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Karleen (Alstead) Grummett is an excellent role model for women of all ages. As someone who has spent her life volunteering, advocating for causes and using her writing to effect change, she observes what needs to be done and sees that it gets done. From writing a book and meticulously fact checking every detail to hosting a beautifully set lunch for friends, Grummett can do it. Whatever project she’s involved in, there will be efficiency and order. Women appreciate her recognition of their skills, her tact and respect for their feelings and her gratitude for whatever collaboration is offered. They appreciate her calm assurance that all will work out. She has devoted herself to volunteering for worthy causes and to caring deeply for her family.
Grummett grew up with her sister, Margie, on the Gold Street hill side of Juneau, Alaska, in the 1940s. Her sister, Mary, was born at the end of that decade. Grummett’s Norwegian immigrant grandparents lived three blocks away where she spent many happy hours. The Alsteads valued hard work to provide for their family. Her father and grandfather fished halibut in an era when fishing was a year-long profession. Her mother was a transplant during the Depression from a tough farm life in Vale, Oregon. Alone much of the time, she and her mother-in-law were essentially single parents who learned the resilience necessary to persevere in an isolated community during those years.
Grummett is a product of such an upbringing, but it wasn’t all work and no play. Grummett said, “The wonderful story tellers in my family, who often peppered their expressions with a strong sense of humor, influenced every bit of my life and writing, for I didn’t have one mentor in my life, but a collection.” This included a fun-loving aunt who took them on rollicking rides to the beach to swim or the lake to ice skate, singing most of the way. And a great aunt cared for Grummett when she was ill and she can still hear her aunt’s soft giggle while telling a funny story. She also showed Grummett that no one should be above hard work by taking a job as a janitor after her husband died.
As an adolescent, her seventh-grade teacher instilled in her a love for the written word, and it was while creating an eighth grade newsletter that she learned the power of those words. In high school she wrote for the high school newspaper. Afterward, Grummett began college at Oregon State University in the 60s and returned to Juneau summers to work. She worked with the Alaska Marine Highway where she served as a hostess aboard the M/V Malispina’s duting its first season. Returning to Oregon, she interrupted college to substitute teach with her sister Margie in Washington.
The following summer she married Roger Grummett. They’ve been together 56 years in Juneau, and Grummett calls him her secret editor, because when she needs to hear a piece of writing out loud, he’s her guy. She figured if he didn’t understand it, no one would. Grummett gloried in becoming a mom to John and Stacy and the ability to stay at home to raise them. During that time, she turned some of her energy to volunteering for such organizations as the Gray Ladies who brought books, treats and comfort to patients in St. Ann’s Hospital, and the March of Dimes where she coordinated clinics for visiting University of Washington physicians. In fact, throughout her life Grummett amassed a community network by continually volunteering and serving for community groups whether it was producing the first Juneau Lyric Opera grand opera, Carmen, writing about alternative health options, which she published in the state funded Alaska Holistic Health Association’s newsletter, advising the Chancellor’s University of Alaska Southeast Campus Council as a member and president, or helping to impact opinion on the Juneau Empire Editorial Board.
After she returned from her long academic hiatus to attend college, this time at the University of Alaska Southeast, Grummett joined a transformative group in the 1970s as a board member, lead singer and public relations person for the St. Paul Singers which was directed by her friend Dixie Belcher. An ecumenical group, the singers promoted music with a message while touring throughout Alaska, and Grummett learned how music can effect change. She took that awareness and co-founded the Juneau Friends and Neighbors singers with Belcher where she coordinated the tour and publicity for traveling to Alaska communities in support of the Save the Capital campaign in 1982.
Once while Grummett was complaining about something, Belcher told her, “You can change that.” Those proved prophetic words for Grummett. When she saw thick woodstove smoke inundating the Mendenhall Valley, she turned her anger and public communications skills into action joining two other women who also wanted to improve air quality. Along with a public health physician, the women made a presentation to the City and Borough of Juneau assembly, which resulted in the city requiring a secondary heat source, a program that was phased in over a few years. Now when an inversion occurs, the city provides public service announcements to alert residents.
In 1984, Grummett completed her Bachelor of Arts in Public (Magna Cum Laude). While studying, one of her instructors, Joey Wauters, encouraged her to teach, eventually hiring her to learn on the job while she studied for her Master of Arts in Writing. Meanwhile, Grummett simultaneously continued freelance writing with assignments in public relations and for newspaper and magazine articles. Along the way, she received an award from the Alaska Press Women for Feature Writing. She also started her own writing and editing business, A Second Opinion and spent two years researching and writing Territorial Sportsmen 1945-1988, A Chronological History. A year later, she again collaborated with Belcher and publicized her Alaska Performing Artists for Peace’s trip to Russia.
In 1997, Grummett received her masters degree from Northeastern University. She said, “I decided I could be 56 with a masters or be 56 without one. I chose the former.” Grummett’s daughter, Stacy, said she learned from her mother’s example “that there is never an age when you stop achieving in life. She is authentic and has lived a full life of commitment to my dad and my brother and me.”
Grummett’s next writing project involved playing every golf course in Alaska with her husband and writing a book about it. She said her purpose was to finally get to see Kodiak, but the result was Golf Alaska! The Great Alaska Golf Guide in 2001. Other projects followed, including editing a history with Historian Bob DeArmond, Movie Man: The Life and Times of William David Gross 1879-1962 and documenting her family heritage with The Alsteads: From Berngarden to Juneau. As a member of P.E.O., a philanthropic group that awards scholarships and promotes continuing education for women, she wrote The Founding Sisters of Chapter G.
For Grummett, writing is a process of getting the words right, to get them to say what she means. She says, “It’s a lofty goal I don’t often reach, but it’s the trying that matters.” She finds writing a necessary isolation, but also wishes there were colleagues close by to discuss ideas. She learned a lot from the pressure of meeting deadlines and taking on a long project that she didn’t have a passion or curiosity for. Grummett said, “I spent two years mired in file cabinets and minutia writing about a subject that didn’t hold my interest.” She says it wasn’t until she was 40 that she heard validation from an editor that she had the ability to write. “I guess you could say I was a late bloomer,” she says with a laugh. “And I was 56 when I achieved my masters degree in writing,” she said. “That was 22 years ago. It’s never too late to follow your bliss.”
Grummett found her touchstone project a few years ago that required every bit of what she had acquired through her lifetime when she learned that her sister’s best friend, Mary Tanaka Abo, had been unjustly incarcerated during World War II. She consulted with local Historian Marie Darlin, who told her of Juneau’s war-time story involving classmates Walter Fukuyama and John Tanaka. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 sending all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to be incarcerated in 10 prison camps. This order affected 120,000 people, 200 of them from Alaska, including Native wives and children.
When John Tanaka, who was to be the valedictorian of the 1942 graduating class, left with his family before graduation, his classmates left an empty chair for him on the gym stage. Grummett, along with her sister, Margie Shackelford, saw an opportunity for Juneau to acknowledge the injustice that occurred in their town. They organized the Empty Chair Project Committee in 2011, which envisioned a Japanese American memorial, the first in Alaska. (wwwemptychairproject.wordpress.com)
The funding campaign began in 2012 and ended in 2014 with generous community donations and a National Park Service Confinement Site grant to commission the sculptor, Peter Reiquam, to design a bronze memorial. It is a replica of a 40s folding wooden chair set atop planks resembling a gym floor and is located in Capital School Park. For the dedication, elderly survivors and their families returned to Juneau for a welcoming homecoming.
As a result of their efforts, the Empty Chair Project has won the Alaska Historical Society’s Esther Bilman Certificate of Excellence and received an Alaska Legislature Citation in 2015 co-sponsored by state representative Sam Kito, Jr., III, whose father and grandfather were incarcerated, and by state senator Dennis Egan. The memorial was also recognized nationally with an Americans for the Arts Best in Public Arts award and given the Alaska Association of School Librarians Service Award in 2018.
To make sure Juneau’s World War II story was historically documented, Grummett wrote Quiet
Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story. Published in 2016, it includes historic photographs, interviews from primary sources and historical documents such as military lists with names of every person removed from their place of residence in Alaska. Grummett said, “Learning, researching and writing in collaboration with those who were incarcerated was by far and away the main highlight of my writing career.” Alice (Tanaka) Hikido, Abo’s sister, who often conferred with Grummett, said, “Karleen’s book not only lifted up the inspiring story of the Juneau community’s support during a period of wartime hysteria, she also recorded the history of the small immigrant Japanese community which would now be remembered.” Abo said, “Grummett’s book filled a large hole in Alaska’s history during that dark period. She wrote with a keen focus on social justice, family values, and pride in ancestry.”
The Empty Chair Project funds provided for the printing of 5,000 copies of Grummett’s book. It was accepted into the Juneau School District’s social studies curriculum and distributed to all Alaska schools, libraries, museums, historical societies and colleges. Additionally, it has been given to the Japanese consul in Washington D.C, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, and the Alaska Japanese American Citizen League.
To reach a wider audience, the book is available from nonprofit bookstores of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum (Juneau, AK), the Alaska State Museum (Juneau AK), the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA), the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (San Jose, CA) and the Minidoka Interpretive Center (Twin Falls, ID). Grummett is gratified that her book has reached beyond Juneau, Alaska. “I think it’s a cautionary tale that should never be forgotten, and it especially resonates in today’s climate of prejudice and injustice to immigrants and their incarceration along our border with Mexico.”
Karleen Grummett has spent her life volunteering, advocating for causes and using her writing to effect change. These activities coalesced when she became involved in the Empty Chair Project and wondered, “How do you put your life in a suitcase and leave?” Marshaling all her skills plus the motivating forces of the information she gleaned while working with the project and her own history, she wrote, Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story.
Several years ago, Grummett was appalled to learn that a school friend had been incarcerated with her family after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After declaring war, President Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing 200 Alaskan Japanese families to one of 10 incarceration sites for 200,000 Japanese living on the West Coast. This event was never mentioned among Grummett’s family or friends, nor taught in Juneau school history classes.
While researching, she learned the graduating class of 1942 left an empty chair for John Tanaka, their valedictorian, to symbolize his and all Juneau Japanese’s sudden absence. She interviewed survivors and those who knew them, finding that, on their behalf, local businessmen gave sworn affidavits, a local lawyer gave legal services, the high school held a special early graduation for John, and tearful friends lined the dock to say goodbye.
To find some sense of justice, Karleen and her sister, Margie Shackelford, spearheaded the Empty Chair Project, raising funds, including a National Park Confinement Site grant, to build a memorial to Juneau’s incarcerated Japanese. Funds enabled 5,000 copies of Quiet Defiance, to be donated to Alaska libraries, museums, historical societies, colleges, school libraries and classrooms. Grummett’s book, which she wrote with a keen focus on family values, pride in ancestry, and social justice, fills a large hole created in Alaska history during that dark period.