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Alaska statehood bell-ringer, beloved Juneau resident dies

Posted: January 30, 2012 - 1:10am  |  Updated: January 30, 2012 - 1:19am
Juneau resident Romer Derr talks about his involvement with Alaska statehood. He was a member of the "Get Out the Affirmative Vote For Statehood in Southeast Alaska" and ended up ringing the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of Alaska's capitol after the statehood bill was signed. Derr died Thursday, January 26.  Michael Penn
Michael Penn
Juneau resident Romer Derr talks about his involvement with Alaska statehood. He was a member of the "Get Out the Affirmative Vote For Statehood in Southeast Alaska" and ended up ringing the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of Alaska's capitol after the statehood bill was signed. Derr died Thursday, January 26.

The man who literally rang the bell for statehood in 1958, and who later became a beloved fixture and icon in the Juneau community, died this week.

Romer Derr, born in 1936, was 75 years old. Family said he died unexpectedly on Thursday of a heart attack as he was making his way out of the garage to plow snow.

Originally from Green Lane, Penn., Derr first moved to Fairbanks in 1956 when he was 20 years old during the time of the Constitutional Convention.

His father, Dutch Derr, a renowned orator, worked at the Alaska Tourism Department before statehood and the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. His mother, Verna Derr, was a homemaker who at one time had a candy store in the historic Baranof Hotel.

As Derr told the Empire in an interview in 2008, he quickly became engaged in the fight for statehood, vying for citizen’s rights — the right to have a voice in government, the right to oversee management of Alaskan resources and the right for taxation with representation.

“I got caught up in the convention and the way it had been done,” Derr had said. “Everybody of anybody around the territory was involved.”

Derr, a laborer, moved to Juneau one year later in 1957 to help construct the high school. After he moved to Juneau, he was appointed as the president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The 1958 Alaska Statehood Act was making its way through Congress and awaiting approval by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and as president of the Jaycees, Derr was asked to plan a ceremony downtown to coincide with the signing of the Alaska Statehood Act in Washington, D.C.

Derr planned for one woman to hold an Alaskan flag, another to hold a U.S. flag and a third to ring the replica of the Liberty Bell that stands today in front of the present day Alaska State Capitol building on East Fourth Street.

As news came on July 7, 1958, that Eisenhower had signed the Alaska Statehood Act in the White House, it so happened the designated bell ringer could not take off work. Last-ditch efforts to find an understudy were unsuccessful.

“They finally said ‘you got to do it,’ so I did it,” he said.

Derr gave the bell 49 chimes and speakers placed on top of the roof reverberated the sound of statehood throughout downtown Juneau, the Empire reported.

That event forever etched Derr’s name into local history books, but his ties to Juneau only grew stronger as time passed.

Most in the community knew him as one of the owners of Harri Plumbing and Heating. Derr worked there as a plumber (before that, he sold Volkswagens and was a police officer) and eventually he bought the business around 1969. He owned and operated Harri for about 36 years until his retirement in April 2005.

During that time, Derr worked with the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, which he presided over multiple times over the years. He was also a Chamber board member for many years.

Current Chamber CEO Cathie Roemmich, one of Derr’s many mentorees, said his work with the Chamber shaped it into what it is today. She recalls at one point the Chamber was struggling financially and that Derr paid the staff out of his own pocket.

“Chamber was very important to him, the values of the Chamber and the building of the business community. That’s what he did,” she said on Friday. “The Chamber is what it is because of the work Romer did. He selflessly gave of himself for decades to the Chamber.”

Derr was also a firefighter for many years, beginning in the early 1960s. He worked his way up the ladder at the Glacier Fire Department until he became the assistant fire chief. Juneau resident Merrill Sanford was a young firefighter at the station under Derr’s leadership.

“It was their leadership and their responsibility to keep us young bucks in line and helped us be safe,” Sanford said Friday. “I would go into any burning building with Romer as my leader.”

Derr later served on the city’s Docks and Harbors Board, and as Mayor Bruce Botelho describes it, became “one of the guiding lights there.”

“Romer was a person very strong in conviction. He was very straightforward, unlike politicians such as myself,” Botelho said with a chuckle. “He really cared deeply about his community, not only in his public service but in a variety of civic ways. He was very active to making sure Juneau maintained its status as the capital city.”

Pete Bernstein operated Alaska Ship Chandlers across the corner from Harri Plumbing, and since both stores sold marine goods, they were fierce competitors. After 15 years of going head to head, they both ended up on the Harbors board.

“I didn’t know him, but I figured that I was going to do nothing but argue with the man,” Bernstein remembers. “But in the five or six years (on the board), the only thing we disagreed about what was when we were going to discuss something. We became friends, and I had nothing but respect for the man.”

Bernstein said he admired Derr for his sharp mind and open mindedness.

“I’m going to miss him,” he said. “So are a lot of people in Juneau.”

As former mayor Bill Overstreet pointed out, Derr’s community involvement extended to many of corners of Juneau, including the arts. In recent years he became involved in a project to build a bronze life-size humpback whale statute at the waterfront.

“He was interested in anything that makes Juneau a better place to live and that interest extended to aesthetics as well as necessities,” Overstreet said.

Overstreet added, “He was a very versatile man: a boater, a fisherman, a hunter, and a good family man.”

Derr even played the bass drum in the local bagpipe band called Stroller White Pipes and Drums, now called the City of Juneau Pipes and Drums.

“He swung a nice, steady beat,” recalled former Stroller White president Rai Behnert.

Derr emceed the annual Robbie Burns Night, which celebrates the birthday of the Scottish poet every January, after arthritis in his hands kept him from playing the drums. He emceed the event for the last time the weekend before his death.

“On behalf of the whole band, everyone held him in high regard and will miss him greatly,” Behnert said. “It’ll be a long time until we see another one of his stripe.”

A collector of Alaska historical documents and artifacts, Derr had been appointed and reappointed throughout the years to the Alaska Historical Commission to advise the governor on history, prehistory, historic sites and buildings and on geographic names. He was first appointed by former Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2004, then reappointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin in June of 2008, and then again by Gov. Sean Parnell in September of 2011.

Derr also served on the foundation to restore the historic governor’s mansion, which was formed by former First Lady Nancy Murkowski in 2004. Derr worked alongside the past three governor’s spouses on that project, Murkowski, Todd Palin, then First Lady Sandy Parnell.

One of his favorite activities was helping his wife Laraine at her cooking school, Chez Alaska, which she owned and operated for the past five years.

“He did the sourdough classes,” Laraine said. “Romer was a man of many talents.”

Laraine just sold Chez Alaska to another owner the first week of January.

When asked how they first met, Laraine said she was at the Sandbar & Grill with friends.

“He came in with friends. I went over and introduced myself, and he asked me to dance. And the rest is history.”

Surviving Derr is his wife of 19 years Laraine Derr; two daughters Chiska Derr and Gretchen Pence; two grandsons Justin and Garrett Derr; four great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter. He is preceded in death by his son, Brian, and his first wife, Carole.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Chapel by the Lake Presbyterian Church, 11024 Auke Lake Way.

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