Like most mild-mannered 59-year-old men, David Carey is scared by the thought of prison.
“When the gates close ... the idea of spending time ministering in a prison is unsettling and that is one of the reasons I believe I need to do it,” he said. “It is going to be a real challenge.”
Some might consider his current occupation — Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor — a challenge, but Carey has grown tired of it.
“For 10 years, anywhere I go I am the mayor,” he said. “The last three years almost anywhere I go, they stop what they are doing and say, ‘The mayor is here.’ It’s wonderful, but also it is absurd.
“Whatever is going on they want to know what the mayor thinks. I don’t know how to say this right, but I want to be a normal person.”
Spending time in a prison will likely be a part of Carey’s hopeful future occupation — an ordained Catholic deacon — as will spending time with those in hospitals, those who aren’t able to leave their homes and other duties assigned by the church, he said.
He has already spent a lot of time thinking about, and serving the needs of others. But in the future he’ll have a Bible instead of a budget.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place to live,” he said. “We have a prison out there, we have a premiere medical facility here in terms of a hospital and we have more and more people that are staying here and are older who are housebound. The deacon just fits.”
In four years, when he is 63, Carey will likely be ordained after completing the required courses. He is already one year into that journey.
“This is my last chance,” he said. “This is the right thing. It is the right place to be doing it and I am just extremely fortunate that people came and talked to me about it because I wasn’t very familiar with the program, which is right in line with who I am and what I want to be.”
Carey, however, isn’t thinking too much about that right now.
On Monday, borough mayor-elect Mike Navarre will take over the position Carey has held for three years.
Friday, however, was special.
It was a day of transition for Carey.
It was his last working day as borough mayor.
And he wore a tie just for the occasion — one that’s bright yellow and filled with hard-not-to-notice smiley faces.
He had worn a patriotic tie, one covered with an American flag, an eagle and the works, for the morning’s veteran-honoring presentation at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary. But he made the alternative choice for the rest of the day.
“It has been very important to me personally to finish this well,” he said. “Today is my last day and with all the meetings I had … I wanted to project, I wanted people to understand that I am very proud to have been mayor.”
Sitting in Sal’s Klondike Diner in Soldotna, one of his frequent lunch spots, Carey orders a hot tea with a lemon.
“Always,” he said to the waitress who already knew his order.
Later, he ordered the lunch special, a roast beef sandwich — no mayo, no tomato.
“Never,” he said quickly.
Being a wrestler at Kenai Central High School, Carey learned the value of a dry sandwich when it came time for weighing in for a match.
“In wrestling, a small person has a chance,” he said, noting he was strictly “fair” at the sport.
Growing up as a “whimpy little kid,” as he says, in Soldotna, he never thought he would reach the level he has.
From a young age, Carey was often exposed to the two things that would later be major players in his life — politics and religion.
“Soldotna was a pretty different place growing up,” he said. “There were bars and churches.”
Politics came from his mother’s work as a political organizer. Religion came from his mother’s deep-rooted Catholic faith.
Carey’s father, a Navy pilot, was killed after he crashed on an Antarctic ice shelf during Operation Deep Freeze. Carey was 4.
“When my father was killed, my brother and I both got presidential appointments to military academies,” he said.
But, getting glasses ruled Carey out as pilot potential.
“I was pretty sickly and I was someone who always stayed home,” he said. “I loved reading and when my father was killed, mom got three sets of encyclopedias and that to me was awesome.”
After high school, he spent 30 months enlisted in the Army, all of which were spent in school. He was later discharged for medical reasons.
After finishing college and graduate school, Carey bounced around Washington and California for a few years picking up work teaching and coaching wrestling.
Every summer, Carey returned to Alaska, but one summer he stayed. His mother, who earlier remarried, was once again widowed and Carey knew he needed to stay in Alaska to look after her.
He explained his situation to school officials, and one in particular happened to know of a position at Soldotna High School that had opened up that day.
It was then, in 1980, Carey re-discovered the first love of his life — teaching mostly government, which he continued to do on and off for 29 years.
His first passion — wrestling — then met with what would be his next passion — coaching. During his interview for the wrestling head coach position, Carey and the athletic director talked about scripture.
“About what a man of God is supposed to do,” he said. “That is how he determined who a person is.”
In 1982, Carey was elected to the borough assembly and in 1988 he ran for the state senate. In that race, he was “squished,” he said.
Discouraged, he had an identity crisis. He decided to leave for a monastery. As a personal favor for a friend, he decided to put in for just a one-year leave of absence instead of indefinitely, as his mood then struck him.
“I got rid of everything and it was my intent to stay,” he said of the Benedictine monastery in Mt. Angel, Ore.
As predicted by his friend, Carey returned to Alaska after discovering he wasn’t ready for that life. It wasn’t the right time. He felt he needed to spend more time in his community.
He was elected to Soldotna City Council 1998, then “got lucky” and was elected Soldotna mayor in 2000, a position he held for seven years, before being elected borough mayor in 2008. In all, Carey has stood for election 12 times.
“In my personal life, I had to see where I was supposed to go,” he said. “I ran for the state senate and got squished, I ran, 10 plus years later, for the state house and basically it was real close ... so (I wanted to try) something else that would give me the full responsibility. This was the logical one.”
Whether it was in wrestling, coaching, teaching or politics, Carey said he always had the drive to aim as high as he could.
“It met the need I had to test myself by reaching that level,” he said of becoming mayor. “I absolutely didn’t expect to win when I ran.”
However, it is not where he wants to be anymore, he said.
He said he doesn’t see himself returning to politics and he contends he couldn’t run a campaign focused on himself, while at the same time trying to be selfless and meet the needs of others.
“There are better ways I want to spend my time,” he added. “It is wonderful and helping people is awesome ... but along with the position, you have to do stuff I don’t want to spend my life doing and worrying about. The political side of it is not healthy.”
When he started in the mayor position, he was too naïve, he said. He had an idealized image of what the mayor was supposed to be and supposed to do.
“Government was going to be wonderful,” he said. “But that came to a huge wall when at the first assembly meeting they said I wasn’t allowed to talk.”
“It got very nasty very quickly, so if there was a failure, it was that I was not prepared for what that level of public service at that time in the borough was.”
Although he said one of his favorite things to do as mayor was travel around the borough and meet with residents, he was surprised how cynical some could be — a growing trend in America he thinks.
“There are many more … who believe everyone, the minute you get elected you become evil, corrupt and bad and your reasoning is now immoral,” he said. “It is very unfortunate people in public office have to put up with the crud that’s thrown at them all the time.”
“As the mayor, it was more focused because you are the highest elected official. I was very much about getting out and around, I very much love doing that, but that definitely makes you more of a target.”
Despite his passion for the borough and a pride in his work, Carey said he was dismayed that some ended up disliking him, or even thinking they hated him.
“They don’t know me,” he said. “I’m not worth being hated by anyone. I’m not doing weird or bad stuff and so the idea for people to think that I am worthy of being hated … they are just wasting their time.”
How Carey wants to spend his future is by doing things similar to those he learned in the monastery two decades ago, bits of which he later adopted into his regular life.
Those monks taught him about hospitality. That before anything else, a person should make sure the other has his or her basic needs met — clothes, shelter or food.
“My classroom, every day, had food,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to be hungry.”
“I want to be a person that helps meet other people’s needs,” he said. “A piece of licorice or a pastry is nothing, but it allows me to speak to them about the fact that I consider them important.”
Looking back, Carey said it makes sense he was destined to be a life-long public servant, whether it was through the education system, as an elected representative, or a representative of the church — a servant to the servants — he said.
“I’m where I want to be,” he said. “Today, being the end, it has been very good.”