Clayton Brockel, the 1963 founder of Kenai Peninsula College, wrote cowboy songs and poetry; played music and starred in stand-up routines; and drove wild and chainless, rear-wheel-drive trips to Nikolaevsk in the winter to help Russian immigrants earn citizenship.
Friday night, on KPC’s Kenai River Campus, about 100 people collected to remember Brockel. Brockel died in July.
Brockel, also called “Brock” and “Clay,” operated the first three years of KPC from his briefcase and the back seat of his blue, 1963 Chevy Biscayne, which he called “Ol’ Blue.”
Eventually, the Kenai Central High School gave Brockel a closet-sized office in the building. Carried by Ol’ Blue, Brockel brought KPC-sponsored classes to Seward, Homer, Ninilchik, Kasilof, Kenai, North Kenai, Soldotna, Clam Gulch, Moose Pass, Hope, Tyonek and English Bay, according to his biography.
That was all before any college infrastructure, according to the biography.
From the stage at the head of the room, Brockel’s friend, a local performer and former KPC adjunct professor of English, Mike Morgan, sang one of Brockel’s cowboy songs.
Brockel crafted all his songs in his head when driving around the Peninsula. When he returned home, after they were memorized, he committed them to paper, according to his obituary.
“And partner don’t you smile and grin when I tell you this tale, because you may be the next cowboy to throw your loop and fail,” Morgan sang, playing a guitar. It was a love song about a man lamenting his black heart that a cowgirl had broken.
“FedEx my heart somewhere,” Morgan sang, “and send it C.O.D.”
The audience laughed.
“Clay was the driest, drollest,” Morgan said. “Clay could crack a joke and if you weren’t paying attention you might miss it.”
Brockel could send whole lines of jokes through just a wink. “Gonna FedEx my heart to somewhere” is an example of his desert-dry humor, Morgan said.
In his plays, Brockel was the same way. He never broke character, Morgan said.
“The Pet Doctor” was one of Brockel’s performances. KPC Director Gary Turner played an old recording on a projector.
Brockel sat in a black armchair, dressed in black pants and a black jacket, wearing underneath a white shirt.
We have fish with ears, a woman across him said, reading from a submitted letter, and we’re wondering if it’s valuable.
There was a drawing of the fish on a poster behind Brockel.
“It’s possible you have a fish with hysterical ears,” Brockel said, “in which case, they’ll go away if you can get its mind on something else.”
They field another question about a seal that won’t juggle, and after diagnosing the seal — most seals don’t juggle — Brockel leans back in his chair, rubbing his palms together.
People in the room laughed.
Sen. Tom Wagoner said Brockel had many sides; his humor was only one.
Wagoner taught alongside Brockel during KPC’s founding years. So did John Williams, the college’s first full-time instructor.
They both remember on how slim a margin the college existed in its early years. Once, Williams remembers, Brockel told him they may not have enough money to continue the program. They needed $10,000.
“So how do we do this?” Williams asked.
Fortunately, they knew people. Wagoner was friends with then Alaska State Legislator Clem Tillion. So they went where the money was — in Juneau — and they asked for higher education funding, Williams said.
And they got it, he said.
Williams began to realize that all they had to do was ask the legislature, he said.
“Through persistence and persuasion, on the part of Brock,” the legislature eventually granted KPC $2 million to begin building the campus, Williams said. “He pushed gently,” Williams said, “and people understood.”
By 1975, KPC was three buildings and crawled with 13 full-time professionals, 29 part-time professionals and eight employees. In spring 1976, after Bridge Access had opened, the college offered 55 credits, according to Brockel’s biography. And in early August, KPC opened its dorms.
Back on the projector at KPC, Brockel received a letter from the concerned owners of a moose with loose antlers.
“You people are living in a false paradise,” Brockel said, leaning back in his black armchair. “What you have here is a horse with antlers strapped to its head.”
He recommended the owners remove the antlers and be content owning a horse. The antlers pressing against the horses’ ears is a “really bad idea,” he said.
And that was the last letter.
“That’s all for this week,” he said, “but tune in next week—”
The show’s theme music cut him off, and the audience clapped.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.