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Ann “Nancy” Gross made significant contributions to adult basic education, local government administration in Alaska, and to the Municipality of Anchorage during a career that started in 1953 and continued to 1991. Cliff Groh, lawyer and long-time chair of Alaska Common Ground, wrote in a letter printed in the Anchorage Daily News in 2001, “The death of Nancy Gross earlier this month triggered a wealth of memories about this multi-faceted woman. As a public servant and activist, she worked hard to make this state work better, particularly at the local level. . . . Nancy used to say that ‘the best thing about Alaska is that its young people don’t know what they can’t do.’ Alaska was lucky that at all ages Nancy Gross lived her life with that attitude.”
Born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1931 and educated at Weymouth High School and Bridgewater State Teachers College, Gross accepted a teaching job at Tenakee Springs in 1953. The Department of Education expected the one-room school (built before 1920) would have eleven student in four of the eight grades; Gross had thirty students, nine in the first grade because that year logging started in Tenakee Inlet and a floating crab cannery opened. Gross moved to teach at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, and there she met and married another educator, Joseph Gross. After three years out of Alaska, teaching took them to Woody Island, Kenai, Kodiak, and in 1963 to Anchorage. In 1961, Nancy returned to Massachusetts and completed a Masters Degree in Education from Bridgewater State Teachers College. The couple had four children: Joseph, Jr. born in 1957, Mary in 1961, Edward in 1962, and Michael in 1964.
In Anchorage, Gross taught Adult Basic Education for Anchorage Community College. The job included conducting workshops in rural areas of Alaska, particularly Kotzebue and Bethel, to train volunteers to teach adults in villages so they could get General Education Degrees (GEDs). With her experiences as a teacher and trainer, Gross realized that for reading and other literacy programs to succeed in Alaska, particularly in the rural areas, the materials used by teachers had to be relevant to the students. They needed to be about the state and built upon what they knew and how they lived. Gross obtained federal grant funding to create the Adult Literacy Lab (ALL Project). She served as the program’s first coordinator, authored culturally relevant instructional materials for adult students in Alaska, worked with others to develop materials, and trained teachers to use them. The program continued at the University of Alaska Anchorage until 2004 and materials developed for it are in still in print and used in adult education programs.
Gross took a job as a trainer and grant administrator with the Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs to help rural communities in Bristol Bay and the Aleutians Islands organize municipal governments and get needed infrastructure. In this position she also coordinated an urban housing conference. Gross moved to a position with the Alaska Division of Parks to coordinate the Land and Water Conservation Fund program, and then to the Division of Energy and Power Development to administer alternative technology grants and energy audit contracts for rural areas.
Building on her work for rural Alaska communities, Nancy and colleague Frances Rose started working with the new City of Akutan in the Aleutian Islands as the community’s first City Administrators. In 1983 Gross became City Manager for the larger city of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, and served in that position for five years. While there, she was instrumental in creating the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference. Later, Gross worked as Interim City Manager for Galena and Cordova, and as a consultant for the cities of Whittier, Bethel, and Atka when each community was in a period of transition in leadership. Colleague Kate Troll wrote “For a lot of people when problems get bigger and more complicated they start to melt down into process traps, but for Nancy it was the opposite The bigger he challenge, the better for her problem-solving skill set. Motivated by her innate desire to do good work for good people, Nancy did not let up until the problem was solved for the benefit of all involved. Her tenacious competence inspired all who worked with her.” Gross was at Unalaska during the boom years for the King Crab fishery and the establishment of huge fish processors for the Bering Sea ground fishing industry; at Cordova when the Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated that community’s salmon fishery; and at Galena when plans were announced to close the U.S. Army’s forward operating base there. In her work Gross introduced and instituted the fundamentals of local government; educated residents and involved them in their government, and helped the community obtain basic infrastructure and establish city services. In this arena Gross was a pioneer, one of the first women to be a city manager in the state.
Gross also was a community activist for the Municipality of Anchorage, promoting planning, zoning, and growth and development that considered the needs and wishes of residents during the city’s boom years when there was great pressure from developers and industry. After helping the Airport Heights neighborhood get a city park, Gross served on the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission from 1974 to 1980—the pipeline construction years when the city experienced incredible growth. She promoted green spaces and parks in neighborhoods, resident’s involvement, and planned, responsible development while meeting the critical needs for housing.
Gross long advocated for preserving, writing, and making Alaska’s history better known. She was a member of the Alaska sites and monuments committee for the 1967 Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission and worked for establishment of Anchorage’s Centennial Park campground. Later, Gross was an active member of the Alaska Historical Society, and brought her leadership and organization skills to it, serving on its Board of Directors and as its President. In the communities where she worked as city manager, Gross steadfastly supported having a library, museum, and cultural center.
Gross’s leadership to help rural Alaskans in the areas of education and local government started before Alaska became a state, and was significant through the early years of statehood when municipal governments were created where they had not existed. She continued to work in the arenas of education and local government through Alaska’s early oil-boom years. Gross travelled to many places—not only in Alaska but around the world—seeing how other rural communities flourished and learning about education programs in other countries. Ever the educator, Gross mentored many individuals in rural Alaskan communities. in academic subjects as well as in management and administration and community involvement. She was, however, not only a determined individual and activist. Her friend and colleague Frances Rose said she was smart, curious, and fun to be around. A life well-lived, Gross died in 2001. The University of Alaska Board of Regents passed a resolution recognizing her accomplishments on behalf of adult education for the university and substantial contributions to Alaska on December 6, 2001.