governor William A. Egan in 1941 and became the First Lady of the State of Alaska, serving from 1959 – 1966. She was First Lady again from 1970 – 1974.
At 91 in 2006, she spoke with the Juneau Empire about her unique perspective on Alaska. “It was so thrilling to be able to participate in and help to build a new state. How many people are fortunate enough to do that? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
In 1958, Sarah Eliassen was the first Camp Director at Camp Togowoods—the premier Girl Scout camp in Alaska. Over the past 61 years, over 20,000 girls from across Alaska have had amazing experiences at Camp Togowoods.
Eliassen began her Girl Scout career as a “tagalong” with her sister for several years. She was too young to join Girl Scouts, but she went to camp and did as many activities as her sister and the troop would allow. When she turned ten—old enough to be a Girl Scout—she went through the investiture ceremony at Camp Martha Johnson in Georgia. Eliassen says, “That ceremony was the most important thing that had ever happened to me. I had lived for that day.” For 84 years, Eliassen has been a Girl Scout to the core. She said, “Outside of family and religion, being a Girl Scout is the most important thing in my life. Not a day passes that I’m not aware I’m a Girl Scout. You have the Ten Commandments and the Girl Scout Law—with those two guiding you, you cannot go wrong.”
One day, Eliassen received a letter that would change the course of her life—she was offered a job in Alaska by the Susitna Council CEO, Marge Bailey. Eliassen said she, “lived on excitement for three months” as she prepared for her trip to Alaska. In Alaska, she would be working directly with girls and program. Her new job was to build troops in the council and to help start a camp for Girl Scouts.
When Eliassen arrived in Anchorage in January 1957, she began her work starting new troops in Anchorage, Palmer, and Wasilla. She lived in downtown Anchorage and often ate her dinner at the Club 25—a bar/restaurant for women. At 32, Eliassen had never been in a bar. Every day and everything in Alaska was a new experience for her.
By spring of 1957, it was time to work on getting a camp started for Girl Scouts. The council used Girl Scout Cookie proceeds to purchase a homestead property from Phil Holdsworth. The homestead was past Wasilla off the Knik Goose Bay Road—it is considered remote today and in 1957, it was way out in the woods. In April that year, Eliassen, CEO Marge Bailey, the chair of the camp committee, and the board chair flew to the homestead and landed on Three Mile Lake. They hiked into the homestead on snowshoes in three feet of snow. Eliassen had never been skiing much less snowshoeing—living in Alaska was the first time she had seen snow. They surveyed as much of the property that they could with so much snow still on the ground.
The Girl Scouts had been holding camp at Kings Lake in Wasilla, but they wanted their own camp. At Kings Lake, they had to share the summer with other groups and could only offer three weeks of camp a summer. Marge and Eliassen wanted Alaska Girls to have more opportunity to be outside and live in the outdoors and to have the Girl Scout experience all summer. Purchasing and building a camp was integral to their plans.
That afternoon in April 1957, Marge and Eliassen and the others hiked around the homestead and began planning where the camp would be. Marge had done a lot of research about the weather and where the first lodge should be positioned so that it would be in the best place to keep it warm and dry. When they went back to Anchorage, they met with the Board of Directors and got the $6,000 in cookie money they needed for the camp. In addition to the homestead, they purchased 35 acres from the Bureau of Land Management to complete the outer edges of the camp.
Eliassen and Marge spent the next few months preparing for the camp. That summer, they flew out on 4th of July to see what the camp looked like with no snow covering it, and to work on building the tent platforms. When they arrived by plane again, they were met at the camp by Bob Eliassen—a nearby homesteader who came to see what was happening with his neighbors. Eliassen and Marge and others like the council board chair, Louise Brown and her husband Charles, went out every weekend to work on the camp. They were often joined by Bob Eliassen who became an important part of building the camp. On New Year’s Eve 1957, Eliassen and Bob married. Later, they moved to Anchorage where they started their family.
In July of 1958, the Girl Scouts opened their first camp with Eliassen as the first Director. She ran two one-week camps with 24 girls, four tents and four staff—some of them mothers of the campers. Not only did the girls learn new skills that summer, but the mothers learned how to be camp staff. They cooked one-pot meals over an open fire—a skill Eliassen had learned from Girl Scouts as a girl. She learned and taught others how to cook in the pouring rain and how to store the food in a hole in the ground to keep it cold and away from animals.
That summer, the girls swam, canoed, and learned to survive in the outdoors. They practiced the Girl Scout Law and made friends for a lifetime. They also helped build the camp by carrying in the supplies for the camp, including the dishes, on their backs as they hiked in.
Marge was friends with Leonard Seppala of the Iditarod fame. He told her that Balto had gotten all the credit for the famous serum run, but that it was his lead dog, Togo, who did all the hard work—Togo never got the credit. Marge asked Leonard for permission to name the new Girl Scout camp after that strong, brave dog, and Camp Togowoods was born. The girls that summer built a sign naming the camp.
Since that first camp in 1958, the Susitna Council—later renamed the Girl Scouts of Alaska—has continuously run camps for Girl Scouts. In the 61 years the camp has been running, over 20,000 Alaska girls have had a chance to camp, play, learn, and grow at Camp Togowoods. Eliassen’s time and effort and willingness to come to Alaska to be the first Camp Director started a movement that continues today.
Girls today still go hiking, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and they learn what it means to be a Girl Scout—a girl with courage, confidence, and character to make the world a better place. All across Alaska, women in important leadership roles in our community had the opportunity to learn their leadership skills with the stewardship of leaders from Alaskans like Girl Scout Sarah Eliassen.
Eliassen’s vision for the Girl Scout Camp Togowoods allowed Alaska girls the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a new way. The ability to live and work and play in the woods prepared them for life. They learned leadership skills, outdoor survival skills, and they had a chance to simply have fun canoeing, swimming, hiking, and meeting other girls from across Alaska. The camp started small, but it has grown and has been a place to treasure for over 20,000 girls for over 30 years. The vision of Camp Togowoods expanded over time and the GSAK opened a day camp at Camp Singing hills to provide even more experiences for girls.
As a part of the national Girl Scout movement, Camp Togowoods was also a summer spot for girls visiting from other troops across the country. Girl Scouts have long had a tradition of holding excellent camps, and Camp Togowoods is a prime example of what being a Girl Scout is all about.
Eliassen was so dedicated to Girl Scouts and making a difference that at age 86 she led a troop of girls including her granddaughter, Michelle. The girls met with Eliassen and co-leader, Gretchen Wehmhoff, to work on their Silver Award, sell Girl Scout cookies, and learn other skills. They did a project sewing beds for cats at a local fostering organization. Michelle knew how to use a sewing machine (because Eliassen had taught her), so Eliassen taught them all how to cut and measure fabric and how to use a sewing machine.
In addition to her Girl Scout work, Eliassen is a community activist. Eliassen worked with her Eagle River neighbors to fight and save a parcel of land from development to turn it into a park—now known as Eliassen Park.
Eliassen and her teaching partner, Mel Bowns, created a program to teach their students how to grow plants and create a business. They grew African violets, made the planters, and with the help of parents, created macramé hangers. They sold the product and learned about banking, planning, building, growing, and success. With the money they raised, they bought two computers for their classrooms. For this project, Eliassen and Mel won an award of $500 from the UAF economics department for their work teaching kids economics in a hands-on way.
The girls Eliassen taught and influenced are the leaders in Alaska today. With over six generations of girls learning and growing at Camp Togowoods and in Girl Scouts, the chances are great that a woman leader in Alaska benefited directly or indirectly from Sarah’s vision.
As a teacher for thirteen years, she had the opportunity to shape and influence 100’s of other children in Alaska.
Eliassen continues to give back to girls in Alaska. She participates in fundraisers for GSAK and has returned to camp over the years to work with girls and share the vision that became Camp Togowoods. Her son, Charlie, helps continue the Girl Scout tradition in the family by serving on the Property Committee for GSAK where he helps guide the council on all things concerning Camp Togowoods and Camp Singing Hills.
Thousands of girls and women in Alaska thank Eliassen for all she’s done to help us dream big and accomplish whatever we set our mind on.
Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” (Fuller) Elsner was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1923. The second of five children, she grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. She went to public school in her hometown for her early years and then attended Lincoln School for Girls in Providence, Rhode Island, because her parents wanted her to have a more rigorous academic education than was available in her hometown. She was fortunate to be the daughter of enlightened parents, who provided her a good quality education, equal to that of her brothers.
Although she comes from a long line of lawyers and judges, her family discouraged her from considering the law as a career. Instead, she followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, Dr. Edward Kidder.
Elsner attended Mt. Holyoke College for three years before enrolling in the Yale School of Medicine. At the completion of her first year of medical school, Mt. Holyoke awarded her a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her medical studies included a stint conducting thesis research at Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research where she did research involving rats. The technique that she developed to isolate and perfuse tumors with anticancer drugs became an accepted method of treating some cancers. While she briefly flirted with the idea of going into research, she decided on a different direction. She next considered being a surgeon, but the field was not welcoming to women, so she focused her energy on pediatrics. Elsner and five female classmates all received their medical degrees in 1948 from the Yale School of Medicine. She interned and did her pediatrics residency at three hospitals in New York City: NY Foundling, Knickerbocker, and Willard-Parker, the city’s infectious disease hospital. She continued her pediatrics training at the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle, Washington.
Dr. Elsner married her husband, Bob, a research physiologist, in 1946. They managed to weave their special backgrounds into two highly successful careers in Alaska, Washington, California, Peru and Australia. Together, they came to Alaska in 1953. He had a job as a research physiologist at USAF Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory at Ladd Air Force Base where he worked on the physiological effects of cold and high altitude and taught emergency arctic survival techniques to military pilots.
Dr. Elsner was the only pediatrician in the entire northern half of Alaska in the early 1950s, and one of the first female doctors. Upon arrival in the Territory, she joined the staff at Fairbanks Medical Clinic where one of her medical colleagues greeted her with the observation that “Alaska is no place for a woman doctor.” In fact, Alaska was a tough place for any doctor, regardless of gender. (She delivered a baby in the back of a jeep; she delivered another baby in a log cabin.) And given the shortage of doctors in Alaska in the 50s, Elsner wore multiple medical hats. Besides working at the clinic, she treated people privately in her own home– examining patients on her kitchen table. (Office calls were $5 for adults; $3 for children.) She travelled by mail plane to rural villages (Nome, Barrow, Arctic Village, Steven’s Village, Beaver, Fort Yukon, Venetie and Anaktuvuk Pass) as Public Health pediatrician for the state and conducted intensive field clinics – sometimes at her own expense. Although her specialty was pediatrics, when the sole obstetrician was out of town, she was responsible for delivering the babies, about 20 in all. These experiences included a breech presentation with a delayed delivery, which gave her time to brush up on a few topics in a textbook beforehand, and a set of twins. She even delivered the daughter of William Egan, the future first governor of Alaska!
Alaska became the first U.S. state to be fully inoculated for polio, thanks to Elsner’s efforts as a doctor in Public Health in the 1950’s. She was the first to proactively address children’s health across Alaska’s rural villages and communities. Elsner initiated well-baby clinics for the Territorial Health Department, and facilitated the first state-wide immunization and disease screening efforts (against such maladies as polio, measles and tuberculosis). She also trained numerous nurses involved in these state-wide rural health initiatives.
Before Elsner arrived in town, the Fairbanks Regional Public Health Center did not offer well-baby clinics, well-child exams, immunizations, disease screening, health education or family planning. Today, public health nurses at the Fairbanks center still provide these key services to all of Interior Alaska, including the Fairbanks North Star Borough and its rural communities. No one is turned away because of an inability to pay.
Dr. Elsner truly made an impact on medical care– particularly for Alaska’s children– in the three brief years that she and Bob were initially in Alaska. For the next seventeen years, they pursued their respective careers in Washington, Massachusetts, Peru, California and Australia, before returning for good to Alaska in 1973.
However, while Dr. Elsner was outside Alaska, one life experience demonstrates the measure of the woman and her toughness—the birth of Steven, her third child in 1957. It was while Bob was on assignment in Australia, and she and their two children, 5-year-old Wendy and 3-year-old Peter, were in a remote location on Bainbridge Island, WA. In the middle of the night, on the day after Christmas, long after the last ferry had left for Seattle, Elsner went into labor. The only alternative transport to hospital was to wake up a neighbor to drive her clear around Puget Sound on a long and bumpy road to town. She quickly ruled out that option, however, as the neighbor was a nervous guy to begin with, and not a particularly good driver.
Instead, Elsner collected towels, a Kelly clamp and ergotamine; climbed into the bathtub and delivered her son all by herself. She crawled into bed with her new baby, while her other two children slept nearby, and waited until dawn to call neighbors for help.
Elsner’s medical career in Alaska the second time around began in 1973—with her role as both a practitioner and educator. Once again, as a public health doctor, she promoted well-baby clinics, examined, screened, immunized and treated children in villages all over the state. Rural village flights, as many Alaskans well know, are not without danger. One native nurse, who had, by chance, been given Elsner’s empty seat on a missed flight, tragically lost her life, when the plane went down in bad weather near the west coast.
Her final employment was as campus physician with the student health service at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Elsner not only treated students, she also taught first-year medical students in the WAMI program, a compact of the western states to train medical students during an acute shortage of medical personnel and facilities in rural communities. Her medical students remember her mentorship fondly, as well as her unique and oldest medical license of all the doctors— issued by the Territory of Alaska. She trained nurses to become nurse-practitioners to better provide healthcare to rural Alaskans. Her nurse trainees remember her for the tender loving care she gave to all the students on campus who needed the human touch as well as her medical care.
Dr. Elsner was simultaneously caring, democratic and strong. She was assertive, particularly for those less fortunate, and especially if she thought someone was being treated poorly or unfairly. While Dr. Elsner led the university staff, she thought they were all colleagues, and stood up for them, perhaps even more so than herself. When she retired in 1986, she was as highly educated as any professor, yet not equally compensated. She advocated for her replacement (a former female WAMI student) to receive at least double the salary.
Perhaps the best proof of her impact the second time around is Dr. Jean Tsigonis, who was another first-year medical student when Elsner taught in the WAMI program. Today Dr. Tsigonis practices medicine in Fairbanks, Alaska where Elsner lives, and this month saw her newest patient: Dr. Elizabeth Elsner! Elsner’s son Peter was present during the visit and reported that Dr. Tsigonis was thorough, thoughtful and caring of her new patient. So, in a stroke of kismet, Elsner’s life’s work has come full circle and she is now the beneficiary of her own teachings.
All told, Elsner practiced medicine for 38 years. But even in retirement, she never retired. She remained in Fairbanks as a docent at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, taught elementary school children, served on the state and local boards of the League of Women Voters, and Planned Parenthood. She was elected to serve on the State’s Violent Crimes Compensation Board, and participated in the Adolescent Health Coalition, Substance Abuse Task Force and the Fairbanks Coalition for Privacy in Pregnancy Decisions.
Looking back at her life and medical care, Dr. Elsner said that her most satisfying work was having established the well-baby clinics so that the nurse-practitioners could carry on and ensure that good health care was available to all babies, and bringing medical care to poor, young women of color – people in the margins of the health care system.
In my February 2017 interview with Dr. Elsner, at her home in Fairbanks, just one month after celebrating her 70th anniversary with husband Bob, I asked her if she had any regrets – if there was anything she wished she had done. She answered in a word:
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/vhe33od225A
Van Cleve, M. 1991. Dr. Elizabeth Elsner is interviewed by Margaret Van Cleve on April 16, 1991. Series title: On the road recording old timers. Oral Histories 91-28, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Rasmuson Library, mp3 (90min).
Wilson, G.G. 1991. History of medicine in Alaska—The Elsners: Elizabeth Fuller, M.D. and Robert Ph.D. Journal of Alaska Medicine 32(1), issue 4: 39-40.
Mary Epperson was considered to be the “creative center of Homer,” Alaska. She loved music, the arts and life-long learning and had a passion to share this love with others. She was the inspiration for, and the architect of the arts community of Homer and the southern Kenai Peninsula. Perhaps most widely known as an outstanding piano teacher, she gave private lessons to generations of children, and adults, over a sixty-year teaching career. In the 1980’s Epperson inspired and created the key institutions for the arts community to grow and to flourish. And perhaps her proudest achievement was that after years of dedicated advocacy she successfully convinced the University of Alaska to establish Kachemak Bay Campus as a “real” college in Homer with facilities and programs. Epperson’s influence was summarized by one observer as “…the ripple effects from her life will continue to shape our community for decades if not centuries…”(1)
Not much is known about Epperson’s early life. She and a sister were born of Mexican immigrant parents in Los Angles, CA. After completing high school she worked as a bookkeeper and during the early WW II years she worked in a factory where she met Jack Epperson, the man she married in 1942. Jack decided the family should move to Alaska which they did with their two children, Terry and Dean, in 1954.
We do know of one major influence in her early years: her father loved music and filled the house with sound. They listened to the radio together and at a very early age he observed that she could “play by ear”, having the ability to pick out the notes on a piano of a tune she heard him whistle or heard on the radio. Recognizing that she had this talent, he insisted that she be given piano lessons, starting at an early age. Her daughter Terry, has commented that once her mother was introduced to the piano, playing and later teaching others to play became Epperson’s life-long passion and love.
The early years in Alaska were difficult. They first filed for a homestead in Happy Valley, located between Ninilchik and Anchor Point, living in a one-room cabin without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing or a piano which had been left in Los Angeles. Also, it was a two-mile walk to the road where her daughter could catch the school bus. Deciding that it would be too difficult to spend another winter in that cabin they filed for a new homesite in Ninilchik, choosing a site opposite the school. Again, the cabin Jack built lacked running water and indoor plumbing, but it did have electricity and the school had a piano. Epperson immediately started giving piano lessons at the school and at pupils’ homes. She also became a substitute teacher and taught singing and gave accordion and guitar lessons. They next homesteaded at a site outside of Anchor Point, now known as Epperson Knob, where Jack built their cabin and started a cattle ranch. While this cabin was larger, there was no road to it. This required Epperson to travel to her pupils’ houses for their piano lessons. Finally, they decided they needed to find “real” jobs to earn money and moved to Homer.
Epperson served as treasurer/clerk of the City of Homer for eighteen years. She retired in 1981 and devoted full time to teaching piano, volunteering and advancing the arts and education. She acquired a small building in the downtown area, fixed it up to be her music studio and named it Etude Studio. It quickly became the cultural hub of Homer where people could “hang out”, find tickets, learn what was happening in the arts and, of course, take music lessons. A newcomer to the Etude Studio would immediately be quizzed by Epperson to ascertain what musical instruments he or she played in the hopes of recruiting new talent for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.
Her community activism in the arts started In the 1980’s when she founded the Homer Council on the Arts, serving on its board of directors as president and treasurer for many years. Epperson founded and organized the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, serving as president of the board and for thirty years was its bookkeeper. In 1991, she was one of the primary founding trustees of the Homer Community Foundation. She supported other art organizations as well, including the community band, Inlet Winds, and the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club. She sold tickets every summer in support of the Pier One theatre productions.
In addition to her love of the arts, Epperson was deeply interested in opportunities for securing life-long learning opportunities and higher education. She believed in learning for learning’s sake. Her daughter observed that once she learned something Epperson felt compelled to share it with others. She served on the Campus Advisory Board of he Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska, for thirty years, many as chair. She campaigned extensively and with dedication for “real” college campus facilities to be located in Homer and lobbied for many of the certificate and degree programs and services now offered to students and the community. In 2011 the Board of Regents of the University of Alaska recognized Epperson’s dedicated and successful effort in championing the college and awarded her the Meritorious Service Award. The citation read in part “demonstrated profound, unwavering commitment to developing our local campus of the University of Alaska”. At the awards ceremony, KBC Director Carol Swartz declared: “While she may be small in stature, she has been a giant when it comes to making the needs of KBC known.” (2)
Epperson received many honors for her lasting contributions which helped build and promote Homer’s arts and educational institutions. She received the Governor’s Award for the Arts, 1988; was declared Homer’s Citizen of the Year, 2004; Homer’s Mayor and City Council issued a Proclamation in 2010, declaring June 6th, Mary’s birthday, as “Mary Epperson Day” and this municipal proclamation has been reissued multiple times. In her honor, the Campus Advisory Board created the “Mary Epperson Campus Support and Scholarship Fund”. This endowed fund was successfully funded and awarded its first three scholarships in 2017.
What were the personality traits, leadership and teaching skills this remarkable woman possessed to enable a former homesteader and music lover to make such lasting impacts on her community and so many individuals ? First off, she loved people and in turn people loved her, sensing a genuine concern. Epperson was very proud of her students and respected everyone’s contributions. She was generous, kind, very humble, modest and did not need, and did not take, credit for her accomplishments. She was determined, would follow through and knew how to connect and collaborate with others. As an intuitive person, she was always able to find, and convince, an appropriate person to do something. When that certain something was completed she would say: “I was just the pusher”. (3)
She was a natural teacher, using patience and praise, and knowing when and how to give extra attention to a young person when needed, whether pertaining to life or a music lesson. As one former student commented: “Her sessions were not dry drills or lesson but infusions of self esteem”.(4) In the book entitled “The Talent Code: Greatness is Not Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How”, author Daniel Coyle, declared Mary Epperson to be a “master teacher”.
In summarizing Mary’s enormous personal and community influence, Shannyn Moore, a well-known commentator and radio host from the area, stated: “I can’t image Homer or myself without her guidance.” (5)
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/osriR69zHLg
Cline, Dorthy Roberts. Mary’s Gift Alaska’s Remarkable Mary Epperson.
Glen Erin Press, 2016.
Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness is Not Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Bantam, 2009.
Tony Lewis and Clark Fair. Keeping the Fire Burning; 50-Year History of Kenai Peninsula College (2)
Personal Conversations with Dean Epperson and Terry Harrington, February, 2018.
Homer News, http://www.homenews.com:
Local News, April 14, 2016, Michael Armstrong, “Homer’s ‘creative heart’ dies”.
Homer Town Crier, Obituary, April 21, 2016.
Alaska Dispatch News, http://www.adn.com:
Carey Restino, April 15, 2016, “Devotion, Passion for Life made Epperson a mentor”, commentary first printed in the Arctic Sounder.
Mike Dunham, April 15, 2016, “Coda: Mary Epperson”. (4)
Shannyn Moore, April 17, 2016, “Homer and Alaska lose one of their best in beloved inspiration Mary Epperson”. (5)