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Science education Daisy Lee Bitter has been determined to make the world a better place working to improve the human condition, especially through education broadly defined. She has felt she could do that best by helping individuals reach their highest potential while enjoying the process. Central to this was getting students as realistically and deeply involved as possible outside the conventional ‘four walls.’ She said, “I was not looking for innovations, just more effective ways to help people learn and hopefully enjoy it in the process.” (Personal communication to Gretchen Bersch, 2015). She has been an inspiring role model as she put this philosophy into action.
The daughter of Fresno County, Calif., farmers, Bitter graduated summa cum laude with her Bachelor of Arts from University of California at Fresno State. She met Conrad Bitter when he was discharged from the army after five years of service during WWII, three of which were atop Mount Ballyhoo overlooking Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. In a few years, Bitter took a recess from the classroom to spend time with their son Tim, who was born in 1960. Later, Bitter earned her Masters of Arts of Teaching from Alaska Methodist University, where she also earned many educational credits beyond her masters.
In 2011 the Homer Tribune said of Bitter: “Daisy Lee Bitter is a legendary Alaskan science educator whose well-informed, innovative approach to education has inspired thousands” [of people from young children to adults]. “Through years in the classroom, hands-on outdoor workshops and field trips, books and articles, she has informed and shared her love of science and Alaska’s environment.”
As well as being an outstanding and innovative teacher, Bitter was a powerful mentor as well. Gretchen Bersch was fortunate to student teach under her, and considered the experience life changing as it launched her own four decades of teaching (personal communication, October 2014). Reflecting on his experiences in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Bill Tanner wrote, “There was no question that [Bitter] was considered by all who worked with her, as one of the very top teachers in the Anchorage School District and I learned more from her about what makes a good teacher and leader than she probably ever knew” (letter, June 10, 2003). Her work and influence as a school principal permeated the schools she worked in. Diana Snowden wrote, “Her personal qualities of integrity, warmth, caring and excellent interpersonal skills make her one of the best liked and most respected elementary principals. She is a most creative, dynamic person with superb ability and high professional competency.”
Bitter was very successful in building community support for her teaching and her students. As an elementary school teacher, her classroom was a vibrant laboratory. An Anchorage bank president sent ducks from his weekend hunts so her students could learn duck anatomy and introductory taxidermy. Judge McCrary not only allowed her to bring her class to visit his courtroom during ‘appropriate’ sessions, but he collected eggs from his geese for hatching in a classroom incubator. When Bitter asked for a school key so she could get in on weekends to spray water on the duck and goose eggs, the head custodian at Romig Junior High refused, saying “Absolutely not! You do so much for these kids already. I’ll come over and spray the eggs.”
Bitter made all of Alaska her classroom, and drew in community members as well as her students – field trips to Kachemak Bay to explore the marine life, geology field trips to the Matanuska Valley, hiking to the top of Bodenburg Butte to touch the grooves made by glaciers, local trips of all sorts, even a field trip for teachers by helicopter to an oil platform in Cook Inlet. When her class hiked almost a mile to the generation plant near Ship Creek, the HEA employees explained the process from coal to electricity in a way that sixth graders could understand. After the 1964 Alaska earthquake, she and her students at Wendler Junior High used everyday materials to build a seismograph that recorded the largest aftershock; their efforts and results were reported in the Anchorage papers and by Associated Press. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Anchorage School District did not employ a science consultant or a specialist in environmental education. Bitter and several district consultants worked with the Alaska Department of Education, the University of Alaska and the U.S. Park Service to organize and conduct a five-day environmental education workshop at Katmai that drew 50 people. She chartered school busses and airplanes to bring kids on field trips at a time when funding was available for sports and very little for other activities.
Sports and outdoor activities were also an important part of her early life. She was chosen for the Anchorage Women’s All-Star Softball Team in both 1955 and 1956. She shot and dressed out her first caribou in 1957, and bagged her first limit of ducks after gathering limbs for her diamond willow artwork. She caught several king salmon weighing more than 50 pounds and the heaviest king held the record in the Alaska Sports Fishing Association for many years.
Music also was important to Bitter. She directed the Woodland Park School Choir, and they sang on an early Anchorage television broadcast. She taught folk dancing for the Anchorage Ski Club.
In addition to her professional employment, Bitter was active in professional organizations and as a community volunteer. She was president of the Anchorage Education Association and president of her son Tim’s Northwood School’s P.T.A. She chaired the school district’s science curriculum committee and she represented the district on the Anchorage Literacy Board. She chaired the first Finance Forum for Women as a member of the American Association of American Women and was a charter member of Cook Inlet Soroptimists. She served on the Camp Fire board.
In a time when there was less sensitivity to Alaska Native people and their educational needs and before there were high schools in many villages, Bitter wrote the first two funding grants and was the first director of the Indian Education Program in Anchorage. She coordinated the Boarding Home Program for 450 Alaska Native high school students from villages where there was no high school, offering extra support for those rural students. In addition to the innovative techniques she used to motivate her students, Bitter also enriched the curriculum for the Native village students. She set up a Native students’ speakers bureau and held workshops in both Yupik and Inupiat. She supervised the Rural Transition Center for younger students. She hired teachers to develop more effective teaching materials and also developed and taught university classes on Alaska ethnic studies. Frank Haldane, Tsimshian from Metlakatla, was a member of the Parents Advisory Committee for Anchorage’s Indian Education Program. He praised her key work with the Indian Education Act, her ethnic studies teacher workshops, bringing Alaska Natives to lecture and share, directing the award-winning First Alaskans television series. He wrote, “I am convinced beyond doubt that she is one of the most sincere, dedicated and motivated individuals helping to resolve much of the Alaska Native’s peculiar problems and to help the public and the district’s teachers to better understand the various ethnic lifestyles, their heritage and arts.”
When Bitter and her husband Conrad retired to the hills overlooking Homer in 1983, fishing, gardening and volunteerism played major roles for them both. Daisy Lee was asked to join the newly formed Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS), and her impact with this organization has been major. She was the first education director; she developed workshops, guided groups, trained volunteers, taught university teacher training classes, and supported teachers and students who visited the Peterson Bay field station. Within four years, the Center’s educational program was recognized as outstanding, a ‘state exemplar’ by the National Science Teachers Association. She led the first and second CoastWalks, and began helping with weekly public radio broadcasts of Kachemak Currents, informative programs that explore natural history, and still continued to produce and narrate programs 29 years later. She was instrumental in convincing Carl Wynn to donate the property that is the CACS’s Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, and continues to serve on the Wynn Committee. The log cabin headquarters at the Wynn Center is named for Daisy Lee Bitter. Many of the Center’s volunteers were strong supporters of buying land for the state park across Kachemak Bay and Bitter was one of them. She was a founding member of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, Alaska’s first land trust. She was the first education chair for the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and for many years was an active volunteer in the lab.
Other groups she has been involved and volunteered with are Pioneers of Alaska, the Alaska Native Plant Society, the Homer Senior Citizens, Homer/Kachemak Bay Rotary, South Peninsula Hospital, the South Peninsula Sportsmen’s Association, the Homer Chamber of Commerce, the Kenai Peninsula School District, and the Homer Foundation. Through her Marine and Coastal Education account at the Homer Foundation, she has funded several worthwhile community education activities.
Following her lifelong interest in botany, Bitter became a Master Gardener in the mid 1990s, volunteering to advise and teach others. She has taught college classes on wild/edible and medicinal plants and other subjects for the early University of Alaska Fairbanks programs, Kenai Peninsula College, the University of Alaska, and the Alaska State Troopers. In 2009, she re-invented herself to become a peony farmer and has thousands of peonies blooming on her Kachemak Seascape Peony Farm each summer. She has volunteered with the state peony growers’ group, sharing her research on peony varieties most appropriate for Alaska. As a well known Alaska gardener and naturalist, her home was on early garden tours; her perennial flower garden has had more than 100 different varieties of native and domestic flowers and plants.
In summary, Bitter has been an outstanding and generous educator for more than 60 years, touching thousands of lives through her teaching, her mentoring, her explorations, and her volunteer work. She has demonstrated her passion for teaching, her talent at leading, her generosity in volunteering, and her gift at inspiring thousands of people of all ages to learn about and appreciate Alaska’s natural world.
Associations and Organizations
- President, Anchorage Education Association—1957-58
- Alaska Education Association First Delegate Assembly—delegate—1959
- Alaska Director, Northwest Marine Educator’s Association—1988
- Spenard Community Council—helped get many acres for parks and recreation— 1970’s
- Delta Kappa Gamma—(Largest International Honorary Women Educators’ Organization)
Member of international legislative committee
Alaska State Vice-President President of Alpha Chapter Charter
- President of Omicron Chapter Parent Teacher Association
Alaska State Vice-President
Anchorage Central Council Secretary, 1954-55s
Northwood School President
- Alaska State Curriculum Committee – Appointed for two terms
- Anchorage School District Chair -Science Curriculum Committee
Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies – Board member for many years
First Education Director—developed national award-winning programs
President for 3 years
Organized and led the first two CoastWalks
Wrote and broadcast “Kachemak Currents” on public radio for 29 years
Wrote grant for Wynn Nature Center and continuous membership on advisory committee
- Kachemak Heritage Land Trust (Alaska’s first land trust)
Founding member, on board and land & easement committee for many of the early years, Vice President
- Kachemak Bay Research Reserve
Appointed to the first Advisory Board and served for many years
Education Chair first and for many years
Helped with numerous lab sessions for the public
- Pioneers of Alaska
State Officer for 3 years
Homer Women’s Igloo President 2 years
Introduced the book writing concept which resulted in the book In Those Days
- Alaska Peony Growers’ Association
State board member 2009-2012
Three conference presentations on research on best varieties for Alaska
Leadership in Conference Organizing and Workshops
- Northwest Association of Marine Educators Regional Conference in Homer—Chair– 1989
- Alaska Education Association State Conference in Anchorage—Co-chair
- Alaska Parent-Teacher Association State Conference in Kenai—Chair
- Alaska Delta Kappa Gamma State Conference in Juneau—Chair
- Alaska State Principal’s Association Conference in Anchorage—Co-chair
- Alaska Workshop to Improve Science Education – Chair
- ASD (Anchorage School District) Elementary Principal’s Administrative Manuals
Chair of committee to eliminate sexist terminology
- Soroptomist of Cook Inlet- Charter member
- Homer-Kachemak Bay Rotary- Chair Community Services
- Grand Marshall, Fourth of July Parade, Homer—July 2014
- Certificate of Achievement “For living courageously with diabetes for 68 years” from the Joslin Diabetes Center (part of the Harvard Medical School)–June 2014
- Alaska Conservation Foundation-Jerry Dixon Award for Excellence in Environmental Education “For dedication to Alaska, its people, places, wild lands, & wildlife.”–2011
- Lifelong Learner Award from Friends of the Homer Library. This was the initial presentation—2009
- Homer Chamber of Commerce, Certificate of Honorary Membership–2008
- Volunteer of the Year Award from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies–2006
- Kenai Peninsula Borough–Resolution commending DLB “For contributions, accomplishments, and community service.” 2003.
- We Alaskans, Volume One, Chapter 11: Daisy Lee Bitter (An honor to be chosen to be included in a book of stories of people who helped build the Great Land). Article and photos. 2002.
- Pratt Museum Natural History Service Award—2000
- Bitter Boardwalk– elevated plank walkway in Calvin & Coyle Nature Trail System, Homer, to honor DLB, who “has done so much to promote environmental education for school students and the general public.”- 1997
- Alaska State Legislature — “For outstanding volunteer service in establishing award winning environmental education programs and making considerable contributions to a wide range of other organizations.” 1991
- Eight Stars of Gold Citizenship Award—First annual award, presented by Governor Cooper – -1990.
- Alaska State Legislature –“For volunteer work, photography, work in education, and holding the Alaska Trolling Club’s record for catching heaviest king salmon.”–1989
- Northwest Association of Marine Educators (Northwest states, Western Canada, and Alaska). Outstanding Marine Educator and “being a driving force in creating CACS” (Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies) – 1988
- Alaskan Exemplar for Excellence in Science Education (Awarded by the National Science Teachers Association for the interdisciplinary education program at CACS created by DLB)—1987
- Homer Citizen of the Year–1986
- Alaska State Legislature– “For wide range of expertise, developing statewide educational materials, awards for her volunteer work, organizing numerous trips for students as far as Barrow and Juneau. Her zest for living is an inspiration. “ 1983
- Campfire, Inc., Volunteer Award–For years of service on the state board. Willard Bowman Human Rights Award from the National Education Association “For creative leadership and efforts in advancing the cause of human rights for students and educators.” –1979
- First Alaskans (1971 Televised Series of Programs with Teacher’s Guide)- awarded Alaska Press Award.
- Anchorage School District Teacher of the Year–1967
- Jay Hammond’s Alaska Television series. Featured guest on program about Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies Science programs that DLB started.
- Alaska Conservation Foundation (2011). Jerry S. Dixon Award for Excellence in Environmental Education: Daisy Lee Bitter, Homer- Innovating science education. Retrieved from http://alaskaconservation.org/ achievement-awards/award-winners/2011- conservation-achievement-awards-winners/
- Bitter, D. L. (1970). Alaska ecology: Teacher’s guide. Anchorage AK: Anchorage Borough School District.
- Bitter, D. L. (Television teacher). (1970). Alaska ecology. [Televised programs]. Anchorage AK: Anchorage Borough School District.
- Bitter, D. L. (1971). The first Alaskans: Teacher’s guide. Anchorage AK: Anchorage Borough School District.
- Bitter, D. L. (Producer). (1971). The first Alaskans. [Televised programs]. Anchorage AK: Anchorage Borough School District.
- Bitter, D. L. (Author, director). (1990). Alaska then and now—As interpreted by today’s women pioneers. [Play]. Performed at 1990 Pioneers of Alaska Convention.
- Bitter, D. L. (1991). In those days: Alaska pioneers of lower Kenai peninsula, (First ed.). (DLB chapter & photos). Kenai Peninsula AK: Pioneers of Alaska.